23rd Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Speech by Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, at the 23rd Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

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Mr President,

Members of the Congress,


Dear friends,

Edouard Herriot, former French Prime Minister, long-time mayor of Lyon and one of the early champions of local democracy in Europe, once famously asserted that “Everything divides states, everything unites municipalities”. At least the second part of this statement was certainly proven right on 17 October 1953, when more than a thousand mayors from 16 countries met in Versailles and adopted a day later the European Charter of Municipal Liberties. Some consider that this is the day when local democracy was born in Europe. Others believe that this is when the idea of this Congress was conceived as well. [I might as well then wish you happy birthday on this occasion].

So, it is a particular honour and pleasure for me to address you on this day, some 59 years later, on behalf of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

Let me start by congratulating you, Mr Van Staa, on your election as President of the Congress as well as the newly elected Bureau with your new mandates.

Mr Van Staa, your thorough knowledge of the Congress and extensive experience in working with it in different capacities will no doubt guide you in leading it with determination and vision.

I would also like to pay tribute to Keith Whitmore, who, for the last 16 years has been working closely with the Council of Europe and whose leadership of the Congress has been crucial for its transformation, making this Assembly more relevant for the Council and ultimately for the European citizens. I am convinced that no matter where his professional and personal path takes him, Keith will remain a close friend of the Council of Europe.

Dear friends,

Over the past three years, I have witnessed the Congress undergoing important changes, both political - revising its priorities and refocusing the action on the Council of Europe’s core objectives, as well as structural – adapting your working methods to the new realities. Today, I am encouraged to see a transformed and a renewed body. I see a Congress which is more results-oriented and whose work is closely linked to the work of the other parts of this house. Also, with the adoption of your priorities for the next four years, the Congress has a new mandate, fitting better in the overall mission of the Council of Europe.

The European democratic model cannot function nowadays without a strong dimension of local and regional democracy. The World Forum for Democracy, held in Strasbourg last week, confirmed yet again that without local democracy all other democratic dimensions are fragile at best. It is at local and regional level where public authorities are the closest to citizens, where we can speak of “democracy of proximity” and where public action can be tailored best to respond to citizens’ needs and expectations.

A few days ago I was in Istanbul, attending the 2nd Council of Europe Conference of Ministers Responsible for Cohesion. A number of our member States have been witnessing over the last few years, worrying trends of marginalisation and social exclusion. Painful austerity measures, job cuts and reduced national budgets have had high political and social costs and brought many to the streets.

The discrepancy between citizens’ expectations and what governments are able to offer is widening as state budget revenues continue to fall. The crisis is generating terrible side effects – the rise in extremism, hate speech, violence, xenophobia and racism. Governments are looking for new budget cuts while simultaneously searching for ways to providing for “deep security” and maintaining the social cohesiveness of their societies.

The crisis and the fiscal austerity measures have had a particularly severe impact on local and regional authorities, leading to substantial cuts in their budgets. In times of crisis, the State tends to step in and often ideas of “devolution”, “decentralisation” and “local self-government” tend to lose currency.

At the same time, the same local authorities have a primary responsibility for the well-being of their citizens and residents, including the vulnerable groups. Local and regional authorities have also a crucial role in combating discrimination in their communities. If we are to succeed, we must address these issues in our towns and regions, at the grassroots levels, in direct contact with citizens.

Let me also underline another aspec which I find particularly important. The sheer scale of the current crisis does not only affect certain vulnerable groups. Our entire societies are being changed drastically. It risks putting an end to the post-war construction of the European social and economic model. The term I would coin is the risk of “generalised vulnerability”.

In these times of turmoil, European society and European policy makers require solid points of reference. And the European Charter for Local Self-Government is one of them. Let us not forget this. It is up to all of us to make sure that policy responses to crisis remain compatible with the States’ obligations under the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

Regarding the operational activities of the congress, I welcome your action to improve the situation of Roma in Europe. Your initiative of establishing the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, implemented in co-operation with the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Roma issues, is essential for the implementation of the 2010 Strasbourg Declaration on Roma. In the years to come, I expect the Alliance to play a key role in improving conditions for the Roma.

The European Alliance for Roma Inclusion, the Strategic Action Plan of the Congress for the “One in Five” Campaign, its Pact of Towns and Regions to combat sexual violence against children, other projects and initiatives in the pipeline are proof of the growing operational capacity of the Congress. You have also been more actively involved in the co-operation programmes of the Council of Europe, such as the Action Plan for Ukraine or the work with Albania, currently holding the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers.

Your operational capacity is largely dependent on the success of the Congress’ core mission - monitoring the local and regional democracy and observation of local and regional elections. Monitoring is certainly a major asset of the Congress and it needs to be further strengthened. I am pleased to see the Congress working on ensuring a better follow-up to the recommendations and developing post-monitoring co-operation programmes.

Let me also briefly say a few words on the co-operation with the neighbourhood of the Council of Europe.

The pace and intensity of changes sweeping through the Arab region since December 2010 have fired global imagination. They also brought with them new opportunities for the Council of Europe and its co-operation with the neighbours. The Congress is well placed to seize this opportunity and work with the countries of the Arab spring in support of their local democracy.

Our societies are becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent and the Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy was a strong reminder, if such a reminder was ever needed, of the increasingly stringent need to build stronger ties with our neighbours.

I have high expectations from your new actions and the new priorities. I hope that the Congress will build on the momentum generated by the reforms, and will strengthen its operational capacities by working closely together with other entities of this Organisation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is, in fact, my first address to a political assembly of elected representatives since I took the office of Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe six weeks ago. One of the political priorities of my campaign was to enhance institutional dialogue within the Council of Europe, strengthening the synergies of its statutory bodies. And I intend to fulfil this promise. We must join forces to build better links within the Council of Europe, synergies with the intergovernmental sector but also with other sectors, in order to put into practice the “Agenda in common”.

The Congress has a huge task ahead. The times of crisis are never easy for the advocates of local democracy. I can assure you that you will have my full support, as well as the support of the Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, in facing these challenges.

Let us continue to work together. Thank you for your attention.