There has been a progress in the European relations of Turkish local authorities over the past decade. From a historical perspective, this could also be described as a new development in Turkey. Local authorities were always expected to focus solely on “local” matters, while international relations were commonly expected to be run by governments. However, for the past twenty years there seems to be a contradicting global trend.
There are various reasons for the development of the international relations of the “local governments.” Since the early 1970s, cross-border economic, political and social relations between countries have escalated at a great pace. Thus, the new world order requires a greater emphasis on local and regional authorities. Local authorities are informed of the needs and demands of residents better than government departments. In many parts of the world today, local authorities have become more and more competitive both in the formation and implementation of policies. Anyone sceptical about this claim should be directed to the role of the Committee of Regions in the European Union (EU).
The recent changes in the Turkish local administration system can mainly be attributed to the EU accession process. The membership conditions of the EU require advances in local democracy, administrative implementation capacity and regional development activities at the local level. Justice and Development Party (AKP) government carried out a reform programme called the “Public Administration Reform” in 2005, in order to respond the EU demands. However, as the political decentralization was vetoed by then-President Sezer, who read in that process a threat to the unitary state structure, the legislated reform barely included administrative changes. These changes were intended to democratize and rationalize local authorities by making them more participatory, accountable, transparent, effective and coherent. The EU Commission still criticizes the current government for the lack of implementation of these principles on local authorities.
Nonetheless, the new municipality and special provincial administration laws of the reform also permitted local authorities to conduct certain international relation initiatives, such as sister city agreements, project partnerships and membership to international organisations. Along with these legal changes, the real push came from the EU accession financial assistance – the funding project from the EU. New financial resources for local authorities led to the rapid formation of EU project offices or EU Affairs Units. Between 2002 and 2010, some 314 Turkish municipalities received 93.5 million euros from EU funds. In comparison with the total financial assistance provided to Turkey, the figure remains fairly low. Fortunately however, this wave for project funding also created another effect. Many of the municipalities started to engage in international and European affairs in the form of project partnerships, sister city agreements or through membership of international organisations. Thus, many of the new legal changes affecting their functioning and policies originated from the EU accession/convergence process.
Interestingly, AKP government failed to raise the awareness of local authority decision-makers as to the real potential of international and European relations. As a result, the related departments of the local authorities are restricted to small administrative units. The actual potential has been missed.
But there are still various opportunities for local authorities and their residents to benefit from international and European relations. Firstly, local authorities can learn from their counterparts about the different governance practices of various countries. These vary from participation mechanisms to enhancing administrative capacity. This would advance local democracy, as well as the effectiveness and efficiency of policy delivery. Secondly, knowledge and experience of foreign local authorities provides important lessons and thus the local government can try to avoid making similar mistakes. Moreover, the local authorities can contribute to social and cultural exchanges between different societies. The local governments could help destroy the “prejudice” barriers formed in the public by building concrete and positive relationships with other cultures. Last but not least, local authorities may act as coordinators for local stakeholders to attract new investments at a local level and stimulate local development initiatives. In general, the local authorities can become important actors to transform Turkey towards more prosperous and democratic country.
Until now, AKP government has not adopted a comprehensive and coherent policy in order to utilize this potential. On the contrary, for each international and European meeting, the local authorities needed to get the authorization of the Ministry of Internal Affairs as a prerequisite. To be able to conduct such relations, local authorities have to employ highly qualified polyglots, but unfortunately, the policy of the local authorities concerning personnel does not accommodate such requirements. The result is that the institutional capacity is undermined for long-term relations and projects. It is clear that the local decision-makers and politicians should understand the need for awareness-raising on this potential if they really want to serve the public interest to the optimal level.
Ten years, in political terms, is quite a long time to realize the short-falls of the government and to correct them. But this can only be accomplished if the government sincerely advocates for a genuine democratic, effective and efficient local political system.