High-level Conference: The Role of Decentralisation on the Consolidation of Democracy in Albania and European Integration

Tirana, 30 October 2012

Session I:      “Consolidation of the Regionalisation”

Nataliya ROMANOVA, President of the Chamber of Regions

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There is no doubt that the regions are a political reality and that they play an active role in the construction of Europe. Regions wish to participate in a future Europe and openly claim an appropriate place in the European institutions and in the decision-making process.

Since 1994, the Congress has exercised a triple political role: the role of supporting local and regional democracy, the role of developing synergies between cities and regions of different member states, the role of ensuring that municipalities and regions play concrete functions in achieving the aims of the Council of Europe.

Today Europe is confronted with a great number of challenges which need a direct reply from the political leaders of the regions: adaptation of economic and industrial structures following globalisation, strong mobility, world-wide environmental problems, political instability and, last but not least, the present economic crisis. There is no doubt that the regions need to act in these fields and have to find common solutions for completing the political action of central governments.

Central governments might distrust regional governments’ capacity to handle these complex issues. It seems easier to seek national responses to these issues than to show confidence in the effectiveness of devolution and subsidiarity. But in reality, regions are capable of tackling these challenges and can bring real added value to democracy.

Regions can extend the action taken at the grassroots by the municipalities, according to a relationship of subsidiarity. They can allow a more differentiated expression of the people's sovereignty at a level closer to the citizens. This is  healthy for democracy.

Regionalisation is a means of conflict prevention, insofar as it encourages the expression of minorities and of minority cultures within the framework of national unity (whereas extreme centralisation normally feeds the growth of separatist movements).

The regional level is considered an essential factor of economic development generating wealth and employment while protecting the environment.

Finally regions can successfully cooperate in the interest of their communities via trans-frontier co-operation; knowing that the Outline Convention of the Council of Europe on trans-frontier co-operation and its additional Protocols foster the regions’ potential.

All these reasons back the idea of the imperative of regionalisation in Europe.

Of course there exist some objections to the need for regionalisation.

One could argue that it is more costly to have another tier of self-government alongside the local authorities one. But the region must not be seen an additional bureaucratic agency; its proper function is as an additional, essential service provided for citizens.

Some might argue that regions are not indispensable where the state's territory and population are small. This argument is a valid one, but it applies only to very small states.

Some others feel that regions can jeopardise national unity. This may of course involve a political problem existing within a given state; but, in general, secessionist ambitions and independence movements are à priori present where there already existed a strong regional identity before a nation state was created.  Conversely, it could be argued that excessive centralisation (synonymous with homogenisation) can threaten national unity by encouraging the development of extreme frustration.

In this respect, the Council of Europe’s basic texts – i.e. the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the Reference Framework for Regional Democracy (endorsed by the Committee of Ministers of Council of Europe) - realise a balance between central imperatives and peripheral realities, between national sovereigntyand regional self-government. They are in fact based on some essential democratic principles:

Regional self-government means more than just decentralising government departments. It entails the popular election of a regional deliberating assembly and the existence of an executive answerable to that assembly. Regionalisation entails close co-operation with local authorities, participation in central government decisions, and representation in the European institutions. It implies giving the regions financial resources and the powers to manage them.

It is of course difficult to specify in a universally accepted way how powers should be allocated.  In all countries there are opposing schools of thought on how the principle of subsidiarity should be applied in practice.

In order to help the creation of regions, we can always be guided by the general criterion of transferring the decision-making level closer to the citizen. This has been considered the fundamental criterion for the redistribution of powers.  The subsidiarity principle, introduced by the European Charter of Local Self-Government, mentions precisely: "Public responsibilities shall generally be exercised, in preference, by those authorities which are closest to the citizen.  Allocation of responsibility to another authority should weigh up the extent and nature of the task and requirements of efficiency and economy."

We are convinced that regionalisation provides a guarantee that central governments’ objectives are achieved more effectively and more economically,

All these are basic components of democracy embodied in regionalization.

We do not ignore the European Union integration process, in which the regions want to participate. Even in the framework of the principle of subsidiarity as conceived by the European Union, the regions can act as important partners for the governments in the construction of Europe. Progress in this field needs the support and the positive attitude of the regions, as more and more political decisions at European level have their repercussions at regional level and have a direct impact on regional competencies.

It is important to have regions that dispose, as far as possible, of the competencies and the characteristics mentioned above. Once these characteristics are acquired, it would be desirable to make the regions benefit of the EU funding supports.

New initiatives are under analysis in several states for strengthening or creating regional or decentralised structures. Political and parliamentary debates are under way in various central and eastern European countries but also in several western countries. We hope that regions will increase their competencies and accentuate their characters. 

Decentralisation, regionalisation and federal structures are different steps of the same process: the final objective is to bring political and administrative structures nearer to the citizens in order to strengthen democracy and to respect cultural and ethnical diversity and heritage. If Europe will progress in this matter, this will be a step forward for the implementation of democratic and efficient states and for the establishment of welfare and peace.