Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)
European section of United Cities and Local Governments

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Governance and citizenship

Governance - 04.04.2014

The place and role of mayors in Europe: an interview with CEMR secretary general
In an interview with Acteurs publics, a leading French news website covering public affairs with a audience of over 200.000 subscribers, Frédéric Vallier  takes a broad view of the role and place of mayors in Europe. We have made this interview available to English readers.

What is the role and place of mayors in European countries?

Mayors are the ultimate shields against the current crisis. They are the ones towards whom most individuals turn their eyes. Local elected representatives also play a crucial role in ensuring social and territorial cohesion. The privileged relationship mayors have with their fellow citizens is essential, although it must be counterbalanced by the current trend towards municipal mergers. Besides, another trend is still clearly visible: the function of mayor is undergoing professionalisation across Europe. It also calls for real cutting-edge expertise in a context where member states are transferring responsibilities to the local level and inter-municipal structures are being put in place.

What sets France apart from other EU member states?

In many European countries, it is no longer possible to hold several mandates concurrently and mayors have a primiry role. A long-cherished myth among the French population is that effective local elected representatives must also hold a parliamentary mandate. In this regard, France lags behind other countries. German mayors for instance are major players in political debates. Italy's new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, had been serving as Florence mayor. In France, with the prohibition of multiple mandates, things are finally starting to happen on the ground. High-level political figures such as Bertrand Delanöe in Paris and Martine Aubry in Lille have chosen to devote themselves full-time to their local mandate. It is regrettable to find that some take the view that mayors are second-class elected officials.

Election procedures also vary from one country to another...

Another considerable difference between countries lies in the way mayors are elected and the roles they are expected to play. In some municipalities across Europe, mayors and council members are to be elected through two separate election races, according to a system of proportional representation. As a result, a different majority may thus be formed. This power-sharing formula implies to engage in dialogue in a spirit of consensus and compromise, something which is not very prevalent in France.

Has the development of cooperation among local authorities via different joint bodies made the situation more complex for mayors?

In Europe, there is a fairly general trend towards groupings and mergers of municipalities. Inter-municipal cooperation allows the pooling of resources in order to develop new services, which is vital for mayors to keep control of. At the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, we believe that current municipality groupings deserve special attention. In some countries, the size of newly established municipalities may result in decreased access to local services. With the objective of triggering mergers, Finland has, for instance, fixed a minimum number of inhabitants per municipality. Unfortunatly, no consideration was given to whether such mergers might pull local public services away from the population. Clearly this issue is one that is crucial for countries with low density populations.

Which countries come out on top in such a context?

Countries that succeed are invariably those who have undertaken reforms through collaboration, with a strong consensus between the state and local government. Forcing decisions may prompt backlash from local elected representatives. In Denmark, a very pragmatic country, the open collaboration has paid off. In Sweden, the Netherlands and Scottland, major public debates have taken place. In Spain, the federation of municipalities and provinces was fully engaged in the reform. These must be seen as role models.

Interview by Raphaël Moreaux
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