Seminar with national associations of local and regional authorities of Romania

Bucharest, 13 June 2014

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

Dear representatives of national associations,

Dear colleagues,

It is a great pleasure to address you today on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. A political assembly of elected representatives from municipalities and regions of 47 European countries, the Congress has as its main task the strengthening of local and regional democracy across the European continent. A strong and dynamic local and regional self-government, which has become a landmark of European democracy, requires devolution of competences from the national level towards lower tiers of government, and the Council of Europe Congress has been the driving force behind this decentralisation process in Europe for almost 60 years.

Created in 1956 as the European Conference of Local Authorities to advance local and regional democracy, the Congress, a permanent Council of Europe institution since 1994, has as its core mission to ensure the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. The Charter is the first international treaty for local democracy, opened for signature in 1985, which lays down the principles of local governance and the rights of local authorities, and its provisions are binding for national governments.

By monitoring the Charter’s application, the Congress works to improve the situation of democracy at the grassroots and to raise the quality of governance in European territorial communities.  Apart from regular monitoring, which leads to country-specific reports, the Congress observes local and regional elections and engages national authorities in post-monitoring dialogue on how to implement its recommendations resulting from both monitoring and election observation. The so-called “implementation road maps”, established in consultation with both national and territorial authorities, may require co-operation programmes to address specific issues, which the Congress carries out either bilaterally with the country or as part of a Council of Europe action plan for this country. As a meeting place for local and regional politicians, the Congress also represents a forum for exchange of good practices and a genuine pan-European platform for co-operation between communities across national borders.

Over the years, the Congress has developed strong co-operation with both national and territorial authorities of Romania, which signed the European Charter of Local Self-Government in 1994 and ratified it in 1998. In fact, the very first monitoring report of the Congress was drafted in 1994 at the request of the Romanian Association of Local Authorities. In May 1995, a recommendation on the situation of local democracy in Romania was adopted based on this report, which was followed by information reports on local and regional democracy in the country in 2002 and 2003, and a new recommendation adopted in 2011.

The co-operation between the Congress and Romania received an additional boost during this country’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in 2005-2006. During this time, the Congress has contributed to a number of conferences in Romania, including an international conference in March 2006 in Constanta that launched the process of setting up a Black Sea Euroregion. Romania was instrumental in supporting this initiative of the Congress, and Constanta became the Euroregion’s seat when it was launched in 2008 as a co-operation framework for local and regional authorities in the Black Sea basin.

The most important contribution comes of course from the Romanian delegation to the Congress, which has been actively participating in its work. I mention here the important activities carried out by the head of the delegation, Ms Ludmila Sfirloaga, member of the Prahova County Council, Congress Vice-President since 2004 and President of its Chamber of Regions in 2008-2010 or Mr Emil Calota, former Congress Rapporteur on local democracy in Malta and on local and regional democracy in the Czech Republic. I should also name Ms Minodora Susana Luca, Mayor of Baisoara, who played an active role in promoting intercultural and interreligious dialogue at local level, and participated in encounters on the subject in Montchanin, France, in November 2010.

In December 2008, the County of Bacau from Romania was among the recipients awarded the Congress Prize of the Regions. The 5th district of Bucharest was also a member of the Core Group to drive forward the Congress’ proposal to create the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, with its Mayor Daniel Marian Vanghelie taking part in the Group’s first meeting in December 2011.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today, the Congress is following the situation in Romania through its close relations with five national associations of local and regional authorities in this country: the Association of Romanian Municipalities, the Association of Romanian Towns, the Romanian Association of Communes, the Romanian Federation of Local Authorities, and the Romanian National Union of County Councils. I welcome their representatives present at this seminar, and this is why I am particularly pleased to be here today.

Local and regional authorities do not have representative structures in national settings, such as parliaments, but their associations play a key role of representing territorial communities at the level of the entire country. This makes them the main national interlocutor of the Congress, itself a pan-European political assembly of territorial governments and parliaments. As the Congress also acts as a forum for exchange and dialogue for its members from 47 countries, we are convinced that this opportunity must also be extended to national associations, whose role and importance in helping the Congress to carry out its mission cannot be underestimated.

We all do indeed have a common mission. The primary responsibility of national associations is to represent and defend the interests of local and regional communities vis-à-vis national authorities, to be the voice of cities and regions at the national level – the role played by the Congress at the level of the entire continent. Much as the Congress does Europe-wide, associations provide a forum for experience-sharing and dialogue among territorial communities, and contribute to national policy-making with regard to local and regional self-government. In the long run, we all share a common cause of strengthening territorial democracy in each and every European country.

This is why the Congress naturally relies on national associations to relay its action at the national level and put pressure on governments to have them respect the principles of local democracy – first and foremost, the European Charter of Local Self-Government, our cornerstone treaty. We also rely on national associations – on you – to make sure that Congress recommendations are implemented and put into practice, both by national authorities and in local and regional communities. Finally, we count on you to serve as an “early-warning system”, alerting us to the challenges faced by local and regional authorities and raising alarm whenever you feel that the principles of local democracy, and the provisions of the Charter, might not be observed or even violated, and the autonomy of territorial communities – your autonomy – might be in danger.

We in the Congress are stretching out a helping hand to assist associations in this mission. Your representatives have the right to follow the work of the Congress and participate in its meetings, albeit without a right to vote. The associations are consulted in the preparations of Congress reports, especially monitoring reports on the situation of local and regional democracy in your countries – every monitoring mission of the Congress necessarily includes meetings with national associations.

We always seek and welcome your contribution to our activities, which serves to expand our knowledge of the situation in your country, and to target our action better. On the other hand, through your input into our work, you have an opportunity to participate in European policy-making, and to influence decision-making both in your own country and on the scale of the continent. It is in this spirit that the Congress has been organising, since February 2006, regular General Meetings of national associations in Strasbourg.

It has often been said that associations serve as a bridge between the Congress, which operates at European level, and authorities at the grassroots in their respective member states. We do need indeed your engagement in translating our proposals for action into concrete activities on the ground in local and regional communities. We need your commitment in helping us to put pressure on national governments to implement our recommendations. We need your input into the preparation of our monitoring and thematic reports, and we are relying on you to collect information on the situation in your communities.

Over the past two years alone, it has been the case, for example, in preparing our reports and recommendations on the situation of Roma, on local and regional electoral systems, on the impact of the economic crisis as well as in collecting best practices for the regeneration of coastal towns – not to count your contribution to our monitoring activities. Associations have been a valuable source of information for us, and we wish these different roles that I have just mentioned to be strengthened and expanded further.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The current situation of the economic crisis and its impact on communities at the grassroots also strengthens the role of associations as unions representing and defending the interests of grassroots authorities vis-à-vis national governments. National associations can and must engage in consultation and negotiation with central authorities on behalf of the grassroots. The economic and financial crisis has brought to the fore the need for greater involvement of local and regional level in economic policy-making and planning anti-crisis measures, for greater coordination and solidarity between the different tiers of government. This puts national associations in a position of partners with national governments as a representative voice of local and regional authorities.

In 2012, the Congress adopted Resolution 347(2012) and Recommendation 328(2012) on the right of local authorities to be consulted by other levels of government. In these texts, the Congress has underscored the obligation of national governments to consult local and regional authorities and their associations, as provided for in the Charter of Local Self-Government.

Overall, national associations play the role of action multiplier when we are speaking about contribution to thematic activities of the Congress and the Council of Europe as a whole. We are confident that the constructive relationship of co-operation and mutual benefit between the Congress and Romania, and in particular with you, Romanian associations, will continue to grow deeper and stronger in the future. National associations have a crucial role to play in this regard.

Thank you.