Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe

Democracy, Social Cohesion and Global Challenges Committee

Round table on “Council of Europe bodies’ 2012 Commitments on Democracy”

Strasbourg, 26 June 2012

Speech by Keith Whitmore, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Madam Chair of the Committee,

President of the INGO Conference,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking this Committee for organising the round table to look at the future direction of European democracy. This initiative is timely indeed in the light of the current political, economic and social situation on our continent, marked by two simultaneous crises: the economic and financial crisis (which triggered also the crisis of the euro), but also the crisis of democratic institutions and processes that are losing trust of European citizens.

This second crisis in particular has brought to the fore the need for re-engaging citizens in democracy through their more direct and continued participation, and civil society plays a crucial role in this process – by mobilising people, fomenting their active civic position and contributing to active democratic citizenship overall.

The Council of Europe as a whole will be discussing these matters during the very first World Democracy Forum in October, and I am pleased to see that the INGO Conference has already begun preparing its contribution to this event.

I am also pleased to be here because local and regional authorities are key stakeholders in building a new democratic model for Europe – that of participatory democracy – and because they are doing so in close partnership with civil society in their communities. It is therefore only natural for me to contribute to this discussion, which is part of a broader political debate on the future of European democracy and on living together in Europe, taking place today.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I have just mentioned, the current situation in Europe is characterised, on the one hand, by two simultaneous crises. One is the obvious economic and financial crisis, with its devastating impact on all levels of governance – and in particular the local and regional levels, which often have to make hard choices with regard to budget cuts and the provision of social services.

The other crisis is a less evident one of democratic mechanisms and procedures, characterised by a growing gap between the institutions and the citizens, the feeling of exclusion from decision-making, a lack of public trust in democratic mechanisms and representative figures, and people’s disillusionment with democratic processes as a whole, due to the lack of effective rights of citizen participation and other institutional democratic deficits. This situation was described in a 2010 report of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly as a “crisis of democracy”.

Indeed, all signs of a systemic crisis are at hand today. According to the 2009 Eurobarometer, only about a third of European citizens today trust their national and European politicians, and only half have confidence in their local authorities. Most European citizens see corruption at all levels of governance as a major challenge to democracy – this, in a system of governance based on the rule of law and equal treatment which we proclaim. Many Europeans feel disempowered and excluded from decision-making on matters affecting them. This crisis must be addressed urgently if we are to advance into the future with a stronger, not weaker, democracy.

At the same time, and on the other hand, this crisis is taking place against the background of growing civic activism and a surge in people’s participation outside the established institutions of governance – through civil society, voluntary activities and social networks, for example.

This means that public authorities need to find new ways of engaging citizens and providing for their better and more meaningful participation in democratic decision-making, not limited to elections alone. We need a new model of continued citizen participation and feedback on public action, combining elements of direct democracy with the traditional system of representative democracy in building what can be described as “participatory democracy”.

We are convinced that this new democratic model will require several essential elements.

First, a new regulatory framework providing for various forms of citizen participation, regular consultations with citizens, their input into public action, and their overall involvement in decision-making. The local and regional levels represent a great potential in this regard. A better framework for citizen participation at the grassroots could take different forms: town hall meetings, public debates on issues of concern, citizen consultations and initiatives, local referenda, but also the form of various participative structures such as consultative councils of migrants and foreign residents, youth assemblies, even children’s councils, etc.

Civil society is a key partner of local and regional authorities in this respect, and I am pleased that the INGO Conference is preparing to take part in the European Local Democracy Week this October. The Congress will be pursuing this initiative, which has already become truly pan-European, of engaging local authorities and local citizens together in community affairs. We will be pleased to do it in partnership with civil society organisations. In this regard, we also continue to support your Code of good practice for civil participation, for which the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities gave a favourable opinion three years ago.

A participatory framework, in its turn, necessitates a greater devolution of power to bring public authorities closer to citizens and their needs. The greater the distance between citizens and institutions of power, the more complicated and problematic the procedures of involving citizens in decision-making, ensuring their access to guaranteed rights, and receiving their feedback on government action.

The Congress has been the driving force behind decentralisation in Europe for more than five decades, and we will be pursuing this process through the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, as well as by seeking to broaden its application. The entry into force, on 1 June, of the Additional Protocol to the Charter, dealing with the right of citizens to participate in the affairs of a local community, is a step in this direction and an important addition to the legal toolbox for increasing citizen participation.

Another essential element of participatory democracy is a new model of governance. There is a growing realisation today of the need to replace the concept of top-down transfer of competences and responsibilities with their bottom-up delegation, beginning with local communities. A system of multi-level governance reflects this vision, as it seeks to replace the vertical hierarchical subordination of the different tiers of government by their horizontal partnership, based on the delimitation of clearly identified competences and the sharing of responsibilities.

Finally, a democratic model based on constant citizen participation also requires informed, educated and conscientious citizens with an active civic position, citizens that are aware of their rights and civic duties. Fostering active democratic citizenship is thus yet another essential element, in order to ensure the quality of participation and therefore the quality of participatory democracy itself.

This is why the Congress has been calling on local authorities to develop policies and frameworks for education for democratic citizenship, as well as for raising human rights awareness in local and regional communities, through appropriate human rights education and training. We have also been looking into the possibilities of boosting citizen participation at the grassroots.

Civil society is a major partner in building these elements. The need for partnership between grassroots authorities and civil society organisations is regularly stressed in Congress resolutions and recommendations, and we will continue to support your important work of defending the values of democracy and mobilising citizen action.

Thank you.