Regionalisation ‘back on agenda’: considered ‘fundamental’ for Portugal’s future

Regionalisation – a topic that has been bandied about for decades – has suddenly come out of mothballs as Portugal approaches legislative elections: PM António Costa says it’s time for the people to have their voice… in 2024 – and ANMP, the national association of Portuguese municipalities, says the process is “fundamental for the balanced development of the country”.

ANMP held its XXV Congress in Aveiro this weekend. Mr Costa was one of the speakers.

He told delegates last night: “I think that at the end of 2023 we will have all the good conditions to evaluate the way ahead in terms of the decentralisation of competences for parish councils, municipal councils and metropolitan areas”.

“And, depending on the evaluation, we will then be able to decide whether or not the time has come to give the Portuguese people their say over whether or not we should advance to regionalisation.”

In a speech that lasted more than 20 minutes, the PM referred to the contribution of the various municipal councils without which it would have been “absolutely impossible” for the country to have responded as it has, and as it is, to the challenges of the pandemic.

“It was local democratic power that made the link of proximity … as well as being decisive in supporting so many companies in all sectors, from culture to catering and tourism… It was the municipalities that so often complemented the effort that the State has made” to support sectors of economic activity, he said. And for this, the Portuguese people are “profoundly thankful” to the mayors of this country.

Today, ANMP has issued a final statement coming out of the two day congress in which it makes clear there are many obstacles still ahead.

Decentralisation is a little more than three months from “definitive implementation” and there are all kinds of problems hanging. 

The association of PSD municipalities, for example, says there are town councils that will simply be “without capacity” to receive the various ‘decentralisation competencies’ by March 31 next year. These competencies include health, education, public transports,  ports, etc. The PSD municipalities want the whole process delayed until the end of next year…

The wider statement however refers to the “excessive centralisation of the State”, that has led to a “reduction in the quality of public services given and insufficiency of implemented policies”.

These ‘old chestnuts’ have been argued over for more years than anyone can remember – but now with funds coming from Brussels, councils everywhere are keen to see money going where it is really needed.

The ANMP statement refers to “several fragilities” in the government’s PRR (Plan for Recovery and Resilience) – namely the “lack of transparency in that part of the funds are already committed without the contours of the projects and entities being supported having been previously known.”

Indeed, the PRR reflects “a centralist and centralising vision, having removed municipalities from its management and intervention priorities” and “does not promise, as it should, territorial cohesion”.

The statement calls for a reorientation of the plan “to allow a more decentralised management that privileges local investments and favours transparency.”

The representatives of Portugal’s 308 municipalities also defend the “need for a new Law of Local Finances, the reinforcement of community funding for municipal projects and the dignification of conditions for local elected representatives to exercise their mandates”.

In other words, Mr Costa’s pledge for a referendum in 2024 may have sounded good as the country approaches an election campaign, but municipalities want a great deal more.

NB: Regionalisation is the long-held desire for the country to be divided into autonomous, or at least semi-autonomous regions that have freedom to decide their own policies.

Decentralisation is the process by which the government gives certain ‘competencies’ – defined by the State – to municipalities, irrespective of whether the municipalities want these competences or agree with the way they are expected to handle them.

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