124th Session of the Committee of Ministers

Vienna, Austria, 5-6 May 2014

Speech by Herwig van Staa, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to address you today on behalf of more than 200,000 local and regional communities of our countries, on behalf of elected representatives at the grassroots, who are contributing on a daily basis to democratic stability and development  of our member states. Their work at the level closest to the citizen is of crucial importance especially today, when our citizens increasingly demand to have more ownership of democratic processes, and a greater say in governance.

Today, in a very difficult situation, we are commemorating the foundation of the Council of Europe 65 years ago. And we think of the creation of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities by the Committee of Ministers 20 years ago in, 1994. However, the work of the Council of Europe for building democratic self-government in our cities and regions as the basis of democratic societies goes back almost six decades. It was the Congress’ predecessor, the Conference of Local and Regional Authorities established in 1957, who lead this pioneering work together with the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers.  Local and regional democracy through decentralisation and greater autonomy for local authorities and regions has become THE landmark of European democratic development. I would like to thank you, Ministers, and the ambassadors in the Committee of Ministers’ Deputies, for always being firmly behind this process of enhancing responsibilities and accountability of local and regional elected representatives who serve the values of the Council of Europe and our citizens; and I would like to express my thanks for the kind words of congratulations to the Congress on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.

However, this process of decentralisation is at a crossroads today, challenged by multiple crises that are shaking up our continent. The economic and financial crisis has highlighted the actual and perceived shortcomings of democratic institutions in dealing effectively with its consequences. A lack of citizen participation is causing a loss of people’s confidence in politicians and political parties, and a crisis of legitimacy of the bodies elected through very low voter turnout. Corruption and lack of transparency remain serious impediments to good governance. Citizens’ disillusionment leads to a deeper crisis of values, when people are questioning their democratic commitment, against the background of rising extremism and xenophobia. At the same time, growing cultural diversity of Europe compels us to work towards building a truly intercultural and inclusive society.

It will therefore be with great interest that the Congress will analyse and react to the report of the Secretary General on the ''State of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe''. We will deal with the challenges and responses at local and regional level and we will offer our contributions to improving the situation!

In the Congress, we are convinced that greater decentralisation and more democracy at the grassroots is what Europe needs today. To regain citizens’ trust, we must work to embed in European governance a culture of strong and sound local democracy, with real responsibility and political accountability.

Local and regional authorities play a crucial role in responding to today’s challenges, and have become fully-fledged political partners of national governments in this process. The Congress is at the forefront of this action, as the only political assembly in Europe that regularly monitors the development of local and regional democracy and works for its improvement. Your governments have entrusted us with this important role, and the Congress is engaged in constant political dialogue with the Committee of Ministers and national authorities. We pursue this dialogue through our monitoring, election observation and post-monitoring, through our current co-operation activities and participation in Council of Europe action plans for specific countries – for example, the Action Plan for Ukraine which is currently under revision. Today, the situation in Ukraine is our major concern, and the Congress will be observing the partial local elections in this country later this month and report back to you.  – including elections of mayors, organised in about 40 cities. 

We are determined to continue expanding synergies with the intergovernmental sector and other institutional partners, both within and outside the Organisation, as not only an institutional but also operational body. The Congress remains a committed partner of the Committee of Ministers in bringing together the efforts of both national governments and grassroots authorities for the benefit of European citizens.