The Congress Group of Independent Expert on the European Charter of Local Self-Government (GIE) organised a debate on the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic for multi-level governance during its annual meeting, held online this year, on 18 September 2020.
In his presentation, Professor Francesco Palermo, member of the Group for Italy, highlighted that the pandemic presented a worrying picture for local and regional governance everywhere in Europe and that accompanying centralisation trends put the vertical division of powers under stress. “More levels of government require negotiation, dialogue and time and emergency is at odds with time. So, centralisation is an easy response,” he stated. Technical experts, who played an important advisory role in mitigating the crisis, supported rather centralisation without taking into account the fact that the situation on the ground might be different from region to region, thus putting at the risk territorial pluralism.
Palermo also mentioned that while all countries have sufficient ways to concentrate power in certain cases of ermergency, most federal states did not use a state of emergency to extend their powers. “This means that in multi-level governance, or in pluralistic territorial systems, streamlining the line of command is possible without derogating from the regular constitutional order when there is an extreme crisis situation,” he underlined.
A second point of the presentation concerned the conflicts between different levels of government while facing the pandemic. These conflicts are rather of political nature and channeled through the levels of government, according to Palermo. He has also made clear that the decentralised systems would need several conditions to be able to fight a pandemic: “First, central government must be well equipped and this capacity must extend to the subnational levels as well. Second, mutual learning and sharing of good practices must also be institutionalised. This means that, when a region or a municipality makes a good decision, others must be able to see the example and put it into action.”
“The response to Covid-19 does not depend on the government system but on capacity and efficiency. The question whether decentralised systems are more efficient or not has no clear cut answer,” Palermo added. “ Fighting the pandemic needs quick and coordinated action, but that does not necessarily mean centralised action. On the other hand, multi-level decision making does not mean that decisions must be different but that they might be different,” he concluded.
During the debate, GIE-member Chris Himsworth (United Kingdom) pointed to the situation in his country and problems of dealings between the central government and regional governments. “Where there are already existing antagonisms or pressure for independence, this has been exacerbated during the crisis”, he stated.
Nikos Chlepas (Greece) suggested that centralised systems would not respond as good as decentralised systems regarding specific measures such as testing which has been easier and more efficient at local and regional levels. He also underlined that the economic impact of the virus is not the same everywhere, giving the example of economies dependent on the service sector which are more heavily affected.
The Group of Independent Experts on the European Charter of local Self-Government (GIE) brings together competent experts in legal, political or financial fields, who are specialised in issues on local and regional democracy. The Group helps the three statutory committees to carry out their responsibilities under the Statute.