September 1 marked the 30th anniversary of the European Charter of Local Self-Government entering into force and countries which have ratified it are bound by its provisions. The European Charter demands respect of a minimum number of rights which constitute the European basis of local self-government. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe is responsible for ensuring that the principles enshrined in the European Charter are respected. It aims to ensure local authorities are one of the main foundations of the democratic system and that the right of citizens to participate in the management of public affairs is a recognised democratic principle. The existence of local authorities with real responsibilities and resources offers effective administration, close to the citizen, contributing to the creation of a Europe based on the principles of democracy and decentralisation of power. To mark 30 years since the charter came into force, the Congress stresses the need for empowering local authorities, since there is lack of consultation between central governments and local authorities, as well as the role of the national parliaments in the decentralisation process. Clear distribution of powers will assist local authorities to meet the needs and expectations of citizens to a higher degree, since local authorities will be able to respond to various challenges, such as the refugee crisis in Europe, financial difficulties and popular mistrust in institutions.
The Charter also provides that local authorities are entitled, within national economic policy, to adequate financial resources of their own, of which they may dispose freely within the framework of their powers, as well as having consultation rights on the way redistributed resources are to be allocated to them. However, the Congress states this is one of the most violated articles as a result of the economic crisis, and the problems observed regarding the distribution of competencies indicate there is a trend towards re-centralisation in Europe. Some national governments have attempted to re-centralise the powers and competences given to local authorities and to limit their financial resources, instead of adopting a partnership and multi-level governance approach to face economic and social challenges. The result is not encouraging: the more governments limit local financial resources, the more they prevent local authorities from meeting the needs of the citizens, causing popular dissatisfaction and mistrust towards them. In these cases, local governance is losing ground and the positive and constructive effects of the proximity of services and democratic institutions to citizens are being despised.
The Congress in its role of monitoring whether the provisions of the charter are applied in member states aims not to only to reveal the various issues the local authorities are facing, but also to make recommendations to address them and assist the national governments, parliaments and local authorities to implement such recommendations to improve local governance and the discretion of local authorities to autonomously manage a significant part of local affairs in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. Decentralisation has a key role in enhancing citizens’ trust in local authorities and in improving quality of life at a local level. In view of the above, the Congress, in a recent meeting, called on parliaments of the Council of Europe member states to assume their vital role in implementing the charter, securing the application of a proper legislative framework for consultation with local authorities and their associations. It pointed out that governments and parliaments can turn local authorities into partners and through the correct process of consultation implement better laws and policies to achieve the necessary changes to the benefit of the citizens.
George Coucounis is a lawyer specialising in the Immovable Property Law, based in Larnaca, Tel: 24 818288, [email protected], www.coucounislaw.com