A little history of Poland
Poland is a country in Central Europe. In the early Middle Ages, Poland’s small principalities and townships were subjugated by successive waves of invaders, such as Germans, Balts and Mongols. In the mid-1500s, united Poland was the largest and perhaps most powerful European state. However, during the Partitions of Poland (1772–1918), the nation was divided into three different parts, under the control of the empires of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Poland was restored as a state in 1918, but lost again its independence during the Second World War, when it was occupied by Nazi Germany, and becoming a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union after the war. Poland acquired new territories on the west, which previously belonged to Germany, but lost to the Soviet Union its eastern territories. From the 1950’s onward, the communist authorities brutally suppressed the traditional intermediate bodies between municipalities and regions. Regions and local authorities were deprived from all responsibility, simply becoming mere executors of the central decision makers.
Independence and democracy were restored in Poland in 1989. Even though the country borders were so often changed during the recent last two centuries, the notion of “territory” is deeply anchored in the national memory. This high value conferred to the central State, seen as guarantee of the homogeneity of the national territory, explains the difficulties experienced by decentralisation. Moreover, because of the former belonging to different supra national States (German empire for its western part, Russian empire for its central and eastern one, and Austrian one for its southern one), different local cultures are recognisable.
Modifying territorialisation while acknowledging different regional identities
For these reasons, the projects aiming at modifying the “territorialisation” of public policy have been very sensitive, provoking strong debates. The important law on local prerogatives, adopted in March 1990, was achieved by restoring the former sub regional units destroyed by the communists in 1975. Such law delivered more strategic capacities to the local municipalities, even though this dynamic was not accompanied by a transfer of funds. Important public discussion occurred. The core debate was about the amount of regions. Most stakeholders understood the necessity of reducing the size of the regions to better restore the historical intermediary level, the “powiat” (department).
Finally, when the law passed in July 1998, 16 regions were created. Polish regions are called “voivodships” and are the largest territorial division of administration in the country. The smallest region, the southern one of Opole, with 1,2 million inhabitants, was created because of the presence of a German minority in it. Two other regions present a twin regional city. The other 13 regions, more or less, reshape the former pre war “designs”, based on clear regional identities.
The chosen administrative model has been inspired by the French one: in face of the representative of the State (the voivode, i.e. prefect, in charge of the ex post control of the public funds) one finds the most important political figure, the Marshal (the president of the region), elected by the regional assembly, whose deputies are elected by all the citizens of the region.
The Marshal organises the tasks and directs the ongoing matters of the voivodship, and represents it externally. The Marshall’s Office, a self governing organisation in the voivodship, is a body assisting the execution of tasks designated by the Marshall and the voivodship’s elected members.
At the sub regional level, one finds the “powiat”, led by the Starosta, (an old word for “chief”), elected by the local assembly, and which is more or less the district. The Starosta takes decisions on individual matters in the field of local public administration. Powiats are allocated to towns with populations in excess of 100,000 residents, together with the towns that have ceased being capitals in the reformed voivodships. There are 380 powiats in Poland, that can be either land counties (314 units) or towns with powiat rights, i.e. urban powiats (66 units).
Under this level, but independent from the two upper levels, one finds the Gmina (commune), which benefits of a free statute to develop its own plan of development. The gmina is responsible of all public matters of local importance. Its executive organs are the gmina council and the “wójt” (the mayor or town president). Poland counts 2479 gminas, that can be urban (305 units), rural (1566 units) or urban-rural (608 units).
Freedom of administration: paralysis or unity
Administrative reforms were stimulated by the Country accession process to the EU, which happened in 2004. What is remarkable in this administrative structure is the capacity left to all levels to be independent from the others. Such a feature is related to the historical legacy of freedom of the administrative levels in Poland, but has often been considered responsible of paralysis and blockage. Indeed, the fact that the regional authority cannot constraint its sub- regional levels has often negatively affected regional development, including the not proper functioning of the transport system. On the other hand, as structural funds are used under the condition of their economic efficiency, different sub regional units (and particularly the gmina) were pushed to create some intercommunal links for several common projects.
According to European statistics, Polish voivodships correspond to the NUTS 2 level, whereas the NUTS 3 level is made up of 66 sub-regions, formed by the union of different powiats. The NUTS 1 level consists of 6 regions, formed by joining voivodships: region centralny), region południowy, region wschodni, region północno-zachodni, region południowo-zachodni, and region.
The Report on the state of Regionalisation in Europe.
More than 40 experts contributed to this work, by delivering detailed reports about the state of regionalisation and multilevel governance in chosen European countries. The study covers 41 countries, and each country report is based on a similar structure, thereby allowing a comparative approach among all studied countries.
- The first part of the report gives the political impetus from the main European stakeholders
- The second part of this report entails a summarised version of the country reports. The objective is to provide interested readers with a short overview of the main features of regionalisation in various European countries. The complete versions of the country reports are available on the AER website, under LINK
- The third part provides a thematic approach based on the main findings delivered by the country reports and the current state of regionalisation in Europe. The trends and outlooks lead to open questions on the future of the regions in the European landscape, and more broadly on the role of subnational authorities in the shaping of the continent.
- The fourth part gives the floor to the actual regional decision-makers in Europe, across a series of interviews and statements by Presidents, Vice-Presidents and elected representatives of the European regions.
Over the next months, we will be focusing on a different European country’s approach to regionalisation. During these months, look out for #RoR2017 on Twitter and/or Facebook and follow us at @europeanregions.
Strong European regions are a pathway to a stronger Europe.