16th Plenary Session of the Congress – Strasbourg (France)

Opening of the session

Speech by Ian Micallef, President a.i. of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

3 March 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my firm conviction that our Congress today finds itself in a new situation, a new paradigm which is the result of years of an accelerating shift in the power balance from the national towards territorial level, and a consequent steady increase in the role and political weight of local and regional communities and their representative bodies.

These years of the devolution of power, decentralisation and regionalisation in Europe have brought into political prominence the most fundamental building block of our societies, which is territorial communities, turning them into key players in the European political landscape and their authorities into the most representative voice of the people.

Let us look at where local and regional authorities stand today, and how it affects the place and role of the Congress.

For many years, various public opinion polls and surveys have been showing that local and regional authorities are the most trusted layer of government in Europe, which makes them not only a natural but also indispensable partner of national governments. 

Governments today recognise that solutions to even the most taxing problems require the necessary involvement of territorial communities and their authorities. Global challenges facing society today – climate change, migration, social and economic upheavals, demographic change – all call for responses from local and regional level.

Tackling climate change and global warming, for example, necessitates building adaptive capacities of local and regional communities and finding ways for optimal use of local resources, be it water management, waste disposal, optimisation of public transport networks, sustainable use of energy sources or industrial applications. It also means introducing innovative approaches, because new problems require new solutions, and here local and regional authorities have been showing remarkable ingenuity experimenting with what fits best in their communities. The presentation of Energy Cities during the Congress’ 15th Plenary Session last May, for instance, is just one proof of it. With their wealth of experience, territorial communities have much to share with their counterparts and, yes, with national governments which have no other way than to take them on board – because, after all, it is the communities that bear the brunt of the consequences of the governments’ decisions.

Let us take another example – the global financial crisis. Who is, or will be suffering from it the most, and who has to find immediate remedies to buttress its consequences in communities? Whereas people have little control over the government’s borrowing and spending, they can certainly hold their municipal or regional councils, mayors or governors accountable for managing local resources. It comes as no surprise that local and regional authorities, which in the European Union alone control two thirds of all public investments, have shown over the years a far better management of assets than their national counterparts. And yet, until now they have little or no say in the international financial system, which is waking up today to the need for their greater involvement.

I could go further with this list, but the message is clear – territorial communities today are the stakeholders that governments cannot do without. This is the novelty of the situation in which the Congress can and must play a growing political role as the builder of democracy from the bottom up. Indeed, we are the elected representatives closest to the citizens. We are distinguished by this proximity, by our knowledge of the terrain, of the needs and expectations of our communities, and of what really works on the ground in practical terms. Our experience is an invaluable asset for national and even international policy-making, as more and more communities are going global, creating European and international networks, advancing their political agenda through City Diplomacy and fostering new territorial arrangements in a Europe without dividing lines.

This is why the Congress, as a pan-European body of local and regional authorities, as the voice of villages, towns, cities, provinces and regions – all different tiers of the complex European governance – has a political vocation today. We are representatives of the Europe of communities talking to the Europe of governments, and we are here to make sure that their voices are heard, their rights defended and their interests respected.

The Congress has the tools to achieve this, and its functioning has just undergone revision and been renewed to do it better, with the new Congress Charter, the new Rules of Procedure, and the new composition of national delegations with a minimum 30 per cent requirement of women representation. From now on, we will have two plenary sessions a year – a major accomplishment which will allow us to follow more closely and in depth national situations of local and regional democracy and their development.

Thanks to our most formidable and powerful tool, the European Charter of Local Self-Government, we have set up monitoring mechanisms to make sure that all member states apply and respect the principles of territorial democracy. I am speaking about monitoring missions and country-by-country reports, observation of local and regional elections and, most recently, fact-finding missions. Fact-finding missions may be the first element in an early-warning and rapid-response system needed to follow closely national developments in the field of local and regional self-government. Our missions to Turkey, Latvia and Belgium in 2007-2008 gave rise to open and frank debates on what may be going wrong on the ground. And if some governments are critical of our work and have harsh words for us, it means that we are doing something right. Control by popular elected representatives and their critical assessment are the backbone of democracy.

If anything, today we want to add more instruments to our toolbox. We want to convince governments of the expediency of a European Charter of Regional Democracy, in order to create a legal basis for democratic governance and development at regional level. We want to foster principles of new urban governance and modern living, set out in our European urban Charter II: Manifesto for a new urbanity. We want to boost further cross-border cooperation between cities and regions, for better integration, for better social and territorial cohesion.

We have the tools and we have the will, but not always the necessary resources. If there is a problem today, it is that the Congress is not doing enough and that the potential of our tools, first and foremost the Charter of Local Self-Government, has not been realised to the fullest extent. We could use our tools more and better, we could react faster and to more cases of alleged wrongdoing, we could launch more initiatives such as local democracy agencies, networks of local authorities, Euroregions – if the Congress were endowed with sufficient resources to accomplish its mission. Without it, our endeavours will be handicapped at best.

This is why we must turn to the Council of Europe member states and say: You have recognised that local democracy is a constituent part of any democratic system. You have recognised the importance of local and regional authorities. You have recognised the role of the Congress. It is time to give it resources that match its competences. After all, this is the principle that you enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Summing up, I would like to stress once again that we are living at a time of tremendous challenges but this is also a time of enormous potential for territorial democracy, for local and regional communities in Europe.

In the Congress, we have the will, we have the tools to harness this potential.

It is our firm resolve to stay the course that we have charted with our priorities for 2009-2010.  I believe that we are on course.  The wind is in our sails.