IRE Expert-Conference in cooperation with the State Secretariat for Integration

“Integration policy on regional and local level” - Best Practice Examples from Europe

Graz, 4 December 2013

Speech by Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be here today to present the work of the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in the field of local and regional integration. I would like to thank the organisers of this conference – the Austrian Chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, the Institute of Europe’s Regions and the City of Graz – for giving me this opportunity and for associating the Congress as a partner to this event.

The question of integration of migrants and foreign residents in our local and regional communities remains high on the Congress agenda, and has been one of our key priorities for many years, even decades. It is not surprising – integration is part and parcel of our efforts to build cohesive societies on our continent, which is also absolutely necessary for ensuring equal participation of all citizens in democracy. Because a society that is fragmented, marred by economic inequalities and social injustice and torn by intercultural conflict represents a major obstacle to building a new model of participatory democracy in response to the decline of democratic participation in Europe today.

Integration and participation in society are mutually reinforcing processes which involve, in the one hand, equal access to social rights and public services and, on the other hand, political and civil rights such as freedom from discrimination, freedom of association and assembly, voting rights and institutions of political participation. But beyond such measures, integration also requires consensus and understanding of the majority population, and a political will to overcome reluctance and negative attitudes of some local residents and of the immigrant population with different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. This is especially so in the current climate of rising intolerance and xenophobia, fuelled to a great extent by the economic crisis. This is why our integration efforts must necessarily be accompanied by policies to foster intercultural dialogue and build harmonious intercultural relations in our communities.

It is not difficult to see that both integration policies and intercultural action must begin at the grassroots, in our communities where cultural groups interact most directly, both with one another and with public authorities. This is why the Council of Europe and its Congress have been attaching such high importance to local and regional integration policies and to networking between municipalities and regions to put these policies into practice.

But allow me to begin by saying a few words about the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, for the benefit of those of you who may not be familiar with this institution.

Within the Council of Europe, the Congress is a representative assembly of more than 200,000 territorial communities in 47 European countries, bringing together local and regional elected politicians in its two chambers, Chamber of Local Authorities and Chamber of Regions. The Congress is the only institution legally tasked with monitoring the application of the European Charter of Local Self-Government – this key Council of Europe convention in the field of local democracy. By doing so, the Congress is in fact monitoring the development of local and regional democracy on our continent. Based on the results of its monitoring, the Congress makes recommendations to both national governments and local and regional authorities on how to improve the situation.

This makes the Congress best placed to promote integration policies at local and regional level, and to ensure that our communities are fostering social cohesion and providing equal protection to all their residents. Drawing on its pan-European dimension, the Congress also serves as a forum for an exchange of ideas and proposals, for sharing experiences and best practices, and recommending them to other communities.

As I have said earlier, the Congress has been addressing these issues as a priority for many years. Over the past decade alone, we have adopted a wide range of proposals recommending policy action to set up councils of foreign residents, develop municipal intercultural policies, foster intercultural dialogue and manage inter-faith and intercultural tensions, diversify employment in public services, and adapt housing policies to address migrants’ needs – to name but a few. We also provided specific recommendations for action to ensure cultural integration of Muslim women. Just a little over one month ago, at the end of October, the Congress adopted new recommendations, for improving migrants’ access to regional labour markets and for promoting migrant entrepreneurship in European municipalities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To understand the importance of local and regional integration, we must look at the current situation in Europe today. This situation is characterised by a growing migrant population, which is rapidly becoming more diverse in terms of ethnic or national origin, as well as in terms of length of stay, educational achievement, and socio-economic position. Foreign residents, migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, third-country nationals, second- and third-generation residents of migrant origin – they all represent a European population today that is not only on the rise compared to previous decades, but which has also become an integral part of the fabric of our societies and an important force due to their economic, social and cultural contribution.

At the same time, this multitude of foreign residents reflects the diversity of their situations and legal statuses. Each situation and status may require a differentiated approach and action by public authorities. However, this presentation will concern specifically those foreign residents who came to stay for a long time and who are entitled to do so – in other words, who have a legal status to reside in the host country but who do not have this country’s nationality – either because they have, for various reasons, decided against it, or because they have not met the required conditions to have one.  

Increasing migration within and to Europe raises the questions of both integration of foreign residents into the host community and their meaningful contribution to the local economy and economic development, which is especially important in the current situation of economic crisis.

Indeed, local communities in Europe – and I am speaking not about the 28 member states of the European Union but about the 47 member states of the Council of Europe – these local communities are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. Today, not a single European country or a large city can claim to be mono-ethnic. Not only large cities but also small towns and villages are beginning to feature a mix of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds among their local populations to a degree unseen before. Communities of foreign residents, which used to be confined to big “cosmopolitan” areas, are increasing in number and size and are reaching the grassroots of our societies.

In 2011, 33.3 million foreigners were living in the European Union (6.6% of the total population). The majority (20.5 million) were third-country nationals (4.4% of the total population). About 80% of third-country nationals in the European Union are of working age (15–64 years old) and constitute a significant pool of labour force. Around 2% of EU residents live in a different EU country than the one they originally come from. Apart from the special case of Luxembourg, where a third of the population is made up of EU foreigners (mainly Portuguese), Cyprus (7%), Belgium (nearly 6%), Ireland (5.1%), Germany (3.2%), Austria (2.8%), Sweden (2.4%) and the United Kingdom (2.1%) are the countries that are the most welcoming for EU foreign residents. At the same time, out of the 25 EU countries surveyed, third-country nationals were more numerous than EU foreigners in 21 of the EU member states.

Local populations with more than 30% residents having a migration background are becoming increasingly common, while the notion of a homogenous receiving society forming the majority is becoming problematic.

The true challenge is to find ways of using this diversity for the benefit of the entire community, beginning from the grassroots. This process begins with integration, but it goes far beyond. The values of the Council of Europe – democracy, human rights and the rule of law – require an integrated society, where all people, regardless of their ethnic origin or any other characteristic – have the possibility to be part of the community and to participate in local governance. For us in the Congress, integration and participation do indeed go hand in hand. I should point out in this regard that, while adopting the nationality of the host country solves the problems of political participation and access to rights and legal protection for foreign residents, it does not necessarily solve the problem of their integration.

Building productive intercultural relations between population groups, ensuring integration of foreign residents and bringing about better social cohesion are among today’s main challenges for public authorities at all levels of governance. However, a key role in meeting this challenge belongs to local and regional authorities, because pubic action at the grassroots level has the most direct and tangible impact on our citizens. This means that public authorities need to find new ways of engaging foreign residents and providing for their better integration and more meaningful participation in democratic governance and decision making.

This was also emphasised in a 2011 report of the Group of Eminent Persons, commissioned by the Council of Europe and entitled “Living together: Combining freedom and diversity in 21st century Europe”. The Group identified cultural diversity as the main challenge for European democracy today, and stressed specifically that towns and cities “bear the main responsibility for ensuring that culturally diverse societies are open societies, in which people belonging to different cultural groups […] can feel at home and make their own contribution”.

It is also important that the Eminent Persons have included among their recommendations for action the issues of participation of foreigners in local life and politics, as well as of integration of migrants and people of recent migrant origin. The report said responses to this challenge lie

- in reaching social consensus on the legal framework by which everyone has to abide;

- in ensuring equal treatment and equal protection of citizens’ rights;

- as well as in fostering intercultural dialogue and harmonious relations between different cultural and religious groups.

Specific action in this regard must include two major components.

One component are measures to ensure access to social rights and public services, which may involve affirmative action and special efforts to remedy the inherent disadvantages, and which must include access to employment, education, housing and health care, among others. In this regard, employment, self-employment and access to labour markets are seen as central to integration, and the Congress has addressed these issues in its two recent reports, adopted last October.

For example, according to the 2013 International Migration Outlook, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, raising the employment levels of foreign residents to those of the native-born would generate significant economic returns, due to the higher educational achievement levels and socio-economic positions of today’s migrants. Yet even highly skilled foreigeners have been hit harder than the nationals by the economic downturn, registering a more rapid loss of jobs.

As a result, this human capital remains widely underused, to a large extent due to the lack of recognition of foreign qualifications, complexity of procedures for obtaining work authorisation, as well as discriminatory attitudes and prejudice towards hiring foreigners. Innovative projects are also needed today to stimulate labour mobility and help to match employment supply and demand in specific areas. Local and regional authorities can play in this matter an important role as intermediaries, not least through intermunicipal and interregional co-operation.

Another way to integration is through self-employment, and in this area foreign residents are showing a greater spirit of enterprise than the natives. For example, in 2011, foreigners launched 52 per cent of all new business start-ups in Frankfurt. In many cities, up to a third of all enterprises today are operated by foreigners. Promoting migrant entrepreneurship at local level was the subject of another recent report by the Congress, also adopted in October.

However, action to ensure access to social rights will remain one-sided unless it is accompanied by measures to raise awareness and promote active citizenship in local communities. This includes raising awareness of foreign residents themselves – for example, through education on national laws and local regulations, or education for democratic citizenship and human rights, among others. This also includes, at the same time, work among the local population to fight prejudice against foreigners – for example, by improving knowledge of their cultures and their contribution to the local community – in order to overcome discrimination and reluctance to engage them in community life. This, too, leads to their better integration at local level.

Interculturalism as a set of local and regional policies promoting cross-fertilisation of cultures, encouraging interaction and exchanges between cultural groups, and engaging them in joint community-building activities is an effective remedy to fight prejudice and discrimination. Because good laws and measures against discrimination are not enough. Equally important is changing our mental constructs and perceptions of others. It takes education and learning from experience, from getting to know each other. Today’s diversity in Europe offers an excellent opportunity for such learning, while our cities and regions provide a place for interaction and practical dialogue between cultural groups.

Action to fight prejudice against foreigners must include such issues as political discourse of elected representatives and public officials, portrayal of migrants and foreign residents in the media, and mediation between ethnic groups and the host community, among others. This serves one overarching purpose: to bring about change in negative attitudes and perceptions towards foreigners among the local population, and to show local residents the true benefits of diversity.

Local authorities have a crucial role to play in this respect, by working to change negative perceptions and explain diversity advantages to local residents through intercultural education and effective communication strategies – and quite simply, through intercultural interaction in our local communities. This issue is the subject of another Congress report, which is currently being prepared.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Integration policies and efforts will not serve their purpose unless they lead to a better involvement of foreign residents within communities, including their political participation. This 

is why the Council of Europe and the Congress have been staunch advocates for the right of foreign residents to vote and stand as candidates in local elections after five years of residence in the community, and for setting up associations and consultative councils of foreign residents at local and regional levels. These three provisions have been put forward in the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level, adopted in 1992.

Since then, the practice of creating migrants’ associations and consultative councils of foreign residents – which is fully within local and regional competences – has been gaining ground across the continent. Councils of foreign residents exist in many large cities today, and in April 2011 a first-ever network of municipalities with such councils was launched in France, under the French acronym CoFraCiR – the French Council of Residence-based Citizenship.

As for the right to a local vote, granting it remains a national competence in most countries, and only six of the 47 Council of Europe member states have adhered to the Convention to this effect. The two other countries that have ratified the Convention – Albania and Italy – made a reservation so as not to give voting rights to foreigners. We are speaking, of course, of non-EU foreign residents, as EU citizens have the right to vote in local and European elections under the Treaty of Maastricht.

However, in practice, more than 20 European countries today give this right to non-EU residents (with or without the right to be elected), some on the basis of their bilateral agreements with other countries.

Communities of foreign residents themselves see the right to vote as a major requirement for integration, second maybe only to their access to rights and legal protection. Local voting achieves several objectives: it shows recognition of foreign residents as equal citizens; it gives them a voice and a means of political expression; it gives them a feeling of participation and empowerment as they take part in decision-making and their vote counts; finally, it gives them a better opportunity to elect one of their own and to be represented on the local council. After all, they are part of the community fabric as local residents.

The right to a local vote also makes local politicians pay more attention to the problems of this group in order to get their vote. In the long run, it reduces frustration among foreign residents and thus tensions in the community. In the absence of local voting, representative structures such as consultative councils of foreign residents serve the same objectives and may fill this void up to the point.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by stressing the importance of cross-border co-operation and networking among municipalities and regions. The number of local and regional initiatives for better integration and greater participation of foreigners is growing, from representation in consultative councils to awareness-raising through such initiatives as Integration Days, for example in this country. This highlights the need for an effective exchange and transfer of good practices.

There are already excellent examples in this regard. A network of more than 30 Cities for Local Integration Policy Network, or CLIP, has produced over six years a wide range of proposals for local integration of migrants, on the basis of specific municipal experiences. The Congress translated them into policy recommendations concerning housing and improving living conditions of migrant workers, greater diversity in local employment, managing intercultural and interfaith tensions between community groups, and promoting migrant entrepreneurship. We know that many of these proposals have been successfully implemented – for example, lifting excessive linguistic requirements for certain types of municipal jobs to allow for employment of foreigners, or private-public partnerships for affordable housing, with the city renting from private owners to sublet to foreign families.

In 2008, the Council of Europe and the European Commission launched a network of Intercultural Cities, which has grown to some 70 municipalities today, including from outside of Europe. Its positive experience serves as an example of successful intercultural action at local level.

Yet another example is the European Local Democracy Week, a Congress initiative that has become, since its launch in 2007, a truly pan-European event. It is marked in mid-October every year by local authorities across Europe. Last year alone, municipalities from more than 30 countries took part. The Local Democracy Week serves to bring together local authorities and local residents directly in different formats – town hall meetings, thematic debates, open days in city halls, etc. The idea is to explain to citizens how local democracy works, discuss with them local problems and priorities, hear their concerns, receive the feedback on authorities’ action, and agree future plans. Every year, the Week is held under a general theme; this year, it is Human Rights at local level, and next year it will be Citizen Participation. The European Local Democracy Week is a practical tool for engaging all resident across cultural differences in community building.

Indeed, cross-border co-operation between European local and regional communities today allows for engaging in practical dialogue between the countries of origin, transit and destination as far as internal European migration is concerned. In this regard, networking is crucial for fostering a coherent, Europe-wide co-operation framework on integration of foreign residents at local and regional levels.

Last but not least, at European level, the neighbourhood policies of both the European Union and the Council of Europe must also be geared towards engaging the countries of migrants’ origin in dialogue on migration modalities. The management of problems relating to irregular migration is another area where local and regional authorities are key actors as both promoters and implementers of reception and integration policies, and also as organisers of dialogue and co-operation with countries of origin and transit. It is important therefore that neighbourhood policies of EU and of the Council of Europe include a substantial local and regional dimension.

Thank you.