Conference on Sustainable Urban Innovation

Münster, Germany, 10 July 2013

“Innovation and the European Charter of Local Self-Government”

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

·                     I am in charge of the Secretariat of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, which is a political assembly of local and regional elected representatives from 47 European countries that are members of the Council of Europe. The Congress operates within the Council of Europe and has an advisory role on matters of local and regional democracy to both the Committee of Ministers, which means 47 national governments, and the Parliamentary Assembly, which means 47 national parliaments. In this consultative role, the Congress makes recommendations directly to national governments and parliaments, which are required to act on our recommendations. This makes the Congress different from our counterpart in the European Union – the Committee of the Regions.

·                     The Congress’ main mission is to advance local and regional democracy and self-government across Europe. The Congress pursues this mission by constantly monitoring the development and assessing the situation of local and regional democracy in member states and making recommendations to both governments and local and regional authorities for improving it. Our main tool in exercising this mission is the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the first legally binding international treaty that lays down the principles of local democracy and the rights of local authorities. The Charter is a key convention of the Council of Europe; it was opened for signature in 1985, entered into force in 1988 – 25 years ago - and will be ratified by the end of the year 2013 by all the 47 member states.

·                     The Congress monitors the implementation of the Charter through its regular monitoring missions, fact-finding missions and observation of local and regional elections. As a result of these missions, we produce country-by-country reports and recommendations. Since 2010, every country will be monitored approximately every five years.

·                     As a pan-European forum of local and regional politicians, the Congress provides a platform for their co-operation and exchange of good practices. This serves to improve governance of local and regional communities. The Congress proposes ways of improving governance through its resolutions addressed to local and regional authorities themselves and organises thematic conferences and seminars.

·                     Furthermore, direct interaction between cities and regions provides opportunities for greater inter-municipal, interregional and cross-border co-operation, which the Congress encourages and promotes. The Council of Europe offers a legal framework also for these activities: The “Madrid Convention” (European Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation between Territorial Communities or Authorities) and its protocols.

·                     As you can imagine, exchanges between some 700 Congress members representing more than 200,000 local and regional communities of Europe reveals a great deal of innovation and experimentation going on at the grassroots. However, it would not have been possible if local and regional authorities did not have sufficient competences and resources to carry out their own policies and practices, if they were restricted by rigid national legal and policy frameworks or were answerable only to national governments and not to local and regional populations.

·                     The fact that European local and regional authorities today are elected directly by citizens and are accountable to the local population, that they have independent administrations as well as decision-making and financial autonomy, and that they have increasing exclusive responsibilities in a growing range of political areas provides them with great possibilities for innovation. And this is the result of the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

·                     Up to a point, vibrant and dynamic local and regional democracy in Europe is innovation in itself; it is certainly a landmark of the European democratic process, setting us apart from other continents. The spectacular advance of local and regional democracy in Europe has been based on the decentralisation of power from the traditional national centre towards the grassroots, in order to empower local and regional communities and enable them to participate in democracy building from the bottom up. It is only since 1988 that a common European legal framework exists for this autonomy and enabling factor for diversity: The ECLSG.

·                     The European Charter of Local Self-Government is at the heart of this decentralisation process. For the first time in history, the Charter establishes that people have a right to local self-government that must be enshrined in domestic law; and that they have the right to elect their own governing bodies which must operate without interference from higher levels, which must have sufficient competences to manage local affairs and respond to the citizens’ needs, and which must have sufficient financial resources to fulfil their duties.

·                     Also for the first time in history, the Charter codifies the principle of subsidiarity which entails the transfer of competences and matching resources from higher levels to local authorities. The principle of subsidiarity has been the guiding principle for the decentralisation of power in Europe and this triggered diversity, creativity and innovation.

·                     The Charter sets out a number of other rights for local authorities – such as the right to be consulted by higher authorities on matters directly affecting their communities, the right to appeal decisions by higher authorities in court, or the right to establish their own associations. All this to ensure the autonomous functioning of local authorities and to give them a possibility to contribute to national policy-making with their own experiences and good practices – serving the interests of the citizens.

·                     This non-dependent and autonomous functioning opens up a great potential for innovation. Thus, innovation is a by-product of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, a result of its implementation. By applying the principles of the Charter, the principles of decision-making and financial autonomy, the principle of subsidiarity and transfer of competences, you create a multitude of political actors and decision-makers at local and regional level. By empowering local and regional communities to take up challenges and problems faced by our citizens, you move from one uniform national policy and solution to a multitude of territorial policies and solutions carried out within our cities and regions and tailored to the specific needs of specific local and regional communities.

·                     Decentralised countries show a greater degree of experimentation and innovation, more diversity and dynamism than the centralised ones. Decentralised economies are also better at stimulating economic growth and ensuring an optimal use of local resources – and, especially at this time of crisis, they are better adapting to the impact of the crisis and show greater resilience to its consequences. It is exactly because they are more innovative in their approaches to the way of tackling the crisis taking decisions in knowing the local and regional needs better than central bodies. To do that, however, these regions must dispose of meaningful responsibilities and regulatory competences as well as the actual capacities for implementation in the policy fields concerned. The study “From Subsidiarity to Success” commissioned by the Assembly of European Regions (AER) in May 2009 confirms this. 

·                     Up to a point, the Charter of Local Self-Government is not new to European history. Over centuries, European cities have fought for municipal liberties, for having a special say in the country’s polities, which was sometimes granted by the national power (emperor, king, duke) in the form of a charter or statute  (Stadtrecht, Marktrecht, right of coinage, [Münzrecht]). This culture of local autonomy has been growing within national politics throughout history, to find its codified European reflection in the Local Self-Government Charter 25 years ago.

·                     This culture of local autonomy in itself is based on the liberty to innovate with one’s own local policies and practices. Innovation in local governance, innovation in organising local elections, innovation in involving local citizens in decision-making and governing processes – all this is therefore the direct result of local self-government and the implementation of the Charter.

·                     We see two important stages in embedding the culture of local autonomy and self-government in our thinking, law and practice – and accordingly, the role of the Congress in advancing local democracy.

·                     First, it is important to establish municipalities and local authorities as autonomous legal entities and political actors on behalf of their citizens vis-à-vis national governments, to strengthen the institutional role of “autonomous” municipalities and to give them greater competences. The European Charter of Local Self-Government serves to codify and protect this institutional role and to ensure the transfer of competences by the respective national legislations.

·                     This empowerment of local communities necessarily leads to more autonomous local authorities with more diverse local policies and ever-greater responsibilities to deal with the challenges and problems facing their citizens. This represents a natural evolution to the second stage.

·                     Namely, local authorities must be oriented towards citizens and meeting their needs. We see in today’s Europe that local authorities have substantial social responsibilities, accounting for a greater share of public expenditure on health, day-care, education and culture, and integration for example. Local authorities have key competences in terms of social care for vulnerable population groups, allocation of housing, assistance to families in economic distress or assistance with employment, among others. These social responsibilities require a great amount of innovation depending on the specific situation of each community, especially in the time of crisis.

·                     This citizen-oriented local democracy today also means greater participation of citizens in democratic governance at local level. Democracy today has problems at national level as the economic crisis is coupled with a crisis of democratic institutions and the growing gap between these institutions and citizens. The local level, as the first level of exercising democracy, offers a great potential for involving citizens directly through a multitude of tools such as citizen consultations, local referenda, popular petitions, citizen assemblies etc. – in addition to traditional local elections. New technologies also offer new opportunities in terms of e-democracy and e-participation.

·                     To reflect the need for greater citizen participation, an Additional Protocol to the Local Self-Government Charter, on the right of citizens to participate in the affairs of a local authority, was elaborated and adopted in 2009. This supplement to the Charter clarifies the responsibilities of both national governments and local authorities in enabling and organising citizen participation at the grassroots, and represents an additional legal tool for boosting local innovation. Today, it is through citizen participation and consultations with citizens that local policies are pursued and implemented.

·                     Ladies and Gentlemen, to sum up, I would like to stress that innovation has always been the driving force behind decentralisation and the culture of local self-government. By establishing general principles of local democracy, we pave the way for diversity in their application and spontaneous evolution of local practices. And if in the past innovation was often regarded as something dangerous, something undermining the stability established by tradition, today innovation has a positive value for us.

·                     It is through innovation that we move forward and find responses to today’s challenges. The European Charter of Local Self-Government is a true gateway to innovation because its implementation in itself calls for innovative approaches, and the Congress has collected ample evidence of it through its monitoring. And by implementing the Charter, by giving local authorities more and more new competences, by empowering local communities and involving local citizens in the process, we create a dynamic for constant innovation in ever greater number of areas.

·                     In the Europe of the 47, with some 200.000 local and regional authorities, innovation for some may be well established good practice for others. And it is the exchange about this diversity that generates further innovation and creative approaches and solutions under the umbrella of the Congress.