Conference on “20 years of the Congress and the Committee of the Regions – representation of regions and local communities in the Council of Europe and the European Union”

Innsbruck, 27 February 2014

Opening speech by Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Check against delivery

Presidents van Staa and van den Brande,

Secretary General Stahl,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On this jubilant occasion, I would like to join my voice in congratulating our two assemblies – the Congress and the Committee of the Regions – on their 20th anniversaries. Building a vibrant democracy from the bottom up, in our towns, cities and regions, has always been their raison d’être, determining our action for the past twenty years – and, in case of the Congress and its predecessor Conference, for more than half a century. We have been the driving force for bringing democratic governance to the doorstep of our citizens, for the devolution of power through decentralisation and regionalisation on our continent. This means taking responsibilities by local and regional politicians and developing new ways of associating our citizens in the decision making process by complementing representative democracy with participatory and direct democracy. Today, we have solid accomplishments to show, beginning with the legal basis.

The European Charter of Local Self-Government and its Protocol on citizen participation, the Madrid Convention on cross-border co-operation between territorial communities and its three Protocols, the Reference Framework for Regional Democracy, the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages and the European Charter on youth participation in municipal and regional life, the Convention on the participation of foreigners at local level – these are among the milestones on this path.

Today, as the Charter of Local Self-Government is ratified by all 47 Council of Europe member states, and with more and more countries adhering to those Charter provisions that were not initially accepted, we are standing on the threshold of the Charter’s universal application and a common European space of uniform standards for local democracy.

Together with the governments of the 47 member states the Congress has  established a sound legal framework for the development of local and regional democracy and cross-border co-operation between communities. However, implementing this framework is another matter.  Regular assessments by the Congress of the situation in member States have revealed such recurrent common issues as

These are just some of the problems faced today by local and regional governments. Our responses to these problems must be concrete and produce tangible results, reaching all levels of governance and our citizens at the grassroots. They require becoming less theoretical and more practical, more operational, more action-driven and result-oriented.

The world is changing fast, exposed to threats, tested by challenges – of which Ukraine is the starkest reminder today. We need to adjust to new realities of changing times. We cannot respond to today’s challenges with yesterday’s solutions and with theory alone. We need to develop a practical vision of the situation and of the way to improve it. We simply cannot be only setting standards and not be concerned with their practical application. Through their members, through their partner associations of local and regional authorities, the Congress and the Committee of the Regions must become actors in the field, on the ground, to advance their ideas.

This is why the Congress has undertaken a comprehensive reform in 2008-2010, to add a substantive operational aspect to its consultative and monitoring activities, and to engage in this respect with the intergovernmental sector and other partners. As a result, in addition to our political consultative work, we have re-oriented Congress activities to rest on four pillars:

-        first, to pursue our core activities and to improve procedures and effectiveness of our monitoring and election observation;

-        secondly, to develop post-monitoring and post-election observation dialogue with national governments, addressing the existing problems and helping with the implementation of our recommendations;

-        thirdly, when it is necessary, to develop co-operation activities based on the results of our monitoring and post-monitoring dialogue, and focused on the priorities established by this Committee and the mandate given by our member states to the Congress. We are doing this in a spirit of synergy with the intergovernmental sector of the Council of Europe;

-        and finally, to implement the policies of the Council of Europe with a strong local and regional dimension like the establishment of the Alliance of cities and regions for Roma inclusion, the campaign “1 in 5” to stop sexual violence against children or activities to strenghthen participation of young people in local and regional politics.

To become more efficient, our focus today is on creating a “virtuous cycle” of monitoring – post-monitoring – co-operation activities, translating the results of our monitoring and election observation into concrete improvements.

In this spirit, the Congress adopted in 2013 a resolution on developing post-monitoring dialogue with member states, in order to improve the Charter’s application through a working political partnership with national authorities. We are currently pursuing this post-monitoring dialogue with the authorities of several countries – such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Portugal, with Ukraine being in the pipeline. This dialogue serves to draw up a roadmap for the implementation of Congress recommendations.

Further to post-monitoring dialogue, the Congress has launched co-operation activities to promote local governance and strengthen local elected representatives’ role in political decision-making – both through our contribution to Council of Europe Action Plans for specific countries (for example, for Ukraine and Armenia as well as for Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, which are being prepared) and through our own co-operation programmes – such as in Albania, Armenia and Ukraine. 

We have also broadened and deepened our political dialogue both within the Council of Europe and with external partner institutions and member states, and have become a major stakeholder within the Council of Europe’s institutional architecture, together with the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Commissioner for Human Rights. Today, we have established a constant dialogue with the Committee of Ministers through regular exchanges of views with Permanent Representatives in Strasbourg and their Rapporteur Groups. As a result, the Congress is increasingly becoming not only a more pertinent political assembly but also an action-driven and result-oriented operational body.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by stressing yet again that we must go beyond mere standard-setting and political declarations. We need concrete follow-up action to be successful. We need democratic commitment by local and regional politicians that goes beyond lip service. Most importantly, we need that people, our citizens, see this commitment in action. We need to regain their trust, to restore public confidence in politicians and institutions of governance.

For this, we need a vision and yes, we need “prophets” and visionary politicians, if you wish, that can lead us forward. It is thanks to these influential and visionary politicians that the Committee of the Regions was established under the Maastricht Treaty and that the leaders of the Council of Europe Member States decided to set up a Congress and entrust it with the task of monitoring the situation of local and regional democracy. More than 20 years ago there was an objective and goal: To set up institutions of local and regional politicians in the EU and in the Council of Europe.

Today we have to ask the question: Have the new instruments been properly used? If we take stock of the work, what have the Committee of the Regions and the Congress achieved? And where should they go? What are the values and goals, is it worth fighting for, thriving for? 

These are some of the questions that this conference needs to ponder on:

I very much look forward to our discussions and to hearing ideas and proposals in response to these questions, and I would like to wish all of us a fruitful and constructive dialogue today.

Thank you.