29th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 20-22 October 2015)

Regionalisation in Europe: a stalled process?

Strasbourg, 20 October 2015

·         More information on the debate (adopted text, speeches, videos, interviews)

The referendum held in Scotland in 2014 as well as the claims for enhanced regional autonomy in several Member States of the Council of Europe, might have given the impression that regionalisation is making great strides in Europe, whereas in fact it is at a standstill and possibly even on the decline, as emerged from a detailed study on this question presented by the Governance Committee of the Congress. This document, together with a resolution adopted on Tuesday by the Chamber of Regions, gave rise to a very wide-ranging, but also very lively, debate on the future of regionalisation in Europe.  

The Congress report, presented by Marie-Madeleine Mialot Muller (France, SOC), establishes a typology of regionalisation in the 47 Council of Europe member states before taking a more detailed look at the powers of regions. Sixteen member states have no regional level, seven of them for reasons of size. Among these, however, Malta set up five regional committees with a range of competences in 2011. Several states have introduced “limited regionalisation”, i.e. either limited to certain parts of their territory, as in Georgia, Finland, Portugal and Serbia, or restricted to a few specific competences, as in Denmark and Sweden, whose regions now manage health services. Greece has undertaken a major process of regionalisation, but of a strictly administrative type, whereas Ireland has established a regional tier, which, however, has no direct interaction with citizens. France and the Czech Republic are currently carrying out local government reforms which also affect their regional level. Lastly, eight member states have a high level of regionalisation. Six of them are even federal states, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium the Russian Federation and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Italy and Spain complete the list of highly regionalised states, the distinctive feature in the case of Italy being the “asymmetry” of its regions: some, like Sardinia, Sicily, Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, enjoy more self-government than the others. Finally, the report looks at the specific cases of Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders, where “the calls for self-government go so far as demands for independence”. 

After this review of the situation, Ms Mialot Muller notes that regionalisation has barely progressed in Europe in the past fifteen years or so, and even seems to have “stalled”. She is mainly concerned about the possible consequences of budget restrictions and the limits placed by states on the financial autonomy of regions, and draws attention to the resultant risk of “recentralisation”. 

 Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders: regionalisation or a quest for independence?

The description given in the report of the situations in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders prompted reactions on the part of several members from the countries concerned: Karim Van Overmeire (Belgium, NI) saw these three regions as being “blacklisted” and rejected what he considered to be a view favourable to central governments. Similarly, Christina McKelvie (United Kingdom, NI) felt that the three regions were “denigrated” and that Scotland was portrayed in a pejorative and negative manner in the report. In an attempt to calm the discussion, Herwig van Staa (Austria, EPP/CCE) pointed out that there were “a thousand and one ways of viewing decentralisation”, but criticised the - in his view incorrect - expression “regional nationalism”. He regretted that the plans for a Charter of Regional Self-Government comparable to the Charter of Local Self-Government had not come to fruition. Such a charter would have made it possible to clarify this kind of situation. He blamed France and the United Kingdom for the failure of this charter initiative. He also warned his colleagues about certain moves towards “recentralisation” which could be observed at present in some countries, such as Italy.  The next speaker, Karl-Heinz Lambertz (Belgium, SOC), noted that it was impossible to agree on all terms, but welcomed this report, which would have “fallen into banality” if it had sought to achieve a complete consensus.

         Lengthy and complex regionalisation processes

Above and beyond the debate on the limits to regionalisation, several Congress members were concerned about the manner of its implementation and its sometimes undesirable consequences. Andrée Buchmann (France, SOC) criticised the regional reform launched in France at the end of 2014, a reform “decided and imposed by central government” which, in her view, may lead to increased public discontent and open the way to populism and the far right. Andrew Boff (United Kingdom, ECR) feared that another unforeseen consequence of regionalisation was the regions’ sometimes excessive oversight of local authorities. He observed that “the Scottish National Party has centralised in Edinburgh many powers previously devolved to local authorities”. In any case, regionalisation is always a delicate balance. Alexander Uss (Russia, EPP/CCE) summed this up as follows: “when central government fails to take account of the regions, that leads to struggles, but the reverse is also true”. For her part, Nataliya Romanova (Ukraine, ILDG) pointed out that “regionalisation depended on subsidiarity and on taking account of regional mentalities”. If regionalisation is to be successful, we must employ the best processes available in Europe, stressed Leen Verbeek (Netherlands, SOC), while François Maitia (France, SOC) saw regionalisation as a “powerful source of development and enrichment”.

Several other speakers emphasised the “balanced” nature of the report and the accompanying resolution which, put to the vote after the debate, was adopted by 52 votes to 4, with 4 abstentions.