The Dynamics of Local Government Scale: Territorial Reforms in European Countries, 1950-2020

Prof. Pedro Camões
Prof. Antonio Tavares

During the last 70 years, European countries have experienced variation in the number of governments comprising their sub-national governing systems. Many countries engaged in territorial amalgamations to reduce significantly the number of local governments (e.g., Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, and Great Britain). In contrast, the number of local governments remained largely unchanged in other countries (e.g. Portugal, Italy, Spain, and France) or decreased markedly under communist rule (e.g. Czech Republic, Moldova) only to return to previous levels of fragmentation after democratization. What factors account for this variation over time and across countries?

This article adopts the perspective of historical institutionalism to analyse the dynamics of territorial changes over the 1950-2020 period. Rather than focusing on the causes and/or consequences of large-scale reforms, we emphasize primarily the year-to-year variations by treating these dynamics related with decentralization as processes (Falleti 2005). Our argument emphasizes how institutional changes emerge from and are embedded in concrete temporal processes and how critical junctures, policy feedbacks, and path dependency contribute to explain the dynamics of territorial changes (Thelen 1999; Capoccia and Kelemen 2007). We argue for the need to analyse the long-term processes producing these changes rather than simply focusing on isolated settings and short-term determinants of a particular territorial reform in a single country (Skocpol and Pierson, 2002).

We analyze comparative data on the change in the percentage of municipalities by country over the last 70 years and attempt a first empirical test of a set of hypotheses derived from the extant framework.

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