23 March 2016



Strasbourg, Wednesday 23 March 2016

Dear colleagues,

At our October session, I presented you the achievements of the Chamber of Regions and of its Bureau at mid-mandate. Six months have passed, and there are six more to go until we will renew not only the leadership of the Chamber, but also its composition. Let me briefly up-date you on where we are today.

During our October 2015 session, the Chamber adopted an important Resolution on “Trends in regionalisation in Council of Europe member states” - prepared by our colleague Marie-Madeleine MIALOT MULLER – which contains the guidelines for our future work on regionalisation. The Resolution and its related report were based on a study on the evolution of regionalisation in Council of Europe member states, prepared by the Congress Group of Independent experts, and which will be presented later today by Professor MERLONI.

Another important report – which includes a draft Resolution and a draft Recommendation - on “Autonomy and Borders in a Changing Europe”, whose Rapporteur is our colleague Karl Heinz LAMBERTZ, will also be discussed and adopted today by our Chamber.

These reports, and the study of the Group of Independent Experts, form another milestone in the conceptual setting that our Chamber has been building over the last few years. You will remember for sure that, in October 2013, we have also adopted an important report, presented by our colleague Bruno MARZIANO, on Regions and territories with special status in Europe, which demonstrated that the principles of regional democracy find their most convincing institutional frameworks within special status regions.

In this connection, I look forward very much to our thematic debate, later this morning, on trends in regionalisation in Council of Europe members states, where we will receive first-hand information coming from our members. I do not want to anticipate this debate, but I have to share with you my concerns about the situation in Europe today, where the rise of populism and nationalism goes together with a tendency, in many European states, to re-centralise powers and resources. As we can see from the study coordinated by Professor MERLONI, regionalisation has not made any progress in Council of Europe member states over the last decade, one country (Belgium) being the exception which confirms the rule. I would like to draw, already now, your attention to an alarming conclusion that you can find in the study, which should ring as an alarm bell for our Chamber:

“Regionalism is at a standstill, if not in a slow, but obvious phase of decline. In the European Union, the role of the member States is being reaffirmed with dynamic vigour, to the detriment of the closer links which could be achieved by the regional level. This raises the underlying question whether the regional idea, promising autonomous and separate development, solidarity and equalisation of financial resources, cannot be regarded as too closely linked to the long period of expansion of social rights and the rise of the welfare state and is not at risk of being undermined by austerity policies, the sharp reduction in public spending and the role played by public intervention in the economy and society.”

In the light of these political occurrences let me make some observations.

The economic and financial crisis of the past years has broad national and European impact which has also had a huge influence on the exercise and quality of local and regional democracy. Local and regional authorities have been threatened by the consequences of the crisis, in terms of loss of autonomy, lack of resources and indebtedness. A recentralisation trend has thus been observed in several member States.

When I took up the presidency of this Chamber, I shared with you my wish to carry on the priority of my predecessor in this respect and to contribute to the harmonisation of the European legal space, in particular with regard to our reference texts. First and foremost it is the Charter of Local Self-Government, a binding treaty. After years of Monitoring its interpretation covers as well the regions. Furthermore - the Reference Framework for Regional Democracy is an important political document, which is giving a direction for our work.

We know where we want to go, but let us not hide the fact that there are serious obstacles in our way. Decentralisation is not always a one-way process, much as we would wish it to be so.  The economic crisis has been used by some of our governments to take powers back from local and regional authorities.

Recently we have seen recentralisation processes underway in several of our counties and others are continuing to reduce the resources of local and regional governments, making it increasing difficult for our towns, cities and regions to provide the services that our citizens need.

We are also seeing national governments question their international obligations. We are seeing constitutional courts question the applicability of the Charter in the law of their countries, the latest example being France. All these are worrying developments. This is not a time for complacency; we need to fight to protect those standards – and principles – that are so dear to us.

Let me now inform you briefly about the work made by the Bureau between our October and March sessions. In line with its now well established practice, the Bureau has continued to follow very closely the recent political developments at regional level at each of its meetings. You will find a summary of the notes in document CPR30(2016)INF01, which is at your disposal.

The Bureau also held a discussion on its contribution to the Congress priorities for the period 2017-2020. As a consequence a specific paragraph has been introduced which commits the Congress to continue to act as a strong advocate of regional democracy throughout Europe, and to further promote, including through its monitoring, post-monitoring and co-operation activities, the Reference Framework for Regional Democracy, with a view to its 10th Anniversary in 2019, as an instrument favouring political stability and territorial integrity.

Last but not least, special efforts were made regarding the cooperation between our Chamber and European Associations of Regions.  We contributed to the “World Forum of Regional and Subnational Legislative Assemblies” and Plenary Assembly of the Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies (CALRE) held on 23-24 October in Milan, where Clemens LAMMERSKITTEN represented our Chamber.

I participated in the General Assembly and Annual Conference on the future of Cross Border Cooperation in Europe held in Brussels on 13 November 2015, where I had the opportunity to stress that cross-border cooperation is a key to European integration and goes to the heart of the European project. Unfortunately, today cross-border cooperation is becoming much more difficult as national frontier controls have been reinforced due to the current refugee crisis.

The Chamber also participated – through our Executive Secretary Denis HUBER – in the Extraordinary Plenary Assembly of the Assembly of European Regions in December 2015 in Brussels where Hande BOZATLI was re-elected as President.

Albeit it is fair to say that during the past 6 months we have made substantial progress in fulfilling our priorities, there is no doubt that much more remains to be done. These are not easy times for Europe and for its regions!

Today the young people who are here are the people who will be taking this work forward in the years to come.  I am delighted that once again we have a strong delegation of youth delegates at this session. It is vital that we use this occasion to convince them of the urgency of this task.

I am ready to listen to your comments and proposals for our future work.