Alfonso Egea de Haro (coord), Carmen Navarro, José María Rodríguez de Santiago, Silvia Díez Sastre, Instituto de Derecho Local, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
Most municipal and provincial governments are integrated into associations, either in the Spanish National Federation of Municipalities and Provinces (FEMP), or in other regional associations. These associations, especially the FEMP, represent and defend local interests before the state and the autonomous communities, either through intergovernmental bodies, or by informal means.
The formal mechanisms for the intergovernmental relationships between the different tiers of government operate in two strands: between the state and the local governments and between the latter and the regional governments. State-local cooperation is channeled through two different committees: a permanent body, the National Commission of Local Administration (Comisión Nacional de la Administración Local, CNAL), and the Committee for Local Issues (Conferencia Sectorial para Asuntos Locales, CSAL).
The CNAL serves as a consultative organ which decisions are not binding. CNAL´s competences include, firstly, the preparation of reports in the case of draft laws and administrative provisions of state competence in matters affecting local government, secondly, the identification of criteria for local government’s borrowing operations, and thirdly, the submission of proposals from local entities to the state in local administration.
In addition, the Committee for Local Issues (Conferencia Sectorial para Asuntos Locales, CSAL) was formally created in 2005 as a coordination platform gathering the three levels of government (state, regional and local jurisdictions). Up to date, the CSAL does not meet on a regular basis. Unlike other committees, the CSAL has not yet approved its own statute establishing its composition, functions and rules for the adoption of resolutions. These circumstances determine a limited operability of the CSAL and reinforce the division of intergovernmental relations into two main axes: state-local and regional-local. Regardless of the formal mechanisms, political actors (e.g. political parties, associations and interest groups) operating simultaneously at the different levels can additionally provide other channels of communication and cooperation between the three levels of government.
At the regional level, autonomous communities have passed legislation on local government that regulate intergovernmental relationships between local and regional authorities in a divergent way. In some cases, autonomous communities replicate the creation of a permanent body of consultation composed by representatives of local entities and the regional government (e.g. Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla-León, País Vasco, Andalucía, among others). Other autonomous communities (e.g. Aragón, Madrid, Murcia) reduce intergovernmental relationships to the interadministrative cooperation required for the exercise of each administration´s competences. In the latter case, there is no permanent body gathering regional and local governments but different forms of cooperation (e.g. exchange of information, development of policy programs, creation of ad hoc commissions, among others).
In both cases (i.e. state and regional cooperative platforms), the representatives of the local entities are usually elected by the largest association of local governments at the national and regional levels respectively. This system of representation fueled the role of local entities associations as promoters or mediators of local interests. Regional and nation-wide associations of local entities are supposed to deploy different strategies to aggregate local interests and to access the intergovernmental platforms.
The process of aggregation of interests is especially troublesome in the case of the largest association of local entities, the FEMP. The heterogeneity of local interests based on territorial and socioeconomic conditions and the multiplication of intergovernmental platforms at the regional level may consolidate the heterogeneity of local interests.
One of the main areas where there is a need for integration of local interests concerns the division between urban and rural municipalities. The rural-urban divide is caused by the existence of phenomena mainly associated with the rural world, such as depopulation and ageing, or policies associated with this area, such as agricultural policy or the management of rural development funds. Aware of these differences, associations of local entities have also been developed, at national and regional levels, which try to coordinate the specific interests of rural municipalities (this is the case of the Spanish Association against Depopulation or the Spanish Network for Rural Development). These associations sometimes respond to partnerships between public entities and private interest groups of rural origin. This composition increases their lobbying capacity, although they do not have direct access to the intergovernmental platforms of coordination. The participation of these associations occurs through the regional and national associations of municipalities and provinces, as is the case of the FEMP. Integration within the latter is therefore an essential issue for the functioning of the organization of municipalities and provinces.
The consolidation of differences between territories challenges the role of the FEMP in achieving a unique voice representing local interests. The FEMP usually promotes the inclusion in the political agenda of certain programs to guarantee its leadership in the coordination of local interests. With regard to the rural-urban divide, the FEMP has taken advantage of its organizational resources and privileged access to intergovernmental platforms to play a leading role in representing specific interests in the rural world. This has been the case, for example, with the creation of the Commission on Depopulation of the FEMP in 2016. This commission is aiming to promote the adoption of a National Strategy against Depopulation. The result of this initiative was the creation in 2018 of a working group between the FEMP and the CNAL to address the demographic challenge affecting rural areas.
The access of local entities to either the regional or the state level of government largely depends on FEMP´s capacity to coordinate heterogeneous interests at the local level. The capacity to integrate members´ interests is achieved through organizational mechanisms (e.g. representation in the permanent bodies of the FEMP, creation of study commissions or working groups), the exchange of information and the promotion of good practices or the provision of technical assistance by the FEMP to its members. The aggregation of preferences in one voice is key in intergovernmental platforms such as the CNAL or the regional institutions alike where decisions, although of non-binding nature, are adopted by a simple majority of their members.
At the national level, the CNAL consists of 5 representatives of the state administration, related to the areas of finance, public works, interior and security issues, social policy and industry and energy, along with 13 representatives of the local entities. The local representatives are designated by the largest association of local entities nation-wide. The FEMP is the largest national association of local entities, encompassing up to a 90 per cent of all local governments (i.e. 7,410 local entities). CNAL internal organization consists of the plenary, two subcommittees (cooperation and financial issues), and working groups related to salient issues at stake. Decisions are adopted by simple majority with the casting vote of the presidency. The presidency is occupied by a representative of the central administration. In addition, the secretariat is allocated in the representatives of the central administration.
The CNAL is responsible for two main functions. First, CNAL issues non-binding reports on laws and regulations affecting local government. More in concrete the CNAL adopts a position on three main areas: (i) law proposals and administrative decisions to be adopted by the state in matters affecting local government, (ii) criteria for authorizing public debt operations of local entities, (iii) dissolution of the governing bodies of local entities due to exceptional circumstances (Article 61 of the Law of the Basis of the Local System LBRL). Second, the CNAL makes proposals to the central government in matters of local administration (i.e. delegation of competences to local entities, distribution of subsidies, credits and transfers from the state to the local administration, local finance and general state budget). The CNAL requires reports to other administrative organs in fulfilment of its functions.
There are also regional associations of local entities in every autonomous community. Although the statutes of the regional associations converge in the defense of the local autonomy there are differences in certain aspects such as the relationship with the FEMP or the scope of their activities. In some cases, the membership in a regional association does not imply to become a member of FEMP. In addition, some regional associations identify the regional government as the primary interlocutor whereas in other cases the area of influence of the association is defined nation-wide. These differences across regional associations may consolidate different political agendas based on territorial concerns. This fragmentation is fostered by the intergovernmental platforms at work in every region.
In this fragmented scenario, the FEMP develops different strategies to aggregate local interests. At first sight, the large composition of the FEMP does not help to achieve that objective. The Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces is constituted by the municipalities, islands, provinces and other local bodies that voluntarily decide to join it for the promotion and defense of their interests. The FEMP does not replace the competence of their members, and in some cases, there may be conflicting interests such as in the case of municipalities and provinces in the allocation of competences or the distribution of economic resources.
The definition of the political agenda is a crucial stage in the influence of the FEMP for two reasons. Firstly, the agenda setting allows for the identification of common concerns among local authorities, while avoiding conflicting issues. Secondly, the agenda setting reinforces the role of the promoter and the need to coordinate efforts to achieve the final goal.
The process of shaping the public agenda on local issues is not straight forward. The FEMP presents mechanisms ad intra and ad extra to facilitate this objective. As for the ad intra mechanism, the internal organization of the FEMP is oriented to counteract the fragmentation and heterogeneity derived from territorial representation. The internal structure of the FEMP depends largely on party affiliation. In this respect, party affiliation determines the formation and functioning of several of the FEMP’s main organs. This is the case of the Territorial Council in charge of implementing the agreements of the plenary. The Territorial Council is made up of (i) the presidency and the rest of the members of the governing board, (ii) sixty-one members elected by the plenary from among the full members of the FEMP and according to party affiliation. The members of the Territorial Council elected by the plenary who for any reason no longer belong to the political group for which they were elected shall automatically cease and be replaced by another representative that belong to the same political group. Likewise, the members of the governing board form groups in line with their partisan affiliation. In general terms, the organization of the FEMP gives priority to partisan dynamics over territorial criteria in the configuration of their organs. However, partisan dynamics can give way to a prevalent territorial pattern depending on the issues to be addressed. To this regard, the unequal distribution of demographic trends such as ageing or depopulation affecting mainly rural areas or economic circumstances can rebalance the weight of partisan and territorial factors in FEMP decision-making.
The FEMP also seeks to encapsulate the representation of local interests by creating sectoral commissions and promoting networks of local entities facing common challenges. The commissions and working groups make it possible to coordinate local interests in a wide range of areas that even exceed the current competences of local authorities (e.g. development cooperation, employment and economic development, public employment, public health, international relations, among others) or that represent pressing issues such as the depopulation process or the digital agenda. This broad scope of the FEMP’s work allows it to increase its influence in promoting local interests on issues that are discussed at the national level.
With regard to ad extra mechanisms, the FEMP maintains collaborative relationships with regional associations of local entities through different protocols that specify the scope of the collaboration and the instruments to do so. In addition, the FEMP has signed collaboration agreements with other institutions, public institutions and private entities relevant to the management of local affairs (for example, the General Council of Notaries, the National Institute of Statistics, the National Tax Agency, the society for the management of assets derived from bank restructuring operations, different ministries of the executive branch, among others). The broad representation of the FEMP is an incentive for third parties to reach collaboration agreements.
Other mechanisms for aggregating interests are related to the generation of knowledge. In this regard, the FEMP provides training and updated information or technical knowledge on complex local administration issues (finance, human resources management, among others). In addition, the FEMP disseminates examples of good practice by local governments.
The contribution of the FEMP to intergovernmental relations between the local, regional and state levels is its capacity to aggregate local interests that do not always coincide. The strengthening of a logic of representation more linked to party affiliation than to territorial representation, together with the creation of the public agenda through training, technical assistance or the dissemination of good practices, has allowed the FEMP to reinforce its role as a promoter of local interests both in formal (CNAL) and informal relations between the different levels of government.
However, the aggregation of local interests also takes place in other regional associations of local entities that also perform their functions in a diverse institutional framework created by regional laws on local governments. Hence, the scenario of intergovernmental relations is characterized by the fragmentation produced by the regional platforms of intergovernmental coordination and the regional associations of local entities.
The representation of local interests through the FEMP is a controversial issue. First, the aggregation of local interests by a nation-wide association limits the scope of the agenda to issues that do not generate debate internally or that are sponsored by the most influential entities or regional associations. In addition, consensus on proposals is achieved at the cost of not defining measures to be implemented. In this sense, the programmatic action plans adopted by the FEMP are aimed more at setting priorities and objectives than at specifying the means to achieve them. The political stance of the FEMP tends to seek coordination and co-responsibility between administrations, avoiding issues that can lead to greater dissent, such as the financing of the execution of programs, the competencies and responsibilities to be assumed by each level of government, or the stages and timetables for policy action implementation. Second, the partisan logic of aggregation of local interests may prevent territorially defined issues from entering the public agenda on local government. In this sense, local interests and concerns are not distributed homogeneously throughout the different local entities (depopulation, aging, among others). The relevance of territorially defined issues makes regional associations and regional intergovernmental coordination platforms more suitable settings for addressing the demands of local governments. Thirdly, the FEMP does not eliminate the competences of their members, nor of the regional associations. In this scenario, the FEMP has signed up agreements with regional associations of local entities that do not respond to a single model. Therefore, the role of the FEMP as the sole interpreter of the local interest cannot be taken for granted.
From the interviews with representatives of the regional associations of municipalities, it is revealed that the FEMP’s capacity to coordinate local interests is based on its role as the main interlocutor with the central government. The FEMP’s involvement with the central government is channeled through various means such as the formal recognition of FEMP´s representatives in consultative bodies of the central government, or the agreements with different bodies of the central government that also serve for the allocation of funds. The FEMP also operates as a platform for organizing local interests at the international arena and, mainly, at the European level. However, in some cases, the greater size and experience of the regional associations in managing international programs gives them a greater capacity to defend their interests independently at the international level.
The rural and urban dimension of local entities yields to the leading role of the territorial dimension in the definition of local interests. In other words, the coordination of local interests seems to follow territorial patterns related to the particular institutional aspects at play in each of the regions. For example, the fact that in some regions there are provinces affects the management of the funds available to local entities. Additionally, many of the policy initiatives with an impact at the local level (e.g. depopulation, circular economy or digitization) are part of plans and programs at the regional level which fosters the capacity of regional government in the integration of local interests.
Thus, a certain specialization of the tasks of the FEMP and the regional associations of municipalities can be observed. The latter build an agenda that is mainly regional in nature due to the main functions they perform. In this sense, the regional associations concentrate their influence capacity on participating in the legislative process at the regional level by informing legislative proposals in order to protect local autonomy. One consequence of this role is that the agenda of the regional associations of municipalities is largely determined by the government program of the regional government.
This scenario generates a positive assessment of the FEMP in terms of counterbalancing the relevance of the regional level and proving a common ground for local entities representation at the national and international levels.
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