Forum for the Future of Democracy
13-15 June 2007, Stockholm et Sigtuna (Sweden)

Speech by Halvdan Skard, President of the Council of Europe Congress

Mr Chairman,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

We all know of course the famous phrase coined by Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except “for all the others that have been tried”. With his typical blend of wit and cynicism, Churchill wanted to emphasise that the shortcomings of democratic governance far outweigh the abuses which you will find in other systems of government.

This phrase belongs to a different historic period, different historic circumstances.  The establishment and political elite may have thought that they had a reason to keep the people at arm's length during the era of geopolitics, wars, colonialism and, later, the Cold War's ideological confrontation, but we live in a different time. We have a historic opportunity, and we have realised the need to correct the shortcomings, to advance with human rights protection and to set the democratic development of our societies on the track that leads to Inclusion and Participation.

Today, we are talking about empowerment - of citizens, minority groups, civil society, and, last but not least, territorial communities at grassroots level, where democracy starts and thrives. Instead of having one or two actors imposing power from top to bottom, we must be creating networks of empowered actors (stakeholders) endowed with a checks and balance system of devolved power, from bottom up.

This was recognised at the Warsaw Summit of Council of Europe Heads of State and Government, who decided to set up this Forum for the Future of Democracy. The Summit also attached particular importance to the development of local and regional democracy which lies at the foundation of the democratic edifice of our societies, and to the role of the Council of Europe Congress in this process, which I represent today as its President and which, in turn, represents more than 200,000 territorial communities of Europe. The unprecedented participation of local and regional authorities in this Forum is also a reflection of the added value brought by the local and regional dimension to the development of democracy.

As we embark on the ambitious project of building a Europe of Participation, we must keep in mind the importance of engaging and empowering territorial communities and their authorities, through the transfer of competences and means, as an equal partner of governments, parliaments and civil society.

As we emphasised in the Congress’ written contribution to this Forum, local and regional authorities are at the forefront in dealing with the problems which we are facing today – trafficking in human beings, domestic violence, racial attitudes, drug abuse, urban safety, street children, lack of gender equality, to name but a few.

Local and regional authorities are often the first to be affected by their consequences, the first to treat the victims of human rights abuses and take preventive measures. This is even more so as progressive decentralisation and the devolution of power towards territorial communities, coupled with the transfer of competences from central governments, is increasingly making local and regional authorities the first line of defence of human rights. Municipalities and regions, when democratically governed, are natural partners of member states’ authorities to strengthen human rights, engaging jointly in action plans for human rights, and elaborating indicators to monitor their implementation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We must always remember that local and regional authorities are best placed to take action within their communities, at the level closest to the citizen, be it by mobilising community leaders to ease ethnic tensions, by setting up shelters for battered women, by organising local police to take action against human trafficking or preventing urban riots.

They are also best placed to engage young people in public life, by implementing the revised and user-friendly European Charter on the Youth Participation in Public Life at Local and Regional Level, by improving the situation in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, or by increasing the involvement of foreign residents, including young people, through the Council of Europe Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public and Political Life at Local Level. 

Territorial communities also bring added value to the development of participatory democracy through the sharing of information, experience and best practices and setting up networks such as the Cities for Local Integration Policy (CLIP), Cities for Children, Cities for Human Rights, Cities for Peace, or the Berlin Process in favour of disadvantaged neighbourhoods – the networks in which the Council of Europe Congress is taking an active part.

Of course, we must go further in mobilising and engaging our communities. Our Congress has already joined in Council of Europe campaigns to fight trafficking in human beings and domestic violence against women, and we are currently launching a City Diplomacy project aimed at engaging municipalities in dialogue and joint action for peace and stability and human rights. If we are to succeed in our mission, all of us, we must put to good use the famous slogan: “No one is left behind”.

I would like to conclude by stressing once again that we cannot achieve genuine participatory democracy without empowering local and regional communities, engaging people in the decision-making and giving them the feeling of belonging to a community which decides for itself regardless of the political elite, where every individual is in a position to influence his or her own future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It was the philosopher Karl Popper who said: “Democracy is the word for something that does not exist”. He chose these words deliberately, of course, to stress the challenge facing us. Let us prove him wrong. Let us make a Europe of Inclusion a reality where the acquis of the national and even supranational democratic development are combined with a vibrant and vigorous local democracy of sustainable communities. Let us make sure that democracy becomes the word for something that does exist.