Speech by Jean-Claude Frécon, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

115th Plenary Session of the European Committee of the Regions

Brussels, 4 December 2015

Mr President, esteemed colleagues,

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you, alongside Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress, whom you know very well.

It is the first time the President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe is addressing a Plenary Session of the European Union's Committee of the Regions. I am therefore highly honoured and I hope that this first address will mark the beginning of a new practice.

My visit to Brussels comes at a time of tragic events. On 13 November 2015, the capital city of France, Paris, was hit by a series of terrorist attacks of unparalleled violence, which led my country’s authorities to declare a state of emergency for three months. Turkey, Russia and Tunisia are mourning other attacks, which also took place in November. Brussels, where the European institutions are headquartered, experienced several days of a maximum state of alert, with a maximum terror alert level.

In this deadly environment, our societies' cohesion is weakened, despite the remarkable outpourings of solidarity we have witnessed. Tensions are emerging between the enjoyment of our fundamental freedoms and our human rights, and security requirements: this issue, “Freedom versus Control: For a Democratic Response”, was the topic of the 4th World Forum for Democracy organised by the Council of Europe on 18-20 November. The European project itself, which is based on our model of a free society, is being jeopardised by rising fears and identity-based isolationism.

In an environment such as this, now more than ever, the Council of Europe and the European Union – including our own Congress and your Committee of the Regions – must combine their efforts. Our missions and means of action are different, but we share the same objectives:

-          To ensure that the local and regional dimension is taken into account during decision-making processes at national and European level in our respective organisations

-          To contribute to the implementation of these decisions by involving the authorities we represent, those closest as possible to the citizens

-          And, overall, to promote local and regional autonomy throughout Europe, within the 28 Member States of the European Union and the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe.

Our work together has strong foundations, the cooperation agreement we reached in 2009, which was itself based on the memorandum of understanding of 2007 between the Council of Europe and the European Union. We share 28 member States, and a certain number of representatives from these countries are members of both the Congress and the Committee of the Regions.

Last year, the Congress and the Committee of the Regions both celebrated their 20th anniversary. That provided us with an opportunity to assess our cooperation in order to strengthen it and build upon it. In this respect, I welcome the decision taken in 2015 to transform the Contact Group that existed up until that point into a more select, albeit high-level, group, consisting of the President of the Congress and the Presidents of the two chambers of the Congress, on one side, and the President of the Committee of the Regions, the first Vice President of the Committee and the President of the CIVEX Commission, on the other.

We have reached the stage where it is possible and desirable to identify shared priorities which could enable us, as far as is possible and advisable, to move on from cooperation to joint action.

To some extent, we are already doing this when observing local and regional elections, since members of the Committee of the Regions are often included in the observer delegations of the Congress. This year, it was the case for Moldova, Albania and Ukraine. I know that your involvement in our election observation missions is a matter of debate at your meetings, and I welcomed your decision, in July, to continue this involvement in the enlargement countries and those of the Eastern Partnership. We in the Congress would welcome a willingness of the Committee of the Regions to become more involved, politically and financially, in these missions.

We are both at work in the countries belonging to the Eastern Partnership, which are neighbours of the European Union but also member States of the Council of Europe, with the exception of Belarus. Together, we recently organised a series of round tables in Brussels on the state of local democracy in Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Armenia, based on the monitoring work carried out by the Congress in relation to the European Charter of Local Self-Government. The Congress is also involved in the work of CORLEAP, established by the Committee of the Regions to support countries from the Eastern Partnership.

Among these countries, Ukraine is evidently a key concern. The Council of Europe and the Congress are heavily involved in the ongoing reforms, including the ambitious decentralisation process that began in spring 2014 and which led to the adoption of constitutional amendments on 31 August 2015. For its part, the Committee of the Regions created a specific Task Force for Ukraine last February, which is accompanying local authorities in the process of establishing closer links between the European Union and Ukraine, launched one year earlier. Ukraine is a country where we could conceivably do more to work in synergy together: let us not forget that the future of Europe will be settled partly in Ukraine!

The meaningful and mutually beneficial work we are carrying out in the countries of the Eastern Partnership could be extended to the enlargement countries. Local democracy and decentralisation are key issues for most of these countries, as can be seen from the significant territorial reforms implemented in 2014-2015 in Albania.

In addition to its work monitoring local and regional democracy in the member States of the Council of Europe, which are all parties to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the Congress recently developed post-monitoring activities aimed at drawing up a joint “roadmap” for further reforms in collaboration with the governments of the countries concerned. This procedure mainly consists in renewing political dialogue with the authorities of the countries involved, so as to implement the recommendations adopted by the Congress. Last May, I myself signed the first “roadmap” of this type with the Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Genadiy Zubko, and another was signed in September with the Portuguese Government. On 16 December, I will visit Tbilisi to sign a third roadmap with the Georgian Minister for Regional Development, Mr Nodar Javakhishvili.

This work on monitoring, post-monitoring and observing elections has, for several years now, been complemented by cooperation activities benefiting certain member States of the Council of Europe with the aim of providing tangible support for reforms and of training local elected representatives and young civil society leaders regarding the principles and standards of the Council of Europe in the field of local democracy. Such cooperation programmes are currently being implemented in Albania, Armenia and Ukraine, as part of the action plans of the Council of Europe, as well as in the six countries of the Eastern Partnership, as part of a regional programme funded by the European Union. They could certainly provide a framework for possible involvement of the members of the Committee of the Regions.

Aside from these opportunities for reinforced cooperation at national level, we could also identify joint thematic priorities. The discussion you held yesterday on migration and the integration of refugees echoed our debates during our October session, and we will naturally be continuing our work on this burning issue. Again during the October session, we also adopted guidelines on preventing radicalisation and acts of hatred at local level, another highly topical subject. Lastly, a report is currently being drafted, under the supervision of our colleague and friend Herwig Van Staa, on the promotion of ethics and the prevention of corruption at local and regional level.

I am contributing these ideas to the ongoing discussions, in anticipation of the first  meeting of the new Contact Group at the beginning of 2016, and I will be glad to welcome President Markkula next March in Strasbourg for the next Plenary Session of the Congress.

Thank you for your attention.