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The Conference of Ministers responsible for local and regional government is being held on 24 and 25 February in Budapest (Hungary). For Alain Delcamp, Associate professor at Aix-Marseille university (France) and honorary chairman of the Council of Europe group of experts on local and regional self-government, these authorities "contribute to the originality, necessity and visibility of the Council of Europe".
Question: The Charter of Local Self-Government has been in force for some 15 years now. How do you assess its application?
Alain Delcamp: Today the history of the European Charter of Local Self-Government is inextricably linked with the very idea of the development of democracy in Europe. Having started life as a compromise between the Council's main founding countries - essentially west European States - it has become the common heritage of the whole of Europe, reaching far beyond the confines of the Union, even after its enlargement to 25.
It was little known by 1990 even in the countries that had been behind it, but after the fall of the Berlin wall in the east it became one of the reference texts of international law for the new democracies being constructed. At the time of applying for Council of Europe membership, the new democracies in central and eastern Europe were eagerly taking on board the symbolic heritage formed of the European Convention on Human Rights on the one hand and the European Charter of Local Self-Government on the other hand. The texts of their new constitutions clearly demonstrate this. And the historic experience of this swift embracing of the values of liberal democracy showed the importance of local elections for building democracy full stop: it was these elections that enabled new political classes to emerge in many countries and re-established, in a manner of speaking, the link between citizens and public authorities.
The ease with which the organisational principles set out in the Charter were taken on board was also highly significant. They are clearly very much in line with a world where transfrontier relations are obviously constantly developing but also where people need an identity that they can find in their close environment. "Local" is the counterweight to "global" and as such takes on key political importance.
Question: In Budapest the Ministers are to review the challenges faced by States in ensuring good local and regional governance. What do you see as the main challenges?
Alain Delcamp: There is an existential question facing States today as to whether they should perpetuate a hierarchical model characterised by central authority and encouraging uniformity. Rather than organising society upstream, States have to allow society the broadest possible scope for self-government, liberating all its creative potential. This is all the more necessary as, given progress in exchanges and means of communication, that creative potential no longer knows any national frontiers.
However, while there is a vital need to modernise and change mentalities on the part of the public sector, there is also a strong upsurge in individualism, bringing with it growing indifference to public affairs. Political intervention must now kick in further down the process to ensure that the explosion of initiatives does not cause a worrying decline in social cohesion.
Elected authorities close to citizens are one response to this extremely difficult issue. Through their self-governing powers, local and regional authorities can be focal points for development and economic, cultural and social innovation. That implies that the central authorities, often in financial difficulty as a result of wrong management methods, leave them the necessary resources. One of the main challenges is therefore to tackle the issue of distribution of public funds head-on and in-depth, taking account of the prerogatives exercised at the different levels.
Through their proximity, local and regional authorities also provide opportunities to compare situations more easily, to enable citizens to make a tangible contribution to improving their everyday lives and to highlight the link between that contribution and the functioning of public services. They provide a forum in which the different public, private and voluntary interests come together more easily. So local and regional authorities continue to form one of the focal points for building or redefining the social corpus and learning democracy, a system that is still founded on the selection and control of administrators by the citizens themselves.
Question: The Charter of Local Self-Government was to be supplemented by a Charter of regional self-government, which seems to have hit some delays. On what grounds and when could this second Charter see the light of day?
Alain Delcamp: The Charter of Local Self-Government was never intended to rule out the regional aspect. Article 13 actually gives States complete freedom to specify that the charter will apply to authorities above local level (the text even expressly mentions "regional authorities"). The need to assert a regional level was first expressed by authorities operating at or assimilated to regional level within federated States. In many respects, particularly as regards legislative powers, these authorities are almost a State within a State. In particular, we have seen that extending the powers of the European Union could be at odds with their powers. But it would be wrong to think that the choices made by States with a combined or regional federal structure - the terminology is not important - are likely to be widely adopted elsewhere. That was why the prospect of a European Charter of regional self-government was frightening both for unitary States with a strong tradition of central government (but not uniquely, as can be seen from the United Kingdom for example) and for States where nations were asserting themselves after being deprived of their right to self-determination in the course of history.
The course now steered by the Ministers at the Council of Europe, towards a Charter of flexible format comprising options and transitional phases, could certainly achieve a consensus. But I cannot see the regional charter achieving the same take-up rate as the Charter of Local Self-Government. It will be one instrument among others, to be used as a guide but not a model for developing state structures in different countries.
But whether it is a question of local self-government or regional self-government, these charters are documents of a political nature, in the noble sense of the word, which contribute to the originality of the Council of Europe. If I could make a wish, it would be that these instruments came a little higher up among the Council's priorities. They are in step with contemporary society and, in a context where the European Union considers that the internal organisation of States lies outside its control, will always contribute to the originality, necessity and visibility of the Council of Europe.