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Jean-Claude Frécon on local self-government: “Insufficient competences and resources are being delegated to the municipalities”

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the European Charter of Municipal Liberties, Jean-Claude Frécon, Vice-President of the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, explains the challenges facing local authority autonomy.

Interview (15.01.2004)

Question: Jean-Claude Frécon, you are Senator-Mayor of Pouilly-les-fleurs, Vice-President of the Association of French Mayors and Vice-President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. On 16 January you will be attending a European seminar on local self-government celebrating the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the European Charter of Municipal Liberties in 1953. Can you just remind us of the origin of this Charter?

J.C. Frécon: First of all I must point out that I did not attend the first General Assembly of European Municipalities which was held in Versailles in October 1953 at the initiative of the CEMR, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions.
However, we must remember the state of European construction at the time. There was then only one European organisation in Strasbourg, namely the Council of Europe, although thought was already being given to more economic action with the launching of the ECSC, the European Steel and Coal Community. This process led to the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and the Common Market.

Furthermore, we were still in the immediate post-war period, when the general watchword was “war - never again”. We realised that in some countries, such as Italy and Germany, municipalities were in fact mere cogs in the State administrative machinery. This situation had facilitated Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, as he was able to use the local authorities as intermediaries. That was how the idea emerged that municipalities had to be self-governing. The Versailles Charter proclaimed this principle of local authority autonomy, which was later incorporated in the Council of Europe’s 1985 Charter of Local Self-Government.

Question: Half a century on, how topical is the Versailles Charter and the now recognised principle of local authority self-government?

J.C. Frécon: The situation in western Europe in 1953 was repeated in 1989 with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Municipalities in central and eastern Europe were just tiny cogs in the central State machinery. This means that the principle of self-government is now more topical than ever. I have noted this first-hand in the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. In order to accede to the Council of Europe new member countries must have enshrined the local self-government principle in their legislation. Nevertheless, a wide gap still sometimes exists between the theory and the practice. We are still too often confronted with situations where very few actual powers are delegated to the municipalities, and local authorities are assigned insufficient resources for any effective exercise of responsibilities.

Question: What are the challenges facing local self-government at the beginning of the 21st century?

J.C. Frécon: The main question we must answer is “who is responsible for what?”. In 1985 the Council of Europe Charter set out the principle of subsidiarity, which the European Union incorporated into its Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The task facing us today is to flesh out and expand this principle, particularly in the public service field, seeking to provide high-quality services at an affordable price. We might just take the example of water. The smaller municipalities lack the resources and/or competences to ensure a completely safe water supply, and have to fall back on groupings of municipalities. Again, the powers and responsibilities of each of the parties involved in this field must be precisely pinpointed.