The territorial policy of the coronavirus: is it time for the central government? : Democratic Audit

In times of crisis, central governments have often increased their power. Comparing the territorial arrangements of countries facing the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Davide Vampa argues that centralizing power would be misguided and that we should instead look to examples of successful coordination within multi-level forms of governance.

Picture: Community of Madrid/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Licence

The recent Covid-19 epidemic is likely to change many dimensions of contemporary politics. One in particular will be strongly affected: the distribution of powers between national and subnational governments. It may be too early for a full assessment of how different political systems have responded to the challenges posed by the new virus. A debate seems to have already started on the effectiveness of authoritarian regimes compared to democratic regimes in dealing with the crisis. Some might point to the potential ability of the former to enforce stricter containment measures, while others might stress the greater transparency and willingness of the latter to share data and information. Ultimately, the crisis forces us to stand between two principles that until recently were widely seen as mutually reinforcing: the right to life and individual liberty. The virus is creating a new tension between the two: to protect life, we must severely restrict our individual freedom. It is only now that we begin to grasp the enormous implications that all of this has for the future of liberal democracies.

There is another political question which may seem trivial at first glance but, in fact, is directly linked to the current management of the crisis and can also have important long-term consequences for the lives of millions of people: to locate political authority? We tend to focus on the “who” and “what” of power, that is, on leaders and their actions and decisions. On the other hand, the “where” – that is to say the territorial dimension of the policy – often remains in the background. This time it might be different.

The Covid-19 crisis is clearly global, with all the countries affected by it. Yet, so far, we do not see the emergence of a comprehensive response to this problem. Supranational organizations, such as the UN and the EU, do not appear to have the capacity and flexibility to deal with the immediate, day-to-day dimension of the emergency. Perhaps in the more distant future, when post-virus reconstruction begins, they will take a more active role. At the moment, they are powerless. In a situation of general panic, national governments seem to lack the will and patience to use supranational institutions as arenas for political coordination.

However, when we speak of “territory” we should not only consider how the national and supranational dimensions relate to each other. We should also look at the other side of a multilevel governance system: the relationship between the national and subnational levels. We can observe many variations from country to country in the way authority is distributed between the “center” and the “periphery”. This variation is significant even among advanced democracies and could in turn explain some of the differences we see in the way they cope with the crisis.

It is therefore not surprising that observers have started to weigh the positives and negatives of federalism and decentralization in the current situation. So far, there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on whether we need a stronger central government or more active subnational institutions. Much evidence has been used against decentralization. Look at the cases of Italy and Spain, where decentralized systems are believed to have caused confusion in the crucial early stages of the pandemic, when greater territorial coordination could have helped slow the spread of contagion. Closing schools, testing, preparing hospitals have not always followed a national strategy. Initially, it was not clear which institutional level was responsible for what. In Italy, for example, the first days of the crisis were marred by long conflicts between the central government and the regions. For example, national authorities and representatives of some regional administrations have been engaged in a heated debate over whether schools should be closed.. Lombardy has been accused by the national government of mismanaging the hospital where the first cases of infection were detected, while the region responded that it was only following procedures decided by Rome. Etc. The coronavirus has even undermined the general understanding that decentralization, while damaging poor communities, benefits rich regions. We have all seen Lombardy and Catalonia, two European “power plants”, which prided themselves on their efficiency and their first-class health systems, collapsed in a few days.

Supporters of a stronger central government might also cite the example of the United States, where each state follows a different strategy and where federal institutions, also divided internally, have hesitated to take the lead. This very loose network of relationships is reminiscent of an ineffective face mask: the holes between different government actors are so wide that there is plenty of room for the virus to spread. The recent dramatic figures clearly confirm this. the The British system has also struggled to strike a balance between the high level of centralization in England and the different levels of autonomy granted to devolved administrations.. For example, there have been issues with the geographic distribution of testing and territorial differences in how the containment has been put in place. In addition, the stand-alone health strategies pursued by Scotland and Wales, which are consistent with their delegated powers, raise the question of where the boundaries lie in the national health system. What does “national” mean in this time of emergency? Is this still a UK-wide system? What implications does this have for the concept of social citizenship?

Generally, in times of crisis, when an external shock threatens the very foundations of the economy and society, and a full mobilization of domestic resources is required, the role of the state may be rediscovered, with that last even after the crisis is over. Famous examples include Roosevelt’s New Deal, which greatly expanded the power of the federal government (and the US President) in the 1930s and subsequent decades, and the post-World War II situation in Europe, when governments presided over the reconstruction of economies. A strong state needs a strong central government, which is what evidence from the 20th century seems to suggest.

Is this the path we will have to follow then? Will centralization be the new recipe for salvation in these uncertain times? It is difficult to provide a direct answer to these questions. Admittedly, Italy, Spain and the United States are examples of the inefficiencies of decentralization and its dramatic effects on the well-being of citizens. Yet we have another example of a federal system, Germany, which seems to provide evidence to support very different conclusions. A “polycentric” system of government could allow a more diffuse use of resources. So, for example, testing can be more extensive and, at the same time, more intensive, since the existence of subnational authorities ensures that all relevant procedures are closely monitored.

Decentralization also encourages policy “experimentation”. Central governments could be more consistent and quicker in implementing their action plans, but what if they choose the wrong strategy in the first place? After all, national governments make mistakes too, especially when the nature of the challenge is not fully understood. Giving the regions a certain autonomy allows them to play the role of laboratories, which increases the chances of finding more effective solutions. For example, it is true that some Italian regions – Lombardy in particular – had difficulty coping with the emergency. At the same time, however, the second largest region in northern Italy, Veneto, has launched a strategy of mass testing, which is now seen as a model to be exported to other regions (and even countries). Of course, such policy innovations are likely to remain confined to limited geographic areas, unless there is an overarching political ‘diffusion’ mechanism, which brings regions closer together and allows them to learn from each other.

It is also useful to separate the concept of a strong state from that of a powerful central government. A strong public sector is not necessarily incompatible with a certain level of decentralization. Even generous social protection systems, like those in Scandinavia, have a tradition of active local authorities. What characterizes them is a high degree of integration and coordination between different levels of government. This combination of decentralization and coordination is even more evident in the German system. To attribute the success of the German model to federalism alone is not entirely correct. Germany represents a special type of highly coordinated federalism, in which the states (the Länder) are engaged in mutual learning and consensus building with the federal government. In the post-Covid-19 era, this is what many countries may need. Transferring all power to central institutions would be a simplistic solution, probably a mistake in much more complex and plural societies today than in the 1940s and 1950s. What we need is to promote some form of empowerment of local and regional authorities which is inspired by the principles of “cooperative” federalism and gets rid of its more “competitive” aspects.

This article represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.


About the Author

Davide Vampa is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Aston University, Birmingham, UK.


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