European Coalition of Cities against Racism - General Conference 2013

“The Renaissance of Living Together”

Nancy, France, 17-18 October 2013

Session: “Local Diplomacy through Cities and Networks. How to fight discrimination and share experiences”

Speech by Jons HERMANS-VLOEDBELD, Thematic Spokesperson on Citizen Participation - Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to address this conference on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

As an assembly of local and regional elected representatives from 47 countries of this continent, the Congress represents a platform for co-operation at the grassroots that is truly pan-European. Its main mission is to advance democracy at local and regional levels by improving governance of our communities, defending the interests of territorial authorities vis-à-vis national governments, and promoting their role in European democracy building.

Racism, intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination are on the rise in Europe today, fuelled to a great extent by the consequences of the economic crisis. Fighting against these phenomena is a priority which is high on the political agenda of both the Council of Europe and its Congress. In fact, at its next session in October the Congress is organising a debate on combating extremism and intolerance in political discourse. At the same time, the government of Armenia, which is currently chairing the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, will be holding next week an international conference on combating racism and xenophobia in Europe.

Local authorities can make a great contribution to fighting discrimination, by working to change prejudices and negative attitudes of local residents through intercultural dialogue, education and communication – and quite simply, through intercultural interaction in our local communities.

Because good laws and measures against discrimination are not enough. Equally important is changing our mental constructs and perceptions of others. It takes education and learning from experience, from getting to know each other. Today’s diversity in Europe offers an excellent opportunity for such learning, while our cities and regions provide a place for interaction and practical dialogue between cultural groups.

One concrete example of our action in this regard is the European Local Democracy Week. This is a Congress initiative that has become, since its launch in 2007, a truly pan-European event. It is marked in mid-October every year by local authorities across Europe. Last year alone, municipalities from more than 30 countries took part. The Local Democracy Week serves to bring together local authorities and local residents directly in different formats – townhall meetings, thematic debates, open days in city halls, etc. The idea is to explain to citizens how local democracy works, discuss with them local problems and priorities, hear their concerns and receive the feedback on authorities’ action, and agree future plans. Every year, the Week is held under a general theme; this year, it is Human Rights at local level, and next year it will be Citizen Participation. The European Local Democracy Week is a practical tool for engaging all resident across cultural differences in community building.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

Promoting interculturalism at local level as an effective way against discrimination must become our priority. Today, it is next to impossible to find a community that is mono-ethnic and mono-cultural. Not only large cities but also small towns and villages are beginning to feature a mix of ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds among their local populations to a degree unseen before. Minority groups, which used to be confined to big “cosmopolitan” areas, are increasing in number and size and are reaching the grassroots of our societies.

Local authorities have a crucial role to play in building harmonious intercultural relations between different population groups. City Diplomacy, networking and experience-sharing are their tools for pursuing this objective.

It entails creating a truly intercultural environment in our towns, cities and regions, based on tolerance and respect of diversity. This is why the Congress has been calling on local and regional authorities to develop and pursue intercultural policies aimed at engaging local residents in action for the benefit of the entire community, regardless of their cultural background.

We have been working to promote local intercultural policies as well as action for better integration of migrants and minorities. From this perspective, I could say that the fight against discrimination is mainstreamed into Congress action – whether it is our resolutions and recommendations on combating racism at local and regional levels, or on diversity in municipal employment, on local housing for migrants or on migrants’ access to regional labour markets.

The Congress has also been co-operating with many municipal networks operating today. Such networks as, for example, our host, the European Coalition of Cities against Racism, or Intercultural Cities that is also present here, or Cities for Local Integration Policy, are a practical expression of City Diplomacy. We have been supporting their activities and seeking to translate their experience into concrete policy recommendations – both for other local and regional authorities as well as for national governments.

I could also mention other examples, such as Eurocities, Cities for Children, Cities for Human Rights, or the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, recently launched by the Congress – to name but a few. Because these networks operate across borders and, therefore, across cultural differences, promoting interculturalism is one of the political benefits of their activities. In this regard, ECCAR is a good example of a network for bringing together, coordinating and spearheading local action against racism, intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination.

I would like to conclude by stressing that local authorities today are no longer mere providers of public services. They are taking on a growing importance in the political, economic and social fields, both in terms of political responsibilities and financial power. Just to mention some figures, local and regional authorities today represent two thirds of all public investments and 30 per cent of public spending, including 60 per cent of all the expenditure on education, more than 30 per cent on health and between two thirds and three quarters on culture.

As a result, local authorities have become political partners of national governments, by contributing their knowledge and experience on the ground to national policy making. They have become a political force to be reckoned with. They are projecting this authority at national, European and international levels, increasingly becoming international actors in their own standing. This is reflected in particular in their international representation, international networking and City Diplomacy activities.

This power must be used for a good cause, and fighting discrimination is where local action can achieve concrete results.

I look forward to our discussions today, and wish all of us a fruitful and constructive conference.

Thank you.