Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) – An interview with Antonella Valmorbida, SecGen of the European Association for Local Democracy (ALDA)
The succeeding crises we have to deal with worldwide as societies- the pandemia, food, and energy crisis to name only these – bring back to the foreground discussions on democratic governance and how resilient traditional democracies are in comparison to other models of governance.
The European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), a foundation dedicated to supporting democracy, brings together a network of 19 organizations specializing in the different parts of a democratic system. On the occasion of their 2022 yearly conference we interviewed Antonella Valmorbida, Secretary General of ALDA, the European Association for Local Democracy, which is one of the member organizations that works effectively in the field to reinforce the impact of European endeavors in democracy assistance and developed several activities in the Balkans .
You were with ALDA from the start in 1999 showing thus a remarkable continuity in what you have been doing during your whole professional career and, may we say, a clear indication of passionate dedication to local democracy?
I think it really is a belief that local democracy is a place where democracy is lived and practiced first hand. Everything I did is around this. Local governments and empowerment of local governments. I have always had an interest in international affairs, in understanding how we can improve some clear problems in democracy and I thought, realized, saw that very concretely things can be changed at the local level. Throughout my career and through the different networks I belong to I met so many brilliant people and I saw so many communities benefiting from brilliant local government leaders that this made my personal commitment ever growing. I have my energy by working with communities. So when I realized this is the place where I can reload my batteries it has been with me all the time.
ALDA started up in 1999 in very specific circumstances. What does it stand for?
ALDA is my story but it is also a collective story. It is an organization which promotes local governance and citizens participation. We work with local governments and civil societal organizations and we were generated in a program of the Council of Europe (CoE), more in particular the Congress of local and regional authorities. We started working after the war in the Balkans creating links between European communities and Balkan communities and after a while we were likewise accompanying the CoE in other parts of Europe. We started working in Eastern Europe and also now in the Mediterranean area but of course we consolidated our presence with members and actions also in the EU. So now it is a very big story. We have 250 members. Several of them are currently in the news every day, like the city of Mariupol in Ukraine. We are close to these mayors which are resisting in Ukraine. ALDA is a successful story because there is a need for local democracy.
What makes you particular in comparison to other NGOs in the field?
We have a dual membership which is quite unique. There is a world of local government associations and there is another world of civil society associations and we match them. Within our governance we have our own mission. Our governing board is composed of half of civil society organizations and half of local government representatives.
Where was this formula particularly successful in bridging concerns?
I have plenty of stories and anecdotes but I would like to quote our work in the Balkans where we have brought together the local democracy agencies. These are part of the permanent work we do in crucial parts of the Balkans where this reconnection between local authorities and civil society made changes like the one in the city of Mostar possible where our office also created a reunion of the 2 parts of the cities. We also launched great initiatives in Gdansk, Poland with its mayor, the late Pawel Adamovich, supporting the concept of citizen engagement. This dialogue between civil society and local government produced a substantial change in Gdansk that helped to overcome the big economic and social problems they had. These are only 2 examples out of the many such experiences we got.
EU enlargement with Balkan countries seems to be back on the table as a positive side effect of the war in Ukraine. How was your organization received over there?
In the Balkans, we were not received. They are an organic part of us. It is not that we, as Europeans, proposed and they followed. They are part of our membership.
Of course the EU lost many momentums to consolidate peace and to consolidate change in the Balkans. ALDA has been present in the Balkans with its members since the end of the war. We are speaking of 1994, 1995, 1996. We then accompanied local democracy agencies which used to be a program of the CoE and in a follow up we created ALDA. Through the whole reconciliation process, the post war situation and then also with the EU summit of Thessaloniki in 2003 where Romano Prodi opened the accession process, we have been accompanying these communities towards the accession process but of course the situation there is very critical because the EU lost many momentums where it should have done political steps. This is not someone’s fault only. It is probably an error in the design of the process. In ALDA we have the political stance that the Balkan should be part of the EU. For them and for us because if this remains an empty space which is in the middle of Europe it is going to be occupied by other people, other ideologies, other economic sectors as it is happening today. The Balkan is not entirely lost for Europe. I think we should pay particular attention to give voice to and to reconnect with those communities which can still be connected to the EU and the EU project. So ALDA is trying to remain there and to invest more. We, with ALDA, have approved a revised strategy with more presence in the Balkans looking for more members, investing in community engagement, enhanced relationships with the EU through different projects and activities.
Money is essential to realize political ambitions. Do these municipalities receive enough funds? Do they have enough fiscal autonomy to make the work done and to be up to expectations?
One of the mantras of our work is that when you want to have good working local governments delivering services and strategies to communities and accountable to citizens you need fiscal decentralization. If local governments don’t have the resources to implement local policies this is a fake local government. If you have a very small budget or if all your money comes from the state you don’t have the opportunity to implement your own local strategy, including on fiscal matters, you cannot have local answers and local accountability.
ALDA and other organizations created alliances of local authorities & communities that encounter difficulties in the work that they do and in realizing what they want to deliver. So ALDA is also liaising with all of those who feel ALDA is a community where they can obtain help, exchange, and work with like-minded people.
We hear a lot these days of competing for societal models and views on the rule of law?
I am not sure it is moving in the right direction. In the Balkans there is a competition of models going on. We are there to propose the EU model with some of them supporting us and being organically part of ALDA but of course there are the others. It is the Russian model, the Turkish model, very much present and also very attractive. Bridges to these are the language, the Slavic affiliation, a sort of family attraction to Russia while there are also this kind of religious bridges with Turkeyand the Muslim world, but I think the Balkans are living a sort of emptiness which they feel to fill with this. They are though not naturally bound with these other models or systems. This emptiness and the slowness of our response and our bureaucratic approach to the enlargement has brought the elites to finding them at ease with the other models.
Is this significant for the Crisis of representative democracy we are in?
I think Europe should offer more than the current bureaucratic approach to democracy. It is true that these chapters of the acquis that form the basis of the accession negotiations, the so-called Copenhagen criteria from 1993 whereby you open and close a chapter etc is also a ‘garde fou’, a safe guard for those who will be joining. Because of course, if they join, they should be able to come into a model which will not destroy the system of the EU. But on the other hand we have been too bureaucratic in this. To reset the rule they would have understood. But this lack of political messages of encouragement and statements that punished them more than it encouraged left the place to the elites which were very happy to be left out of this process for another 4 years when Juncker came and said to the Balkans that with him there would be no enlargement. All the elites in the Balkans said a big Oef: for 4 years we are going to be on the safe side. We’re going to go slowly. We have another 4 or 5 years with no issues. This message was a disaster for all of those communities and parties supporting the EU accession in these countries.