Symposium “Municipalities and Regions as the Foundation of Modern Civil Society”

Salzburg, 7 February 2014

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

President Pallauf,

Mayor Schaden,

President Mödlhammer,

Dr Schmidinger,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you to this Symposium on a subject that is of crucial importance in Europe today. The multiple crises shaking our continent are threatening the European democratic model, the very foundations of our democracy. I am speaking about the 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 corruption, extremism and rising xenophobia.

These crises compel us to look for a new democratic model, a new model of functioning of governance in response to increasing calls from our citizens for direct democracy and their greater involvement in decision making. Citizen participation in governance, not limited to elections alone and open to all, must be the basis of this new model of governance, which is why this Symposium is timely indeed. I wish to thank the organisers – the Austrian Delegation to the Congress, Land and Stadt Salzburg, the Austrian Association of Municipalities and Salzburg University – for this excellent initiative in the framework of the Austrian Chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers.

I also would like to thank the Austrian Delegation, headed by Ms Gudrun Mosler-Törnström, Vice-President of the Parliament of Land Salzburg, for producing a very useful special folder on the Congress and the Austrian Chairmanship, with information on Austrian actors in the Council of Europe and on what the Council of Europe is and does. This is a very practical reference tool, and it will be published soon on the Congress website, as soon as we have a picture to illustrate this event.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The key objective of our discussions today is to examine the role of municipalities and regions in promoting and enhancing citizen participation in democratic processes – in fact, in building participatory democracy in Europe. Fostering civil society – or, more exactly, citizen society, Bürgergesellschaft – in our communities is central to our efforts. Clearly, you cannot put in place a model of governance based on citizen participation without involving citizens themselves in the process. Local and regional elected representatives are the authorities closest to the citizen and therefore best placed to engage citizens directly and through their associations and interest groups.

The moment is right to achieve this. Paradoxically – or predictably – the crisis of people’s trust in politicians and institutions is accompanied by an unprecedented surge in their activism outside the established mechanisms of governance. Active social networks, protest movements such as Indignados or Occupy Wall Street, widespread demonstrations reveal citizens’ will and drive for change. We, politicians, elected representatives – and especially at the grassroots – cannot remain on the side-lines as mere witnesses. We must harness this energy and channel it towards building a new democratic model.

The local and regional level, as the foundation of any democratic system, is an excellent testing ground for innovation, experimentation and experience-sharing. The use of new communication technologies at the grassroots is also offering great opportunities for connecting with citizens in the framework of e-democracy and e-governance. At the time when the World Forum for Democracy, held in Strasbourg last November, highlights the problem of “democratic disconnect”, we need to bridge the gap between institutions and citizens, and we need to engage all residents of our communities in the process – young people, women, migrants and foreigners, minorities.

As a pan-European assembly of grassroots elected representatives from 47 European countries, linked directly with national governments within the Council of Europe, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is best placed to coordinate this action across the continent. But first, we need to look at the current legal framework for citizen participation. This framework has to be broadened to reflect, on the one hand, new opportunities for citizens’ direct involvement in decision making and, on the other hand, the role of municipalities and regions in this process.

This is why the Congress prepared, in 2011, a report on citizen participation at local and regional level in Europe, and decided to appoint a Thematic Spokesperson on the subject. I am sure that Congress Vice-President Anders Knape, who will speak later today, will give more detail about our proposals in this regard. In the spirit of bringing citizens and local authorities together, we have also instituted a European Local Democracy Week. This initiative, launched in 2007, has since become a truly pan-European event, marked in October every year by municipalities in more than 30 countries.

However, we should not forget in our efforts about the “other side of the coin” – promoting active citizenship among citizens themselves. For citizen participation to be successful, we must have active, committed and responsible citizens, aware of their democratic rights and civic duties, and capable of taking a stand. Otherwise, participatory democracy may be at risk of being hijacked by highly mobilised and energetic lobbies that are not representative of a majority. The Congress addressed the issue of active citizenship in its 2011 resolution on education for democratic citizenship at local level, and I hope that this aspect will also be reflected in our exchanges today.

Once again, I welcome you to this Symposium, and wish you fruitful and constructive discussions.

Thank you.