What is a sub-national parliament?
Labeling sub-national parliaments as such and defining their core characteristics are topics that remain a grey zone. To begin with, the term subnational parliament is used interchangeably along with other classifications. For example, the EU refers to subnational parliaments as regional parliaments, whereas the UK employs the term devolved assemblies. While the naming of sub-national parliaments attracts discussions of vocabulary, the real debate around sub-national legislatures fundamentally extends to their purpose and characteristics.
Traditionally, sub-national parliaments were seen as a feature of federal states that was used to accommodate the unification of multiple territorial entities into a nation-state. This was the case in states such as Germany, the US and Canada. Nowadays, however, sub-national parliaments are also present in regionalized states, such as Spain, as well as in unitary ones, like the UK. Moreover, their purpose has also changed. In the past sub-national legislatures were established as a means to facilitate the creation of states. Today, sub-national parliaments are gaining more power vis-à-vis the state in the face of globalization on the one hand in regions like Catalonia and Tokyo, that are starting to dominate national and even the global economy. On the other hand, continent-wide organizations such as the European Union (EU) and global agenda’s like the UN’s Agenda 2030 also provide an opportunity for sub-national parliaments to reinforce their standing to the detriment of the state.
A further point of contention surrounding sub-national parliaments is the extent of their competences, which varies from country to country. For instance, in relation to law-making, in Spain sub-national legislatures have wide powers in sectoral domains such as agriculture, environment, infrastructure and social and health policy. In contrast, in Germany they have control only in relation to some sectors – education, cultural affairs and broadcasting – which is further limited by the sub-national executive. Furthermore, the extent of oversight that sub-national legislatures can exercise over the central government differs greatly. In Belgium, subnational parliaments have a status similar to the federal parliament and can directly scrutinize the federal executive in numerous areas, including the ratification of international treaties. Conversely, when it comes to international treaties, sub-national parliaments in the UK can only officially oversee the central government through the mediation of sub-national governments, which can provide non-binding council to the UK government within the Joint Ministerial Council.
The debates around the naming and competences of sub-national parliament, however contentious, do not preclude us from giving a broad definition to sub-national parliaments. As explained earlier, sub-national parliaments can exist in federal, confederal and regionalized and unitary states. Furthermore, even though the volume of their competences differs, sub-national parliaments have the core functions much alike those of national parliaments – they display varying degrees of oversight and law-making capacities and are representative bodies. Lastly, against the backdrop of globalization, sub-national parliaments play an increasingly prominent role in global governance. Examples of this are given in the following sections that showcase the role of sub-national legislatures in regional organizations such as the EU and global agenda’s like UN’s Agenda 2030.
Subnational parliaments in the European Union (EU)
In the EU, sub-national parliaments have channels through which they can influence not only national but also EU legislation. Perhaps the most famous example attesting to this is the delayed ratification of the Canadian-European Trade Agreement (CETA) by the parliament of Wallonia. This move permitted one of Belgium’s sub-national parliaments to impose some its demands on a EU-wide trade agreement. Nonetheless, there are other more common ways through which sub-national parliaments can influence European affairs.
The following lines give three examples on how sub-national parliaments can impact European legislation – the early warning system, oversight of Council representatives, the lobbying of members of the Members European Parliament (MEPs) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR).
The Early Warning System
The Early Warning System (EWS) is a mechanism which grants a formal opportunity to national and sub-national parliaments of EU member states to affect draft EU legislation. The EWS allows both national and sub-national parliaments to express reservations why local actions should be favored (fully or partially) over legislation at the EU level. Consequently, depending on the number of reservations, the Commission has to reconsider, amend or withdraw its legislative proposal. While it gives precedence to national parliaments, the system also provides for the consultation of sub-national parliaments whose opinions can be considered by national legislatures. The degree to which the opinions of sub-national parliaments are taken into account by the national legislator depends on the practice member states.
For example, in the UK sub-national parliaments such as the National Assembly for Wales can submit their non-binding opinions to the UK’s bicameral parliament on their own initiative and thus, freely voice concern over laws proposed by the Commission. This leaves the UK parliament with the final say – the national legislature can partially or fully incorporate the Welsh Assembly’s opinion into the UK’s national stance or dismiss it. Practice shows that the UK’s bicameral parliament often includes, be it fully or partially, the National Assembly for Wales’ opinion. This happens thanks to the Welsh Assembly’s efficient monitoring of EU legislation which is scrutinized by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee as well as the Assembly’s secretariat (Melding, p.6-7).
Differing from the UK, Germany’s practice does not favor the sending of reasoned opinions from the country’s 16 sub-national parliaments to the federal republic’s bicameral parliament. Instead, sub-national parliaments are somehow represented through the Senate (Bundesrat), which is composed of members of the sub-national executive. On the contrary, Belgium gives a very direct role to its sub-national parliaments in relation to the EWS. In fact, according to the Belgian Declaration №51, the country’s sub-national parliaments can submit reasoned opinions without the consent of the national parliament. Each one of the country’s parliaments has one vote and the national position is determined via a vote count, rendering sub-national parliaments quite powerful.
In sum depending on the country’s practice, sub-national parliaments play the role of a “virtual third chamber” in European affairs (Borońska-Hryniewiecka).
Representation in the EU Council
Sub-national parliaments can influence European legislation also by overseeing their national and sub-national executives, which are part of the EU’s legislature through the Council of Ministers.
For example, in Germany with regards to education, culture and broadcasting, the country is always represented in the Council by members of the sub-national executive. This gives sub-national parliaments the chance to oversee their executive counterparts and therefore, indirectly influence European legislation. Sub-national oversight at the EU level is strengthened in Germany by the fact that members of the sub-national executive are also often part of Council delegations when regional matters and spheres concerning the country’s 16 Landers are discussed.
Conversely in the UK, the representation in the Council is decided by the national minister of the portfolio discussed at the Council. In other words, members of the sub-national government can be part of the UK’s delegation at the Council but, they have to defend a common UK position which is formed by the Joint Ministerial Committee – a format that consists of national and sub-national ministers. Notwithstanding the fact that the stance of national ministers is decisive within the Joint Ministerial Committee, sub-national parliaments can still oversee their parallel executive, who can in turn negotiate with national ministers. Accordingly, upon the adaptation of the secretariat and parliamentary committees, sub-national parliaments can monitor EU legislation and influence it to different degrees via the direct oversight of sub-national executives and the indirect one of national executives. In the UK, this process is accommodated by the national parliament which sends draft legislation to the sub-national legislatures (Melding, p3-4).
In conclusion, even though in some states sub-national executives do not have paved access to Council delegations, sub-national parliaments can monitor EU legislation and influence European legislation through sub-national governments.
Lobbying members of the European Parliament
Another way in which sub-national parliaments can have an impact on European legislation is by lobbying the European Parliament. While MEPs officially represent the interest of European citizens, they are elected on national platforms by the voters of their respective member state. Sub-national parliaments can use that to their advantage, when MEPs draw their voters from the latter’s region, via name and shaming. Indeed, whenever MEPs draft, amend or vote on EU legislation in a way that does not take into consideration the sub-national interest, sub-national parliaments can scrutinize the actions of MEPs in front of the local public. This can influence the chances of reelection of MEPs and can incline the latter to cooperate with sub-national legislatures. Such lobbying of MEPs by sub-national parliaments can be facilitated through the creation of offices in Brussels, as it has been done by the Welsh Assembly (Melding, p5-6).
Committee of the Regions
The Committee of the Regions (CoR) consists of representatives of sub-national bodies from the EU’s 28 member states. The individual members of the institution are 350 which either hold electoral mandates at the sub-national level or are politically accountable to a sub-national assembly. Although the Council, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission, determines the Committee's composition, the latter still provides a direct platform for sub-national parliaments to influence EU legislation.
The CoR is along with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) of the two consultative bodies of the EU. Before they propose, amend and vote on legislation, the European Commission and the European Parliament have to consider the CoR’s non-binding opinion. Whereas this core function of the CoR remains consultative, it provides sub-national parliaments with a direct institutional channel to influence EU legislation. The CoR is a democratically legitimate institution consisting of members of sub-national parliaments or executives scrutinized at the sub-national level and the Commission and EP are considerate of its opinion. Moreover, the CoR’s central priority is the maintenance of the principle of subsidiarity and thus, its opinions are minutely examined by national and sub-national parliaments that review Commission proposals under the Early Warning Mechanism. Lastly, the Committee empowers sub-national parliaments at the EU level by organizing meeting and conferences where delegates from sub-national authorities participate, such as the Conventions of Regions and Cities.
UN example - Agenda 2030
The implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda is an example of the new role of sub-national parliaments in the midst of globalization. This all-encompassing global framework comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, grounded on economic, social and environmental development.
The inclusive character of the UN’s Agenda 2030 is undisputable – the SDGs and their targets are meant to be implemented by both rich and poor countries without leaving behind marginalized and excluded groups. Nevertheless, despite being all-encompassing and inclusive, the SDGs are non-binding and there is no central authority constantly steering their implementation. Instead, the UN has opted for a framework for national development whose attainment depends on member states and their institutions engage with the SDGs from the bottom up (Roadmap, p6).
Against this background, sub-national authorities and in particular sub-national parliaments have a key role to play in a process called localization. This process refers to the identification of local development policy that contributes to the achieving of the SDGs on a national and global level.
Sub-national parliaments together with their executive counterparts have to oversee and implement the bulk of national projects that contribute to attaining the SDGs on a country level. Furthermore, sub-national parliaments need to be pro-active in formulating and steering government’s policies and actions in order to attract needed investments for the implementation of the SDGs (Roadmap, p6). Finally, being positioned somewhere between central institutions and the local communities and business, sub-national parliaments can, on the one hand, upload local development ambitions and anxieties to the national development plan. On the other hand, they can mainstream the SDGs on a local level, contributing to citizen engagement with global sustainable development commitments and ensuring that sub-national governments and/or officials such as mayors can be held accountable by local communities (Roadmap, p9).
Below we discuss four actions which sub-national parliaments can undertake to provide effective oversight at the national and sub-national level and formulate adequate policies to deliver on the SDGs, whilst representing local interests:
• Institutionalizing the SDGs
• Support sub-national statistical and data agencies
• Draft sub-national development plans
• Participate in the formulation of national development plans
• Institutionalizing the SDGs
SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions should arguably be the starting of a sub-national parliament’s engagement with the SDGs. In particular, the attainment of two of the goal’s targets – develop effective and accountable institutions at all levels (Target 16.6) and ensure responsive, inclusive and representative decision-making at all levels (Target 16.7) – could be regarded as a stepping stone for the active involvement of sub-national parliaments in the implementation of the SDGs (Toolkit, p7). However, while both targets could facilitate the capacity of sub-national parliaments to localize the SDGs and participate in the elaboration of regional and national development plans, this requires a significant degree of decentralization that is not common in a lot of countries.
Often, sub-national parliaments have limited powers, competences and resources and this precludes them from localizing the SDGs and participating in the drafting of development strategies. Practice shows in fact that limited self-government is generally accompanied by an absence of human, administrative and financial resources and this restricts sub-national parliaments from engaging with the SDGs (Roadmap p18). Nonetheless, sub-national parliaments can ameliorate their countries’ cooperative governance frameworks and attain SDG 16’s targets via various actions.
To begin with, together with the local government, a sub-national parliament can improve their SDG know-how and administrative capacity via ways that do not require a devolution of power from the central level. For example, the sub-national parliamentary committees on regional politics and development together with the local administration can establish informal contacts with representatives from national ministerial departments and MPs. This can facilitate coordination between national and sub-national authorities prior to the establishment of an official development strategy, that addresses the implementation of the SDGs (Roadmap, p35). Moreover, to create greater synergies between the central and sub-national level, sub-national parliaments independently or via pressuring the local government can advocate the establishment of ad-hoc SDG working groups that consist of representatives from the various levels of government and the non-governmental sector (Roadmap, p25).
In addition to cooperation with the central layer of government, sub-national parliaments and authorities in general can improve their organizational capacities, tax management and rule of law by exchanging practices among themselves (Roadmap, p29). An example of a format that enables sub-national authorities to spread knowledge and expertise on the SDGs is the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) which serves to inform local assemblies about relevant policies, laws and best practices (Roadmap, p17). Another instance of an initiative that supports capacity-building on the sub-national level is that of UNDP and the National Confederation of Municipalities in Brazil. Implemented under the auspices of the ART initiative, this initiative aims to strengthen the role of municipalities in the localization of the SDGs by drawing guidelines and publications designed for officials (Roadmap, p22).
Besides advocating initiatives that increase their administrative and technical capacities, sub-national parliaments and their executive counterparts should promote financial decentralization. Indeed, the sub-national level often faces limited financial resources and this restricts the potential of regional SDG implementation. Ideally, sub-national parliaments together with local governments should have the legal power to set their own taxes. This would empower the sub-national layer of government to take the lead on development programs related to the SDGs and allow for the local ownership of the goals (Roadmap, p18). In such a context, sub-national parliaments can raise awareness about the SDGs and engage with local communities to transfer the latter’s feedback into policies and programs. Moreover, financial decentralization and the increased involvement of sub-national parliaments with the SDGs would create more responsibilities for the sub-national level, enabling not only local implementation but also local monitoring and evaluation (Roadmap, p40). Financial decentralization is important in light of the fact that over the last decade domestic resources have become the largest and most effective source of financing for development (Roadmap, p32). A good example of financial decentralization can be exhibited in Cape Town – the city’s budget is mobilized largely on the sub-national level, relying only on 15% government grants (Roadmap, p20).
• Support sub-national statistical and data agencies
Once they improve their administrative, technical and financial capacities, sub-national parliaments can advance to the next step – supporting the development of statistical agencies at the sub-national level (Roadmap p38). Such agencies can improve the oversight function performed by both sub-national and national parliaments when the latter scrutinize the implementation of sub-national and national development plans addressing Agenda 2030 (Toolkit, p9).
Monitoring the execution of the SDGs and their nationally-designated targets is a process that relies on data collected by statistical agencies. So far 231 indicators have been created to screen progress on the SDGs and additionally countries are encouraged to come up with new indicators. Sub-national statistical agencies can become crucial actors in this. These agencies can assist their national equivalents by collecting data that will be reported at the national level to monitor the implementation of the SDGs (Roadmap, p37). Beyond this, sub-national statistical agencies can improve the localization of the SDGs by collecting sub-national data sets that can be utilized by local administrations to develop regional indicators. Such indicators can be very helpful for several reasons. Firstly, they can be used by sub-national parliament to monitor progress on local development plans. Secondly, sub-national parliaments and their governments can use local indicators to present regional priorities as national goals (Roadmap, p37). In support of this argument, it should be noted that development is often unevenly spread within countries. For example, poverty (SDG 1) may be concentrated only in certain regions and data and locally developed indicators may be used by institutions from the sub-national level as an argument to demand more resources from the central government to implement the goals. Finally, locally collected data can be employed to mobilize public engagement with the SDGs. By familiarizing themselves with relevant statistics and indicators of progress, citizens can become more aware of the significance of sub-national priorities and their localization and thus better contribute to their achievement via scrutiny and proactive participation.
Sub-national parliaments should scrutinize their sub-national governments in support of the development of sub-national statistical agencies. Thereafter, depending on the degree of decentralization within a country, sub-national governments either directly devote more resources to sub-national data agencies or request this from the central government. Lastly, sub-national parliaments should ensure that sub-national indicator systems are aligned to the national ones so that they could be used in country progress reports. To achieve this, sub-national legislatures should ensure that sub-national governments sign agreements with the other levels of government to ensure the exchange of information and good links between statistical offices at all levels (Roadmap, p39).
• Draft sub-national development plans
Sub-national parliaments can adopt and oversee local development plans upon the strengthening of administrative, financial and technical capacities at the sub-national level. In light of this objective, sub-national legislatures should first take advantage of their position between local communities and their executive counterpart. Local legislatures can examine the everyday problems faced by communities as well as statistical data to help and develop indicators together with the sub-national government. This process could be facilitated especially when sub-national parliaments dispose of a development committee, a SDG caucus or a secretariat that enhances the institution’s expertise on the topic.
Consequently, upon their elaboration, indicators can be used to create local SDG-related targets that can be included in sub-national development plans. These plans, in conjunction with the reinforced capacities of sub-national statistical agencies to collect data, create a clear framework which can be used to oversee the implementation of the SDGs. Moreover, sub-national development plans, especially when they are elaborate, could be used to convince the central government to reflect sub-national priorities in the national development strategy and delegate appropriate authority to the sub-national level (Roadmap, p23).
One example of a sub-national development plan related to the SDGs is the National Assembly for Wales’ “Well-being For Future Generations Act” that was adopted in 2015. The act consists of 7 well-being goals that are based on the SDGs and their economic, social and environmental dimensions. These goals are set to be pursued via a comprehensive plan that is endowed with indicators and follow-up mechanisms for public bodies and government long-term planning (Roadmap, p28). Furthermore, to strengthen the plan, the act includes a clause that requires sub-national ministers to takes into consideration developments linked to the SDGs and their potential effect on the development of Wales (Roadmap, p28).
• Participate in the formation of national development plans
The SDGs are a broad overarching framework that is made to steer national policies towards a global vision. However, within this broad framework countries should find out their own priorities and localize targets and indicators to guide national implementation. Sub-national parliaments can contribute to both processes via sub-national development plans that include locally relevant indicators of progress that are useful when drafting national development plans (Toolkit, p9).
Sub-national development plans justify development policies related to the SDGs through data and societal feedback and at the same time include relevant indicators and targets that provide a clear implementation and monitoring framework. Once they are adopted, sub-national development plans could serve as one of the stepping stones in the formulation of national development plans and sub-national parliaments can facilitate this. Truly, sub-national parliaments can request their executive counterparts to participate in the drafting of national development plans and use the sub-national plan as a mandate designating certain targets and goals which the sub-government should prioritize when negotiating with the central government. To reinforce this, sub-national parliaments should adopt the government’s mandate after a comprehensive review and debate on the sub-national development plan. Additionally, sub-national legislatures should request regular progress reports on the implementation of the national plan (Toolkit, p10).
To read more about the role of subnational elected bodies in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, have a look at “Parliament's Role in Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: a Parliamentary Handbook” available here.
Borońska-Hryniewiecka, Karolina. Sub-national parliaments in EU policy control: explaining the variations across Europe.
David Melding. Role of Sub-national Parliaments in the EU.