18th Plenary Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

Strasbourg, 17 March 2010

Speech by Ian MICALLEF, Acting President of the Congress

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are beginning this year under the sign of change. Our entire Organisation, the Council of Europe, is undergoing a far-reaching reform launched by the new Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland. Europe, he says, is at a crossroads, the Council of Europe too, and today we have a historic opportunity to adapt the Council of Europe and the Congress to the new challenges.

To reach these objectives, the Council of Europe must be more efficient, more relevant to the expectations of our citizens, and more visible – these are the main goals of the reform. This last January, the Committee of Ministers, the governments of all the 47 member countries, gave their full support to the Secretary General’s proposals.

The Congress cannot and will not stay aside from this ambitious project. We, local and regional elected representatives, know all too well that democracy is not a state but a constant process. Democracy is evolving together with life itself, together with the changing political, economic and social situation in our communities, together with times. The needs of our citizens are changing, compelling us to look for new responses. This is why we, too, must be in motion, adjusting our priorities and practices to be more efficient, more relevant and more visible. And this is why we fully endorse and subscribe to the reform project of Secretary General Jagland. The Congress was the first assembly that he addressed after his election last October, and this afternoon we will have again the privilege of holding an exchange of views with him on his vision for the Council of Europe.

In fact, the Congress itself has embarked on its own revision of working methods, structures and activities, with a report prepared by our Past President Halvdan Skard and discussed for the first time last June. We must refocus our priorities and put the tools at our disposal to the best and most efficient use – and I mean, first, our monitoring.

We have already made progress in this regard. This year, a much larger proportion of the Congress budget has been allocated to monitoring, and we have scheduled 15 monitoring visits in 2010.

We are also looking at another tool, election observation, to make it more efficient, relevant and visible. Our recent observations reports are now provoking more in-depth debates and a more passionate response from the governments concerned.

We have also taken action to increase the relevance of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which is the legal basis of our main mission. On the one hand, our Institutional Committee is looking into the Charter’s reception in domestic legal systems of our member states; on the other hand, we launched a strategy to make the Charter’s ratification universal in Europe. I am convinced that in the near future, all the member states of the Council of Europe will have ratified the Charter.

We have strengthened relations with our main partner within the European Union, the Committee of the Regions, and signed a revised cooperation agreement last November. Also in November, the Congress had a chance to enter into dialogue with governments on the reform of the Council of Europe’s work in the field of local and regional democracy and the follow-up to Congress recommendations, during the Conference of Ministers responsible for Local and Regional Government in Utrecht, Netherlands. As a result of this Conference, we now have new instruments in our toolbox: a reference framework for regional democracy and protocols on democratic participation at local level and on Euroregional groupings.

In December, our delegation took part in the Copenhagen Summit on climate change. Vice-Presidents Dubravka Suica and Günther Krug, and Gaye Doganoglu, Chair of the Sustainable Development Committee, defended strongly our position on the role and relevance of local and regional action. Although the Summit results did not meet our expectations, they showed that municipalities and regions have a major role to play in taking up the challenge of climate.

Finally, in January we participated in the launch of the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly, ARLEM, in which the Congress will be fully involved as observer. Euro-Mediterranean co-operation is of utmost importance to the future of European construction, and therefore highly relevant to the objectives of the Council of Europe and the Congress as a prospective priority of action. This, too, will be subject of a debate at this session. 

However, these are just the first steps. Much as the reform of the Council of Europe, the reform of the Congress must be more far-reaching, must be deeper and broader. I have said that democracy is a process, and we all know that political process is often long and takes time. But time is what we don’t have. We are already close to the end of March, and we need to move quickly from reflection to action, from analysis to implementation.

We need all Congress political structures mobilised, all Congress members. We must start with an ambitious reform, and we need input from all Congress committees and working groups on priorities that are more relevant to people and to the objectives of the Council of Europe.

This is a real challenge, but I know that this project is in good hands. I have trust in the wisdom of our Past President Halvdan Skard to build on his initial report and give us a vision of the future of this Congress in relation to a Council of Europe reformed and reoriented through the efforts of Thorbjørn Jagland. A future where we will be more efficient and more relevant, and will rise to the expectations of our citizens.

This is a challenge, but the movement is already under way. We are already in motion. We must keep on moving.

Thank you.