The Oxford Handbook of Local and Regional Democracy in Europe: rich in theory and data
“Our aim was to produce an up-to-date and comprehensive survey of the ‘state of play’ of subnational democracy in the 27 member states of the EU plus Norway and Switzerland. We also wished to advance reflection on the theory of democracy itself as this is practiced at the subnational level.” Being interviewed is Professor John Loughlin about his newest book (also edited by Frank Hendriks and Anders Lidström). The Oxford Handbook of Local and Regional Democracy in Europe. “I think we have succeeded in doing this and the book is a unique text both theoretically and in the wealth of data it contains.”
About Professor John Loughlin
Loughlin is a professor of political science and currently a Fellow and Tutor at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He teaches courses on the Politics of Europe in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is also an adjunct professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Umeå, Sweden. Loughlin’s areas of expertise are territorial governance – federalism, regionalism, local government – and recently the professor carries out research on Religion and Politics.
About the handbook
The book originated in 1998 when the Committee of the
Regions asked me to set up a committee of experts to
examine local and regional democracy in the EU. The Committee,
founded in 1994, was still quite a young organization with a rather
weak constitutional status in the EU and wished to strengthen its
position by encouraging reflection on democratic practice at the
sub-national level. Their argument was that the EU’s
democratic deficit might be filled, at least partially, by the EU’s
regions and local authorities according to the principle of
subsidiarity. The committee of experts, which included
Frank Hendriks and Anders
Lidström (then young lecturers), produced a report
entitled Regional and Local Democracy in the European
Union which covered the ‘state of play’ of
subnational democracy in the then 15 member states. Oxford
University Press (OUP) subsequently agreed to publish a
revised and expanded version of the report which was publilshed by
OUP in 2001 as a book entitled Subnational Democracy in
the European Union.
10 years later, the EU comprised 27 member states, including 10 states from the former communist bloc and OUP agreed that a new book was needed to cover the changes. I asked (the by now) Professors Hendriks and Lidström to join me as joint editors of what became the Handbook. This was quite a massive undertaking and we had several meetings to discuss prospective authors. In the first book, there were only five authors and I myself wrote about half of the book. This time we decided to recruit authors for each chapter and sometimes this meant several authors. Most of the authors were from the country itself . This was very gratifying as it showed the advances in the discipline of political science made since the fall of the communist system as many of the East and Central European authors were young scholars.
Since the publication of the 1998 report and the 2001 book, sub-national democracy and decentralization have become increasingly important in approaches to governance. The Council of Europe especially has been very active in promoting these aspects of democracy. Organizations such as UN-Habitat and the World Bank have also taken up the theme of decentralization. Why is this important? Well, liberal representative democracy has been very closely associated with the modern nation-state and democratic legitimacy has been a function of national legislatures and governments. Since the 1980s, however, nation-states have begun to change and lose some of their centrality in systems of governance. Regions and local authorities emerged alongside them and the EU as key political actors. This is encapsulated in the expression ‘multi-level goverance’. The question here is how democratic is multi-level governance and how democratic are the different levels within this? Our book tries to give a theoretical basis to the subnational element at least. With the transitions in East and Central Europe from communism to democracy, this issue became quite important as the new democracies were primarily national democracies and, for various reasons, often found it difficult to devise systems that also included regional and local levels of democracy. Because of this, the question of the nature of democracy was raised in an acute form. Some countries such as Poland, which set up the wodz, seem to have negotiated the transition successfully, while others, such as Romania and Bulgaria have found it more difficult. But we must remember that the legacy of centralized communist states has been extremely difficult to leave behind.
Question: How do local and regional democracy interact with each other? Are there examples of countries where the local and regional democracy are mutually antagonistic?
This is a good question and much of the answer depends on the overall state tradition in which a country is situated. In Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany there is a tradition of consensus and corporatism which means that their systems of multi-level governance and subnational democracy are relatively harmonious. In countries which follow the French tradition, there may be conflict or at least the regional level sometimes adopts a ‘Jacobin’ position vis-à-vis its own local government. Examples here are the Belgian communities and regions or the Spanish Autonomous Communities which are quite centralized and dominate their local authorities. In the UK, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales have a positive relationship with their local authorities based on the notion of ‘partnership’, which is perhaps different from the more antagonistic relationship found in England.
A lot also depends on the constitutional position and powers of the regional authority: this is weak in France or Italy and strong in Belgium and Spain. In some countries, such as France and Sweden, there is no hierarchical relationship between the regional and local levels. In Spain there is. So all these factors need to be taken into account to assess the position of the local authority – its autonomy and democratic freedom – in relation to the regional.
Territory strongly matters in understanding democracies yet there are some general trends
An important point made in The Oxford Handbook of Local and Regional Democracy in Europe is that territory strongly matters if we are to understand European democracies. Loughlin says about this: “The important point here is that Europe is a continent that is diverse both politically and culturally. This is reflected in our typologies of state traditions and groupings of countries. Within each of the ‘types’, countries share a number of features. However, this should be seen as a starting point of analysis as there are also important differences: Ireland is not exactly the same as the UK; Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal all follow a general ‘Napoleonic’ and ‘South European’ tradition, but they all differ from each other in important respects; even the Scandinavian countries, so similar in many ways, are also different from each other. At the same time, one can note some general trends in concepts of governance, publilc administration and public policy – for example, the shift from centralized state-centred approaches up the 1980s to more decentralized, market-centred and neo-liberal approaches from the 1980s onwards. With modern means of communication countries are always learning from each other and organizations such as the Committee of the Regions, the EU generally, the Council of Europe, the OECD, the World Bank and the IMF all seem to promote particular models of governance which are then taken up by countries but applied in line with those countries’ own particular traditions and structures. This is also true of approaches to democracy at both national and subnational levels: we note the popularity of elected mayors, and participatory approaches of various kinds.
In the future the handbook could be extended
The handbook is already very extensive but Loughlin adds that in
the future another edition of the book could be published when for
example the EU enlarges. But also when we have learned what the
longer-term consequences of the financial crisis of 2008-9 have
been and their impact on regional and local autonomy and democracy
Elizabeth Winkel, EUKN