Topic:Local Government - Cities and Municipalities
New Reforms Tackle Old Challenges in
Germany Creating New Challenges
MART I N B U R G I
In Germany, government at the local level consists of counties and municipalities.
Their right to self-government is recognized in principle in Article
28 (2) of the Constitution, the so-called Basic Law (BL). Similar provisions
are contained in the constitutions of Germany’s constituent units, the sixteen
Länder. Although mayors and county administrators are democratically
elected, along with their respective councils, genuine legislative powers are
vested solely in the parliaments of the federation and Länder.
Local authorities, in contrast, are considered to be executive. Their organizational
structure is laid out in statutes enacted by the Länder parliaments
and in most of their activities, local governments are highly regulated
by federal or Länder legislation. It is worth mentioning that local
authorities possess a hybrid character; that is, they not only serve as selfgoverning
units but, depending on the issue at hand, as the lowest order
of the Länder administration. In this latter capacity, local authorities may
be subject to detailed orders from Länder authorities. The sheer volume of
federal and Länder statutes, many of which derive from European Union
legislation, considerably limits local authorities and their right to selfgovernment.
Nevertheless, as a constitutionally enshrined and broadly
22 Martin Burgi
accepted principle, Article 28 (2) BL gives local governments a comparatively
strong legal and political standing.
In principle, local authorities have the right to govern themselves with
regard to all issues of importance to the local community. They may also
choose among various forms of cooperation to jointly perform services
and administrative tasks. To some extent, local governments also have
responsibility for their own finances and the constitutionally entrenched
right to their own source of tax revenues, the commercial and property
taxes. Apart from this, they lack the right to introduce new taxes or to raise
taxes by themselves. In fact, they are completely financially dependent on
decisions taken at the federal level, which has jurisdiction over taxes and
how they are shared.
However, the federal government tends to raise only those taxes that
provide additional income for itself. Meanwhile, the commercial tax, which
serves as local governments’ main source of income, has withered due to
Germany’s weak economy. At the same time, local governments have been
forced to assume increasing responsibility for administrative tasks. As these
administrative duties have grown, local government resources have become
strained, leaving fewer assets for self-government. Not surprisingly, finance
is one of the top issues for local governments
today and they have repeatedly called for improvements
to their financial situation.
The recent reform of the German federal
system, the Föderalismusreform I which came into
force in the autumn of 2006, may now bring
some relief. Previously, the federal government
was allowed, with the consent of the Länder, to
delegate specific tasks directly to local governments
without being obliged to finance or reimburse
them. Länder governments often consented
to this practice since it increased their political influence over federal
legislation. Local government finances suffered as a result. The amended
constitution clearly states that this practice is no longer legitimate. Now, only
Länder governments may delegate administrative tasks to local authorities.
Länder constitutions stipulate that financial reimbursement of some kind
must be made to local governments if tasks are delegated.
In their political organization, local governments, in general, are less
influenced by major party politics. The fierce political battles usually fought
along party lines at the federal or Länder level do not take place to the
same extent in local governments. At the local level, politics tend to be less
ideologically-charged and more issue-related, driven by a desire to reach
adequate and pragmatic solutions for local issues. In local elections there
are numerous independent candidates, as well as voter associations that
support specific local agendas which are irrelevant at the federal or Länder
Finance is one of
the top issues for
today and they
called for improvements
level. In some cases, elected mayors and county administrators have no
political party or belong to a party that does not hold a majority in the
municipal or county council.
In eastern Germany’s “New Länder,” the constitutional status of counties
and municipalities is identical to that of western Germany. Yet eastern
Germans tend to be less politicized, resulting in far lower voter turnouts at
local elections than in the west. Many well-established western German
political parties have had great difficulties establishing themselves in the
Metropolitan regions have no single, specific legal status or makeup.
Three cities, Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen, have historically been recognized
as Länder states, and therefore debates over special legal status in
view of their exceptional size and socio-economic importance do not arise.
However, in other smaller but still significant metropolitan regions, like
the greater metropolitan areas of Hanover or Munich, or conurbations of
several major cities like the Ruhr, administrative powers vary significantly
and there is sometimes unclear legal status.
At the heart of the German debate is the issue of cooperative governance.
What internal makeup would suit these regions best in view of their democratic
legitimacy and their role as the level of government closest to the
people? Should these metropolitan regions, for instance, be governed
jointly by the cities involved and their representatives or should they form
a new and separate level of administration with their own directly elected
councils? In apparent contrast to the United States, there is no noticeable
debate over whether certain metropolitan regions should have recognized
legal or political standing in relation to the German federation.
Local governments are also seeking to play a bigger part in federal
legislation. As they play a major role in implementing federal legislation
and possess significant experience and expertise, they want an official role
in the law-making process and a voice in impact assessment. There is still
debate over whether such an extended right of participation is viable within
the constitutional framework of the current two-order parliamentary
system of the Bundestag, representing the entire German electorate, and
the Bundesrat, which represents Länder executives.