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

Dear former CoR President Luc van den Brande,

Dear members of the Committee of the Regions,

Dear members of the Congress,

Secretary General Stahl,

Secretary General Kiefer,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

It is a great pleasure for me to speak to you today to mark the 20th anniversaries of the EU Committee of the Regions and of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. Our two assemblies share a bond that is almost fraternal. They were both created in their current form in the same year 20 years ago, to give a voice to local and regional representatives in the European construction. They both are united by a common cause of strengthening local and regional democracy in Europe, pursuing decentralisation and defending local and regional self-government vis-à-vis national governments.

This solid common basis has allowed us to develop a broad and close co-operation on issues of mutual concern, to set joint priorities and objectives, and to work together in the pursuit of our goals. This co-operation has been consolidated in the bilateral agreement between our two assemblies, first signed in 2005 and further revised in 2009, aimed at building synergies in our respective activities and at better targeting our action.

We are holding regular meetings between our Presidents and Secretaries-General to agree on co-operation priorities. We have set up a joint Contact Group to map out specific activities in the pursuit of these priorities. Your members are participating in Congress missions to observe local and regional elections in European countries. Our rapporteurs on respective countries of the Eastern Partnership have met in the past to coordinate their positions, and today we are co-operating closely within the Conference of Regional and Local Authorities of the Eastern Partnership, CORLEAP.

The Congress has often come out in support of the Committee of the Regions initiatives, such as the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly, ARLEM – in which the Congress has observer status – or the proposal to draft a European Charter of Multi-level Governance for the area of the European Union. Here we see the European Charter of Local Self-Government as the valuable reference text!

I could continue with this list. Indeed, if we look at the distance covered over the past 20 years, we have much to celebrate. Over the past two decades, we have led a spectacular advance of local and regional democracy on our continent, which has become a landmark of European democratic development. The European Charter of Local Self-Government, which has marked 25 years of its entry into force, has now been ratified by all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. The cornerstone treaty for local democracy has been broadened with its Additional Protocol on citizen participation, which also entered into force in June 2012. 

We have seen success in putting forward an agenda for enhancing citizen participation in democracy, starting at the grassroots, and we are contributing to the debate on the future model of European democracy, amid the current crisis of public confidence in democratic institutions –a model centred on the citizen. People across Europe, and indeed across the world, are demanding access to governance and a greater say in decision making. The current events in Ukraine have been the most forceful proof of this.

Most importantly, we have seen success in convincing national governments that local and regional authorities today are much more than mere service providers, responsible for the delivery of public services to citizens. Empowered through decentralisation with a wide range of competences, they are fully involved in policy-making and policy implementation in their communities, and make a crucial contribution, from their experience on the ground, to shaping national and European policies.

Today, as we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we must continue to reassert ourselves as equal partners of national governments and parliaments in an emergent system of multi-level governance, based on both exclusive and shared responsibilities as well as clearly defined competences and roles for each stakeholder. This new system of mutual respect of each other’s sphere of action should underpin the new model of participatory democracy which is taking shape in Europe today and which complements the traditional one of representative democracy.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Congress and the Committee of the Regions themselves have evolved together with Europe’s territorial dimension, becoming strong with their experience in pursuing decentralisation, improving governance of our communities, monitoring the situation of local and regional democracy, observing elections in member states, and serving as platforms for co-operation and experience-sharing between grassroots elected representatives from across Europe.

However, while we have much to celebrate, we cannot ignore that decentralisation – local and regional democracy – has reached a crossroads, challenged by the many, and increasing, threats to the European democratic model. The multiple crises shaking our continent are threatening the social cohesion of European societies and the very foundations of our democracy. I am speaking about the severe economic and financial crisis that has brought to the forefront a crisis of people’s confidence in politicians and institutions of governance. I am speaking about the crisis of legitimacy of the bodies elected through very low voter turnout. I am speaking about a deeper crisis of values, of citizens’ disillusionment, with people questioning their democratic commitment against the background of rising extremism and xenophobia.

Governments are using economic arguments to recentralise and to claw back competences, squeezing local budgets and restricting the freedom of local authorities to raise income through taxation and to decide how to allocate and spend their resources. Corruption and lack of transparency remain serious impediments to good governance.

You in the Committee of the Regions know it all too well, and you expressed your concern in the Committee’s opinion last April, when you stressed that the economic crisis and austerity measures cannot be used as an excuse to further centralise or devolve powers without providing corresponding financial resources. Indeed, further decentralisation not matched by corresponding financial resources cannot be used as an argument for centralisation. Last October, the Congress supported this position in its resolution and recommendation on local and regional responses to the economic crisis.

These problems are set against the background of growing cultural diversity of Europe and integration pressures compel us to work towards building a truly intercultural and inclusive society, to change people’s perceptions and attitudes and to promote diversity advantages through intercultural education and community action.

Local and regional authorities are at the forefront of responding to these challenges, and our future depends on the ability and capacity of our two assemblies to lead in this action. To be successful, we must work to embed a culture of decentralised democracy in European governance. We must convince national governments that it is dangerous and short-sighted to roll back democracy and participation, by seeking to make short-term financial savings on a pretext of greater efficiency.

We must explore better governing models in our communities, seizing opportunities provided by new information technologies and e-democracy, and citizens’ calls for direct democracy and greater involvement. In this new reality of changing times, the Congress and the Committee can no longer confine themselves to setting standards and giving opinions – we must pursue their practical application that would yield tangible results for all levels of governance and, first and foremost, for our citizens at the grassroots.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite the current multiple crises, the future of local and regional democracy can be bright. We are witnessing today new participatory models, new partnerships, new forms of dialogue and consultation. New technologies are giving us unprecedented possibilities for involving our citizens directly in the processes of local government. Never before has there been so much recognition of the importance of grassroots action, giving us a truly historic opportunity to engage in concrete dialogue with national governments and other European institutions.

I wish to congratulate the Committee of the Regions on its 20th anniversary and to express my deeply held conviction that the new era of participatory democracy will confer a central role on local and regional governance, giving both our institutions great opportunities and even greater responsibilities.

We shall continue working together, joining our efforts for a more vibrant democracy at the grassroots, for stronger and more relevant local and regional self-government, and for better governance of our communities.

Thank you.