Book Review: Navigando a Vista

Silvia Bolgherini, Navigando a vista: Governi locali in Europa tra crisi e riforme (Bologna: il Mulino, 2015). 225 pp., €20,00 (paperback), ISBN: 9788815258267.

Navigando a vista: governi locali in Europa tra crisi e riforme by Silvia Bolgherini is a compelling book that provides an analysis on a topic still developing: the evolution of local government restructuring in three countries. In photographic terms, in this book the author applies the technique of “panning” that is particularly useful in capturing any fast-moving subject. The basic idea behind panning is that you pan your camera along in time with the moving subject and end up getting a relatively sharp subject but a blurred background. This gives the shot a feeling of movement and speed.
Despite in the book a comparison is accomplished, the study of “new local government,” the “new local politics” would have been worthwhile even if focused only on the Italian case. It represents a crucial case for the important reforms experienced and the central role played by local governments. In addition, the wave of decentralization and strengthening of local authorities has affected, in turn, all the general administrative structures. If this set of reforms have succeeded in pushing changes, albeit unevenly, among local governments, it is because the reorganization of the relationship between politics and administration began previously. The process started with a reform of local self-government (Law No. 142/1990), which included a number of ground-breaking provisions aimed at improving the efficiency of the comuni (municipalities) and province (provinces). Law No. 81/1993 was politically a very significant step toward raising awareness of local self-government, with the introduction of direct elections for mayors and president. The law was followed by a new reform of the budget structure (legislative decree no. 77/1995). The political and administrative reforms culminated in the changes in Title V of the Italian Constitution, made in 2001 (Constitutional Law 3/2001) and the law on fiscal federalism (no. 42/2009), “the last great policy clearly connected with the decentralizing and federalist trend” (p. 128).
But the Bolgherini book is not bound to the Italian case but carries out a comparison between the three great democracies, Italy, Spain, and Germany, that, in some respects, seem similar—all have three levels of government; a considerable share of small and very small municipalities; an intermediate provincial level with a long and consolidated historical traditions; the recent spread of unions of municipalities; recent reform of local authorities—and, in other respects, seem different from each other. First, regarding the institutional framework: “Germany represents a case of cooperative federalism model par excellence, Spain introduced with the constitution of 1978 the so-called state of autonomies and as a result of this is not a fully-fledged federal system, but a strongly regionalized state, Italy with the constitutional reform of 2001 has definitively confirmed its regionalized structure” (p. 58). Second, according to the distribution of competences, unlike in Italy and Spain where the local government is a matter under state legislative powers and only partially it may delegate them to the regions, in Germany the individual Landers are vested with this competence.
Furthermore, the three countries underwent reforms recently approved (as in the Italian and Spanish case) or are still under discussion (as in German case) and thus any assessment on the ongoing transformation of local authorities is hard: it is “currently still all in evolving and there are not few blurring areas” (p. 170).
The book is organized into six chapters. The first chapter examines the successful decentralization model in the decades from the 1970s to 2000, when it seems that decentralization was more likely to show up shortcomings. The economic crisis that began in the second half of the 2000s highlights, in fact, the weaknesses of this pattern and increases the role of some challenges to decentralization and local authorities: the challenge of the overload—the progressive increase of the demands and the expectations toward local governments from the citizens and the political system in general; the challenge of the budget—management of resources gradually declining in the face of growing demands; the challenge of optimal-sized local government—the search for a balance between competence and services management and the size, as well as the degree of democracy (p. 40 et seq.)
The second chapter analyzes the organization and the characteristics of local government in the three countries, from municipalities and the sharp problem of municipal fragmentation (“one of the problems to be solved in order to meet the challenges of the overload, of the budget and of the optimum size,” p. 67) and the so-called meso-level institutions, namely the provinces (“intermediate bodies of government are vested with the major changes and play a leading role in the political-institutional debate of the latter years”, p. 53). Finally, the third chapter discusses the emerging inter-municipal associations, Unione dei Comuni, which “despite having a more recent development, have come to play an increasingly important role, whereas provinces have lost most of the original powers in all three countries” (p. 104).
The fourth chapter introduces the concept of institutional sustainability: “An institution should be deemed sustainable if it has the strength to survive and develop to fulfill its functions on a permanent basis with decreasing levels of external support,” Norad in 2000, cit. p. 110. Starting from main dimensions of analysis (self-reproducibility, fulfillment, self-sufficiency and political legitimacy) it tries to assess “the well-being” of local governments, particularly municipalities, provinces, inter-municipal associations (and metropolitan cities?), in the three countries studied before (and after) the reforms.
In the fifth chapter, the most recent reforms are considered and analyzed according to the concept of “institutional sustainability”: “throughout the analysis the level of institutional sustainability –despite enjoying moderate levels so far –as a consequence of recent reforms drops out in the Italian case mainly in relation with small municipalities and provinces whereas inter-municipal associations increase their sustainability. In Spain and Germany, in contrast, the reduction in the sustainability concerns only the small municipalities and the same has not occurred in the provinces and the inter-municipal associations” (pp. 173–174).
In the first part of the sixth chapter, the goals of the reforms are considered, mainly to assess their impact on the institutional sustainability and in relation to the three challenges of local governments. The second part (which I would have turned into a new section of the conclusion) includes “a sum up of assumptions elaborated and states some conclusions on the comparison of local governments in the three countries and more generally, on the prospects of local governments in Europe” (p. 167).
The main argument is that the “financial and economic storm” was a “turning point”, a “critical juncture,” which affected negatively some consolidated dynamics. It showed the weaknesses of the decentralization model and by increasing the impact of existing challenges paved the way for the reforms. Rightfully, the crisis has posted new challenges for local governments. Instead, one may wonder if the crisis has enhanced the reforms. Bolgherini underlines that the reforms are like a pendulum oscillating between the center-periphery model that currently resulted in moving toward a centralizing trend, and toward a real re-centralization. The economic and financial shocks and the consequent fiscal austerity as commitments by European and international institutions has decreased the centrality of territorial dimension, and reduced the room for maneuver of local and regional authorities. The internal stability agreement and large cuts in financial resources clearly resulted in a shift of paradigm from territorial autonomy toward other aims.
As suggested by the title (Navigando a vista), this interesting book promotes the view that Italy and Spain (using Dante’s words, “ship(s) without a pilot in great tempest” [Purg. 6. 77]), in which “the local government’s reforms were largely inspired by a process of adaptation to new challenges, aimed at addressing adjustments to the financial situation and in particular to stem, in both cases, the sovereign debt crisis and the country’s possible collapse” (p. 181), are juxtaposed to the German case. In Germany (focusing on Brandenburg Land), “the outcome is to have local authorities close to citizens, more efficient and cost-effective and virtuous. This implies a division of powers between the various levels of government politically well-organized and well-conceived. […] The proposal of reform has clearly this goal, and only incidentally including some financial aspects” (pp. 182–183).
Interestingly, in Germany the crisis might offer a window of opportunity and has been a determining factor for latent or potential changes and thus reforms, whereas in the other two countries, it is “further evidence of the rambling character and limited focus of local government reforms without inspiring by a policy agenda stable over time” (p. 187). In Italy, the future prospect of local government reform is still uncertain, depending on the result of the referendum on 4 December 2016 on constitutional reform proposed by Renzi-Boschi (particularly, the revised Title V of the Constitution and the abolition of provinces).

Maurizio Cerruto, University of Calabria

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