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“We must help countries in the southern Caucasus and the western Balkans to build local democracy”

In an interview, Norwegian Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, Erna Solberg, stresses the importance of sufficiently strong, democratically elected local authorities to the southern Caucasus and the Balkans. A conference to be held next September in Oslo will help these two regions to build true local democracy, according to the Minister.

Interview 27.05.2004

Question: Norway is currently chairing the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers. How does it see the Council’s role now that the European Union has enlarged to 25 members?

Erna Solberg: I think the Council of Europe has an important role to play, for EU and non-EU countries alike, in consolidating democracy and the preeminence of human rights within the Union and beyond the Union’s new borders.

Question: You announced a conference in Oslo in September on local democracy, with invitations in particular to representatives of the southern Caucasus and the Balkans. Do you think local and regional authorities can do more to help resolve conflicts?

Erna Solberg: As I see it these two regions lack sufficiently strong, democratically elected local authorities. The local authorities’ role is defined by central government. We should be helping them to build genuine local democracy. The position is not the same everywhere of course, but democracy at the local level frequently doesn’t function at all. The changes needed are a matter not just for the people in charge locally, but for the national authorities, who need to get reform under way so as to develop local self-government, allow election of local representatives and facilitate relations between the different levels of government. And it is also important for national associations of local and regional elected representatives to raise awareness of their role and remit, particularly in countries that have only recently gained independence.

Question: Last year the Congress voiced regrets that Norway had to some extent recentralised in social and health provision. What is the position today?

Erna Solberg: The criticisms failed to take Norway’s size into account. The country has a population of only 4,600,000, less than the population of Paris for example. We centralised funding of health provision because some of the 19 counties that had previously had that responsibility had not been able to cope and hospital capacity varied a lot from region to region, with the result that there were sometimes long waiting lists. The burden of health expenditure was gradually stifling everything else the counties had to do and they were having to borrow heavily. They now have larger powers aand responsibilities in the economic sphere, in particular in regional development.

Question: A few years ago you set up a network to check on efficiency of local administration. What have the results been?

Erna Solberg: This was a joint initiative of three ministries and the national association of local authorities and the aim was to measure the cost-effectiveness of public services. Just under 300 of the 444 municipalities have joined the network because they realise that they need more and more money to finance public services and that they have to be careful about standard of service. The audits enable them to manage public resources better and adjust their policies if need be.