June 28th 2010

Of Paris, the Council of Europe, local self-government, and just a touch of football

The Council of Europe – the not-the-European-Union organisation of wider Europe (47 countries at last count) – is best known for the work of its Court of Human Rights, and has a general remit to promote democracy and human rights.  It is also in the news just now because its Parliamentary Assembly has voted unanimously against a general banning of the burqa or nijab, and criticized the recent Swiss law against the building of minarets. (By the way, the football bit  is at the end of this post!)

I was back in Paris last week as “independent expert” for a Council of Europe (CoE) working group meeting on how best it can coordinate its work on local and regional democracy.

The working group elected me as its chairperson for the meeting, which involved managing some quite tense moments between the civil servants from the government ministries and the representatives of local and regional authorities.  It is an old tension – between the local authorities’ feeling that they should be relatively free from central government control, and the desire of central governments to retain control.

There was also the excitement of an evacuation due to a bomb threat to the building, which the police took seriously.  The only other meeting advertised for the day was the Global Borrowers’ Forum, but I could not quite work out why this body should be worth blowing up… I would have understood better if it was the Global Creditors Forum!  It took me back to 1974 in the Old Bailey criminal court in London, when a huge IRA car bomb exploded outside, their first on the “mainland”. Luckily the building was tough (the pub over the road was destroyed) and the flying window glass missed.

Our working group was set up by last November’s ministerial conference on local government in Utrecht.  The minsters responsible for local government felt that the Council of Europe’s work in this field was uncoordinated and needed more focus.  There are three “pillars” of the CoE – the Council of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities; in addition, the practical work on local government issues among civil servants takes place in another committee, the CDLR.  There is also a grouping of NGOs with an interest in things like citizen participation, so there are quite a lot of people with an interest, greater or lesser, in local democracy.

I have spent much of my professional life involved in and defending local government, but have been warning for some time of the risk of a tendency towards more “recentralization” – in particular in these times of fiscal and economic crisis. Last November I wrote in CEMR’s 2nd survey on the impact of the crisis

“Even if and when the economy picks up to some extent, the extent of public sector debt (now exceeding the  Maastricht criterion of 60 % of Gross Domestic Product in the EU), and continuing unemployment in many places, will place acute pressure on Europe’s local and regional governments.”

And even more explicitly, in evidence to the European Parliament’s special committee on the crisis

“Over the last 20 years or more, there has been a general move towards democratic decentralisation across Europe.  But as national governments themselves feel the pressure to restrain public expenditure, there is a real risk that they seek to reverse this process and take more centralized control over LRAs [local and regional authorities] – in terms of finances, but also in terms of more control over how services are delivered by LRAs.”

I feel that this process is now indeed underway, and our debates in Paris – which will continue – underlined this trend for me.

The main issue at stake is the process for monitoring the European Charter of Local Self-Government, adopted in 1986 and in force from 1989.  The Charter was created by the Congress (or rather, its predecessor committee of local and regional authorities), and somewhat watered down by the governments – mainly by adding words like “within the limits of the law”) before they agreed to its terms.  It is still the “bible” of Europe’s local governments, and signing up to the Charter was made one of the conditions for new member states joining the CoE after 1989.  The Polish constitution, for example, contains excellent provisions on local self-government, inspired by colleagues like Andrzej Porawski, long-time director of the Association of Polish Cities, and Solidarity stalwart in the pre-1989 struggles.

The Charter contains no provisions for formal monitoring, so the Congress decided some 15 years ago to set up a system of country monitoring, using experts designated by it, plus experienced elected representatives from amongst its members, who each year visit and report on a number of countries.  The national governments – through their civil servants – are now arguing that this system needs to be altered, so that the Congress should not alone (or at all?) be responsible for the monitoring, and this debate was continued in our working group.  The Congress people, of course, see it differently.

I can’t resist philosophizing about football while thinking about Europe…. on Tuesday I sat in a bar in a multi-ethnic area of east Paris, where a diverse crowd around the TV cheered the South African goals that sealed France’s exit from the World Cup and set off a period of national debate. Are the players over-paid spoilt brats? Were they badly brought up in the urban periphery to which France’s migrant communities have been largely exported?  Why did some players refuse to sing the Marseillaise? (Try reading the words!). French sociologists were hard at work analysing all this. Then Italy crashed out, followed by England’s ignominious surrender to Germany…and the soul-searching and blame-ladling became a wider European phenomenon.  Is this a metaphor for a Europe in decline?  Well, as I write there is still Germany, the Netherlands, and the Iberian duo.  But will they all be blocked out by another emerging BRIC in the wall – Brazil?

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