Local authorities in EU external action after 2020: Strategic actors or distant voices?

A new buzzword has appeared in the richly endowed development jargon: multi-actor partnerships. It reflects the gradual realisation that central governments alone cannot deliver the goods. Effective collaboration with other actors, including civil society, the private sector as well as local authorities, is key to transform economies, galvanise societies and ensure better governance.

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      The EU has fully embraced the notion of multi-actor partnerships in the new European Consensus on Development. Yet there are fears that local authorities may continue to be sidelined in such partnerships – and this at a time when we increasingly recognise that all development is ultimately ‘local’.

      Who gets a seat at the table in development processes and related EU external action?

      Two decades ago, civil society was the first to come on the scenes in the rather closed and state-centric system of development cooperation. But it often remained a conflictual relationship and the shrinking space for civil society actors across the globe, particularly those working on governance and human rights, serves as a proof.

      The private sector has also been around for quite some time, mainly in relation to trade and investment cooperation. The current hype on ‘private sector for development’ has turned private sector actors into privileged partners – possibly with unrealistic expectations in terms of leveraging funding and promoting sustainable development.

      Of all the candidates for multi-actor partnerships, local authorities seem the least well-positioned in the current development cooperation system and EU external action. Yet, over the past decade, their added value and distinct role in development have been increasingly acknowledged. Associations of local authorities at various levels (national, regional, global) are becoming increasingly effective in advocacy and in their function as policy interlocutors.

      In 2013, the EU issued a promising Communication on the need to empower local authorities to allow them to become effective development players – adding value to other levels of governance. The EU has taken some innovative measures, such as the signing of Framework Partnership Agreements with five global local authorities associations back in 2015. Several EU Delegations have also started to incorporate local authorities as distinct actors in several cooperation processes.

      Local authorities: Still distant voices despite their huge potential

      Despite these new dynamics, the integration of local authorities in development and EU external action is far from being a widespread reality. Their participation in the dialogues and their access to EU funding remain difficult. Looking to the future, local authorities barely feature in the post-Cotonou debate. The draft negotiating mandate of the EU confines their role to ‘complementing governmental action’.

      In the ongoing discussions on the future EU budget and a new set of external financing instruments beyond 2020, no reflection exists so far on the place that will be given to local authorities. The only issue that seems to attract the interest of the policymakers in the European Commission nowadays is (mega)cities – but this interest remains so far rather ad hoc and instrumental.

      The marginalisation of local authorities – now and in potential future EU partnership agreements, as well as financing instruments after 2020 – is worrying. It neglects the strategic importance of the local level in tackling global development challenges. Ambitious global and national policies ultimately have to land at the local level, where citizens expect services, economic development, jobs, security, efforts to combat climate change, etc.

      In the absence of strong institutions, social capital and agents that can deliver these services on the spot, the progress in achieving the SDGs will be less than optimal. This explains the wide consensus on the need to implement the Agenda 2030 at local level in ways that are relevant for local actors. All this also implies accepting the principles of subsidiarity and multi-level governance to respectively determine who is best placed to do what, and to promote effective collaboration between different levels of governance. Local authorities will ultimately also be the ones monitoring the effective implementation of the SDGs at the local level, if we want a serious reality check.

      The proof of all this is already visible: in the last two decades, many local authorities and cities across the globe have been real actors of change. They have been able to transform the local economy, improve public services, tackle climate change and give a voice to citizens. The “smart cities” movement is another illustration of the power of local level actors. When D. Trump rejected the Paris Agreement, several US cities said they would continue to pursue the climate change objectives on their own.

      The EU accepts multi-level governance, but not its practical implications. It contradicts its own policies by reducing the role of local authorities as the implementing arm of the central government. Local authorities are well-placed to help to implement national policies as part of an intergovernmental system but they are more than that. In most countries across the globe, they are also a distinct sphere of government, mandated by law to perform a wide range of responsibilities, act as an elected political entity representing local constituencies, and to provide accountability.

      Local authorities are not simply a local complement to the central government. They have a general mandate to develop their own policies to address the SGDs. If properly enabled, they can act as catalysts for sustainable forms of territorial development that mobilise additional local resources. The EU’s Communication on local authorities from 2013 fully reflects this vision. Yet, so far, this remains theory. In practice, we seem to go back to square one, and local authorities are only distant voices in the shadow of central governments.

      By marginalising local authorities, the EU fails to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of these crucial actors at the local level – where opposition parties can win elections and advance democratic practices. How can local authorities become credible institutions in the eyes of citizens if they have no meaningful political autonomy and no financial means to create added value? By sidelining local authorities, the EU weakens a key pillar of local democracy and governance.

      What does this mean for the debates on post-Cotonou and the future EU budget?

      Four major challenges stand in the way of an effective application of the professed principles of multi-actor partnerships and multi-level governance.

      Legitimacy. It is essential to confirm that local and regional governments are the autonomous sphere of public governance closest to the citizen. As representatives of local constituencies, it is as legitimate as any other level of public governance.

      A seat at the table. The bulk of the fight against poverty and for a more inclusive and sustainable world will be won or lost in cities and territories. Local authorities are, therefore, entitled to be fully associated to political/policy processes that impact on the life of people at the local level.

      Strategic dialogue. There is a need to work directly with local authorities and their associations at various levels, to implement the SDGs in a bottom-up way.

      Adequate resources. It is key to identify suitable funding modalities to empower local authorities in pursuing their general mandate for local development and governance in a future EU budget.

      To push this agenda, associations of local authorities will have to mobilise their troops in the next months. They will have to demonstrate how cities and territories can make a difference through concrete examples. And they better come up with their own proposals on how to effectively integrate local authorities in the EU’s external action after 2020.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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