Conference «Youth, climate change and water: the stakes of territorial development and the impact on the most disadvantaged »

Keith Whitmore, member of the Council of Europe Congress Strasbourg, 16 October 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome you to this exchange of young Europeans and local elected representatives today, organised in the framework of the 2010 edition of the European Local Democracy Week. I wish to thank the City of Schiltigheim and Solidarité Eau Europe for co-organising this event with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

The European Local Democracy Week, ELDW, is an initiative of the Council of Europe and its Congress, which, since October 2007, has become a genuine pan-European event. It is designed to make democracy a meaningful concept for citizens at grassroots. The idea is to offer local populations the opportunity to meet at local level at least once a year, to meet their local elected representatives and local authorities, to exchange views on current affairs and subjects of concern and to gain a better understanding of how local democracy operates in practice.

The European Local Democracy Week was a joint initiative of the Congress and the European Committee on Local and Regional Democracy, an intergovernmental body of the Council of Europe. Its aim is to foster greater citizen awareness of local authorities, promote citizen participation in local governance and stress the importance played by local democracy in building a united and democratic Europe. The Congress is now the only body in the Council of Europe responsible for the overall co-ordination of this event.

The Week reflects our view of a society governed by its citizens and of a government that supports them in this undertaking  – a view which has always been central to the concept of local democracy, which is itself deeply anchored in the towns and regions where our citizens live and where public affairs are conducted.

It is at the local level where people gain their first experience of democracy and its workings. It is at this level where they become either inspired or disenchanted by the democratic process. Participation at local level is crucial to the good functioning of democracy; indeed, it was in the Agora Square in ancient Athens that democracy began, reminding all of us that any democracy, like any politics, is local.

It is only logical that, to stir up people’s enthusiasm for democracy and help them regain the taste for the democratic management of affairs, we should begin at the level closest to them – in our cities. Citizens’ participation is the backbone of democracy, and it starts when people are aware that they have the right to take action and are capable of doing so.

In the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, body representing over 200,000 municipalities in Europe, we firmly believe that informed and motivated citizens, who feel empowered and involved in decision-making on matters which concern them, are fundamental to the participatory democracy we want to build. Educating our citizens, explaining to them the workings of local governance and receiving their feedback on our action is the way to encourage their more active participation in the process of governing themselves.

It is in this spirit that European Local Democracy Week was launched. One of the main aims is to raise citizens’ awareness and to involve them in the political affairs of their municipalities. The date of the launch, 15 October, was not chosen by accident. It symbolically coincides with the anniversary of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, a cornerstone treaty which underpins local democracy on our continent, and which was opened for signature on 15 October 1985..

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The purpose of the ELDW, which includes simultaneous national and local events in Council of Europe member states, is to foster knowledge of local democracy and promote democratic participation at local level. Each municipality is free to choose when to celebrate ELDW and its format, but the idea is to hold most events on or around 15 October.

A non-exhaustive list of activities is proposed: meetings in local neighbourhoods and current affairs debates, meetings with mayors and municipal councillors, open days in town halls, poster campaigns, interactive Internet sites for replying to citizens’ questions, etc. Of course, we are counting on the ingenuity of the local authorities of each town taking part in ELDW to come up with individual, groundbreaking ideas to celebrate the event.

This year, as part of ELDW from 11 to 17 October, over 100 towns and municipalities from 25 European countries – from Portugal to Russia – are launching programmes of activities open to the general public. Among the towns and cities taking part are some with considerable experience in this pan-European initiative – Brussels (Belgium), Strasbourg and Aix-en–Provence (France), Candelaria (Spain), Odessa (Ukraine) and Ierapetra (Greece) – but there are also some taking part for the very first time, such as Paris, Lausanne, Liège, Amadora (Lisbon), Katowice, Antalya, Belgrade, Tbilisi and the Italian municipalities of Mola di Bari and Unione Terre di Po.

In 2010, ELDW has received fresh impetus with the launching of the “12-Star Cities” concept. This year, some fifteen towns have chosen this new status, thus committing themselves to preparing major activities in favour of their citizens and to greater involvement in ELDW in general. We are particularly pleased to see the host city of the Congress, Strasbourg, among the “12-Star Cities”.

We are also pleased to see that, as from 2011, this initiative will be extended beyond the borders of Europe as Morocco will be organising its own Moroccan Local Democracy Week based on the ELDW experience and in close co-operation with the Congress.

The theme of this year’s ELDW is the impact of sustainable communities in fighting climate change.  The debates will focus on five main issues: transport and mobility, waste management, using renewable energy sources, saving water and biodiversity. This is also the main theme of our meeting today, which is focusing on “Young people, climate change and water: challenges for local and regional development and impact on the most disadvantaged”. We see this conference as an opportunity for delegations of young people and local elected representatives from a variety of countries such as Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova and the Russian Federation to exchange views and experiences with their counterparts in Schiltigheim and with experts and members of the Congress.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Local Democracy Week does not, of course, mean that we only take interest in local authorities once a year. To the contrary, ELDW offers the opportunity to demonstrate the continuity of our work in favour of the public at large.  It is a sort of annual report on past, present and future activities, which are carried out all year round. European Local Democracy Week will energise local communities for the promotion of democratic participation and give them a sense of full control over their own public affairs.

One year a week is admittedly a symbolic gesture but one that clearly shows our ongoing commitment to strengthening democracy at grassroots level in the interests of 800 million Europeans and to give them immediate access to democracy.

Thank you for your attention.