Elisabeth Alber, Eurac Research
Emilia-Romagna is an interesting case study as the model of inter-municipal cooperation in this region has been characterized by a participatory and proactive (in part ‘dirigist’) approach, with high programming and social capacity in terms of administration and civil society initiatives that address challenges linked with the urban-rural divide in local government in an effective way. Such an approach ensured the Region of Emilia-Romagna a high success rate when it comes to the implementation of structural reforms in the field of local government. Emilia-Romagna is the region that first developed regional legislation in this matter and does so also today by giving policy preference to associative forms with own bodies (unions of municipalities). This is to favor political views on associative forms that go beyond the joint management of a single task or few tasks.
As of 2018, there were 43 unions of municipalities including a total of 280 municipalities, equal to 84 per cent of the municipalities in Emilia-Romagna. Altogether, they have a population of over 2.5 million inhabitants, equal to 58 per cent of the regional population. If we exclude the population living in the provincial capitals, this value rises to 80 per cent, highlighting a particularly important role in the management of functions and services for families and businesses, also in rural areas. 39 out of 43 unions of municipalities have applied for access to contributions in the regional ‘Territorial Reorganization Program 2018-2020’ (Programma di riordino territoriale).
The regional legislator in Emilia-Romagna establishes inter-municipal cooperation as a priority in the regional funding policies and even provides for technical and administrative support to the newly created entity. The first regional law in this field dates back to 1996 (Regional Law no 24/1996 Norme in materia di riordino territoriale e di sostegno alle Unioni e alle fusioni di comuni [Norms in the field of territorial reorganization and of support to Unions and Mergers of Municipalities]). In the mentioned law, the regional council was to adopt a program to the change of municipal districts and unions of municipalities, foreseeing financial incentives, while Regional Law no 3/1999 established associations of municipalities that, unlike unions of municipalities, were not specifically referred to in the regional programs regarding territorial reorganization and socio-economic development.
What is interesting from a viewpoint of regional political culture is Article 2 of Regional Law no 3/1999. It regulates the relations between the region and the local entities and refers, among others, to the principles of subsidiarity and loyal cooperation (two years before the Constitutional Reform 2001 ‘crystallized’ these same principles!). Regional Law no 10/2008 provided that all mountain communities should be transformed into unions of municipalities. The law also established the ‘principle of non-overlapping associative forms of cooperation’: Accordingly, municipalities cannot join for the associated management of the same functions more than one cooperative form, except for consortia that were obligatory. Also noteworthy are the regional laws no 21/2012 and no 13/2015. They make ample reference to the incentives constituted by the extraordinary contributions directed to territorial strategic planning instruments.
The proactive approach led to the establishment of unions of municipalities all over the territory of the region, thus also specifically addressing the challenges linked to depopulation in rural areas. A comparison with other regions confirms that Emilia Romagna is the region where the diffusion of unions of municipalities has been strongest in Italy, with a differentiated picture when it comes to the functions vested with the unions of municipalities. This comes with advantages and disadvantages: the advantage is that the unions of municipalities have a great say when deciding in which areas to cooperate; the disadvantage is that the scope and size of unions of municipalities vary significantly across the region and coordination is rather difficult. To facilitate coordination and relations with the region, the Regional Observatory of Unions was established (Article 9 of Regional Law no 15/2016): It aims to monitor the effects arising from the joint exercise of functions and service provision in the unions of municipalities. This to, firstly, better assess the concrete impact that associative municipal governance has on citizens, public bodies and businesses, and, secondly, to better support the unions of municipalities in taking advantage of the financial incentives offered in the different regional programs.
Emilia Romagna’s regional policy of encouraging virtuous behavior of the municipalities has been decisive in terms of the effectiveness of multiplication of forms of associative municipal management. The 2018-2020 territorial reorganization program confirms this. In relation to the creation of unions of municipalities, it provides financial and other incentives such as support with legal issues regarding the inconsistencies that exist between national and regional legislation. What stands out in terms of support in the case of Emilia Romagna is a monitoring system concerning the effectiveness of associative management which distinguishes between mature and developing unions and unions that have only just been set up. Taking into account a number of indicators such as staff shared among municipalities involved, strategic functions and services, etc., unification of territorial planning, the region may assess the quite different needs of these unions and provide tailor-made incentives and support with the aim of transforming developing unions into mature ones.
There is broad agreement in academia that in Emilia-Romagna an interventionist approach co-exists well with valuing participation of local entities in deciding on how inter-municipal forms of cooperation should play out in practice. There is, however, also some deficiency to point to. The regional law, following the national law, could not regulate that the bodies of the union of municipalities should be directly elected by the citizens of the municipalities which are part of the union. The regional legislator did not look for any element balancing this shortcoming, leaving a wide margin of discretion to the by-laws elaborated by the unions of municipalities themselves. They, for their part, did not provide for particular forms of citizen participation. This, thus, prevents the establishment of a mechanism of political accountability of the bodies of the union of municipalities to the citizens that they represent. The fact that the citizen can relate politically to his/her own municipality, but not to the union makes it extremely difficult to hold the union of municipalities accountable for mismanagement and it thus not yet sufficiently favor the creation of an inter-municipal public sphere.
With regard to unions of municipalities in other Italian regions several critical factors for success or failure have been identified. One of them is the composition of these unions which is often seen as too ‘variable’ with municipalities entering and leaving or some of them joining to cooperate on a number of functions and others on only one. Another detrimental factor has arguably been, for example in the case of Tuscany, a problem of implementation. Whereas local governments with less than 5,000 inhabitants would be under an obligation since 2014 to manage services in an associative form, this has been continuously deferred. The current deadline for these municipalities is December 2021 and it is not unlikely that practical realization will be postponed once more.
Baldini G, Bolgherini S, Dakkara C and Mosca L, Unioni di Comuni. Le sfide dell’intercomunalità in Emilia-Romagna (Istituto Cattaneo 2009)
Casula M, ‘Come le Regioni possono guidare il processo di riordino territoriale. Il caso della Emilia-Romagna’ (2015) 5-6 Le Regioni 1177
Petrilli E, ‘Il nuovo ordine delle Unioni di Comuni in Emilia-Romagna’ (2017) 3 Osservatorio Regionale 865
Region of Emilia-Romagna, ‘Le unioni di comuni in Emilia-Romagna’ (2018) —— ‘Unioni di Comuni’ (Regione Emilia-Romagna, undated) <https://autonomie.regione.emilia-romagna.it/unioni-di-comuni>
 Interview with Associate Professor, Department of Legal Studies, University of Bologna (14 May 2021).
 Interview with Sabrina Iommi, Researcher, IRPET Tuscany (11 June 2021).