Robert Hertzog: "The European Charter of Local Self-Government gives the Congress legal means of strengthening local democracy in Europe"
Professor of Law at Strasbourg’s Institute for Political Studies and a specialist in local authority matters, Robert Hertzog drew attention, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, to the "extraordinary destiny" of this text, but also to the challenges which lie ahead for local democracy in the years to come.
Question: In your opinion, has the Charter fulfilled the objective of its founders, which was to strengthen local democracy on a lasting basis in Europe?
Robert Hertzog: Planned back in the 1950s, but published in 1985, the Charter followed a quite amazing path. In 1985, of course, it concerned only western Europe's "old-established democracies" which, it has to be said, already applied most of its principles long before it appeared. It was the accession of the former Eastern bloc countries from 1990 onwards, however, that completely transformed its scope and importance. Not only did the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe first ratify and then apply it, enabling previously non-existent local democracy to develop there, but the older member states subsequently felt very much obliged to ratify and, in particular, to apply it, which they might not necessarily have done otherwise. Thus a text devised by West European countries first served a purpose for the rest of the continent, and then led the founding countries to abide by it more strictly than they had ever imagined that they would!
Question: Which aspects of the Charter do you think are best respected, and which, on the other hand, cause the greatest difficulties?
Robert Hertzog: The holding in all countries of free and fair local elections is certainly the Charter's greatest success. On the other hand, this makes it necessary to increase the powers of local authorities vis-à-vis States, but this principle, albeit one affirmed strongly everywhere, is not easily put into practice in some countries, mainly for lack of resources or qualified and motivated staff. Looking beyond these aspects, however, the Charter's greatest strength is that it can play a direct role in States' internal politics, quite legitimately introducing the doctrine of the Council of Europe and Congress. No other international organisation, not even the European Union, has so much influence over States' internal politics.
Question: Many local elected representatives, particularly in the Congress, fear that the current financial crisis ultimately jeopardises the funding of local politics, and then local democracy as a whole. What do you think the future holds in this respect?
Robert Hertzog: We should not delude ourselves: public funds will remain scarce for a long while, even if the economic situation improves, for repaying debts will take time. In my view, if local and regional authorities wish to retain their autonomy and their powers, they will have to demonstrate that the services they offer are more relevant than those provided by the State. Local democracy will develop under financial and economic pressure, not as determined by legal principles. Local authorities must learn to co-operate more with each other, and with States, from a perspective of partnership and efficiency, for tomorrow's devolution will either take place on a co-operative basis or will not happen at all.