COSLA Annual Conference 2016: “Local Government: Leading Reform”
Living Together in Diverse Local Communities: Leading, Developing and Empowering Municipalities in Europe
Crieff, Perthshire, 6 October 2016
Speech by Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me thank COSLA for engaging in the European Local Democracy Week (ELDW) and for devoting part of this conference to the main theme of the ELDW 2016, “Living together in culturally diverse societies”.
What is the ELDW?
The European Local Democracy Week is a pan-European initiative aimed at fostering citizen participation at grassroots level and therefore strengthening citizens’ ownership of their community. It was launched in 2007 and is co-ordinated by the Congress. This initiative was created because we are convinced that by increasing public participation in decision-making processes and allowing citizens to express their choices and opinions, transparency can be improved and public confidence in the democratic process increased. The ELDW is also intended to promote the European Charter of Local Self-Government and its Additional Protocol on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority.
In the framework of the ELDW, local authorities from almost 30 member states of the Council of Europe and beyond organise public events to meet and engage with their citizens on issues of current interest.
The European Local Democracy Week is a very appropriate means of communication to reach out to local politicians and to the citizens. Through the ELDW, the Congress conveys the following messages:
1. Local self-governance is a landmark of modern democratic societies and notably of the European model of society. It has an enormous impact on citizen’s everyday lives and is, therefore, something that is worth promoting, defending and also celebrating;
2. Meaningful citizen participation will contribute to a more accountable, transparent and legitimate local government and more efficient public services. The use of e-governance tools can further facilitate the involvement of citizens living in rural areas in the decision-making processes (1/5 of Scottish population lives in rural areas) à rural areas will be one of the priorities for the work programme of the Congress in the new mandate 2016 - 2020;
3. Citizen participation, power sharing and providing space and opportunity for interaction are of paramount importance for successful local policies.
Also dialogue between people of different cultural background is essential. Civic engagement is conducive to facilitating the integration of newcomers and help them adapting to a new social environment.
4. Through its website, the ELDW also serves as a pool of ideas and good practices on participative democracy and gives the opportunity to be part of a large international community engaged in promoting active citizenship.
Some municipalities are struggling when deciding on what activities their regular budget allocated for participatory activities should be spent the most efficient way. At the annual assessment meeting of the ELDW (to be next held on 30 January 2017), participating cities can also exchange good practices and build further partnerships. A lack of money does not mean a lack of creativity!
5. Lastly, the ELDW is intended as a European framework for elected representatives to better inform their citizens on what they can do for their communities at local, and also at pan-European level, and as such, it can contribute to increasing the legitimacy of local governments in the multi-level architecture of Europe.
“Inclusive societies” and the challenges for local authorities
In 2016, we chose to highlight the importance of intercultural dialogue and peaceful living together in the framework of the ELDW. Our objective was to reflect on the growing tendencies of radicalisation and violent extremism, and the threats these pose to our societies. We also intended to stress the added value of diversity for human and social development instead of emphasising the risks and the perceived and real security challenges related to the number of migrants which currently dominate the political discourse in many countries. Elected representatives are indeed key players in turning the discourse on migration to a more positive direction and ensuring that the message on the importance of peaceful living together is passed and heard by their communities.
Given its political mandate, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is well-aware that local and regional authorities are at the forefront of these challenges. Therefore, the Congress has been working on several tools particularly designed to help local and regional elected representatives addressing these issues. The most recent instruments in this respect are:
These initiatives are completely in line with the ‘Council of Europe Action Plan 2015-17 to combat extremism and radicalisation leading to terrorism’, and other Council of Europe activities, such as the Intercultural Cities Programme.
Another important aspect of the Congress’ work is raising awareness of the added value of diversity and fostering citizen participation at grassroots level, as a means of empowering people to take part in the debate on the current arrival of refugees and to stand up for the European values of democracy, solidarity and human rights.
Education for democratic citizenship
Under the 2016 theme of “living together” of the ELDW, we decided to place a special focus on promoting human rights and citizenship education. We have to face the reality that the public opinion – based on the published opinion - is susceptible to extreme and violent ideologies and to loud but shallow populist rhethoric.
We see that citizens are no longer able to embrace the rules and institutions of democracy as active and critically thinking subjects. In other words, it is crucial to educate citizens at the earliest age on the fundamental principles and values of our democracies, so that they are able to acquire a critical understanding of the political and social processes of the world, of their country, of their nation and the smaller community they live in. Only then effective participatory and co-decision processes can be developed to actively involve citizens in decision-making and to inform them about the public issues they are concerned about.
To facilitate this educational work at all levels of government, the ministers for education of the 47 Council of Europe member states have been developing a framework document entitled “Competences for Democratic Culture”. This competence framework, which addresses values, attitudes, skills and knowledge and critical understanding of our democratic societies will support educational decision makers and planners and help educational systems to be harnessed for the preparation of learners for life as competent democratic citizens. The promotion of education for democratic citizenship and human rights will also be at the heart of the 2016 World Forum for Democracy organised by the Council of Europe, to which Congress members will make an active contribution.
The ELDW in practical terms:
Local authorities can organise a wide range of participatory activities, taking into consideration their own priorities and their specificities of local self-government. The events are not required to be large scale or highly innovative, rather capable of getting people of all ages to participate in local affairs. These can be, for instance, public hearings, debates, open days in town halls, exhibitions, essay competitions in schools, participatory budgeting activities, neighbourhood meetings or public discussions with refugees at municipal premises. These have shown that transforming the “anonymous refugee” into a concrete person or family with an individual history and road of life completely changes the perception and attitude towards these new arrivals.
The activities can also be already planned events related to the theme of the current edition or participatory activities in general, with the condition that the event is being registered on the ELDW website and marked with the official logo.
Last year, 96 local and regional authorities, their associations and the civil society organisations, coming from 29 countries, celebrated the European Local Democracy Week with us. They organised more than 250 activities, which can be seen on the official website of the ELDW. While we do not have final statistics on the current edition yet, I can tell you that in 2016, apart from COSLA, five boroughs from the UK (Stockton on Tees, Wiltshire, Bracknell, Brent, Bedfordshire) registered to take part in the ELDW.
I do hope that some of you will join them and take up this initiative next year. 2017 will be a special year for us, as the ELDW will celebrate its 10th Anniversary. The Democracy Week will officially take place between 9 and 15 October 2017. However, should this coincide with other events or local elections, local authorities may choose to organise the ELDW on more convenient dates in October. Maybe next year’s COSLA conference will be an opportunity to celebrate the anniversary together!
You can find all relevant information and the link to registration on the official website of the ELDW (www.coe.int/demoweek), contact our Secretariat for more information (contact on the leaflet), or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
I invite you to join the European family of active municipalities, responsive to their citizens, who work together in the European Local Democracy Week!
 In 2016, Kairouan and Youth without Borders from Tunisia, in the past 2 municipalities from Tunisia and 10 from Morocco participated in the week.
 See in detail and in several languages: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/competences_en.asp