World Forum for Democracy

Strasbourg, 9 October 2012

Working session on “Multiple identities and ‘living together’ “

Speech by Leen Verbeek, Queen’s Commissioner of the Province of Flevoland (Netherlands), member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to speak today on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities on the subject of utmost importance for Europe and the future of European democracy – growing diversity of our societies and the need to build a framework for ‘living together’ in communities increasingly characterised by a variety of cultural and ethnic identities.

Indeed, local communities in Europe are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. Today, not a single European country or a large city can claim to be mono-ethnic. The true challenge is to find ways of using this diversity for the benefit of the entire community, beginning from the grassroots. As living together means interaction, in diverse communities this interaction necessarily becomes intercultural and interreligious, and requires dialogue between community groups.

Building productive intercultural relations and reducing tensions within communities, ensuring integration of minority groups and bringing about better social cohesion are among today’s main challenges for public authorities at all levels of governance. However, I am convinced that a key role in meeting this challenge belongs to local and regional authorities, as pubic action at the grassroots level has the most direct and tangible impact on our citizens.

A 2011 report of the Group of Eminent Persons, commissioned by the Council of Europe and entitled “Living together: Combining freedom and diversity in 21st century Europe”, identified major challenges for European democracy today as being linked exactly to the issue of diversity, which all levels of government have to face. The report points out that the rising intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination are among the main threats to our living together, and stresses that local authorities in particular – I quote –  “bear the main responsibility for ensuring that culturally diverse societies are open societies, in which people belonging to different cultural groups […] can feel at home and make their own contribution” – end of quote.

We in the Congress are convinced that the way forward is through greater and equal participation of all residents in community affairs, and through their equal access to social rights. We – public authorities – need to find new ways of engaging citizens and providing for their better and more meaningful participation in democratic decision-making. A new model of participatory democracy must necessarily involve migrants, foreign residents and minority groups, and must go hand in hand with their integration. Needless to say, the local level is the first line for such democratic integration as well as participation, which is why the Council of Europe and the Congress have been staunch advocates for the right of foreign residents to vote and stand in local elections, and for the establishment of councils of foreign residents at local and regional levels. This work must necessarily be accompanied by efforts to change perceptions and attitudes of local populations with regard to the Unknown Other – foreigners, migrants, minorities, Roma and Travellers – who far too often become scapegoats in the eyes of the population and some public authorities, especially in this time of economic hardship.

The report of Eminent Persons specifically included among recommendations for action the issues of participation of foreigners in local life and politics, as well as of integration of migrants and people of recent migrant origin. Responses to this challenge lie in reaching social consensus on the legal framework by which everyone has to abide; in ensuring equal treatment and equal protection of citizens’ rights – by, among other things, promoting local integration and access to social rights and public services for all, such as housing, education, health care and employment; as well as in fostering intercultural dialogue and harmonious relations between different cultural and religious groups.

Specific action in this regard must include two major components.

One component are measures to ensure equal access to social rights and public services, which may involve affirmative action and special efforts to remedy the inherent disadvantages, and which must include access to employment, access to education, access to housing, and access to health care, among others. There is a wide range of issues involved: evaluation of the existing skills and competences linked to issuing work permits, vocational training and professional education, language-learning, etc.

These measures, in turn, should be based on the broad foundation that includes, on the one hand, measures to promote active citizenship in local communities (education on national laws and local regulations, education for democratic citizenship and human rights education, among others); and, on the other hand, interculturalism (local intercultural policies, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, etc.).

This brings me to the second component, which is action to fight prejudice against migrants and to raise public awareness of their cultures and contribution to the local community, in order to ensure non-discrimination and equality in human rights protection. In this regard, of particular importance are such issues as political discourse of elected representatives and public officials, portrayal of migrants in the media, and mediation between ethnic groups and the host community, among others. This serves one overarching purpose: to bring about change in negative attitudes and perceptions towards migrants in the local population, and to show local residents the true benefits of diversity. 

Important work is being carried out in this regard by a number of municipal networks, which the Congress strongly supports – such as Intercultural Cities, Cities for Local Integration Policy or Eurocities. A recent project on Shaping Perceptions and Attitudes about Realising Diversity Advantages – SPARDA – focused on developing a step-by-step strategy of communicating diversity to local residents.

In general, the number of initiatives for more participation and better integration of cultural groups in Europe has been on the rise. For example, setting up local and regional councils of foreign residents and migrants is becoming a more and more common practice. Some municipalities bring together native and foreign local residents to raise awareness through intercultural festivals or through Integration Days. The Congress’ initiative of bringing together local residents and their authorities in the framework of the European Local Democracy Week has become a true pan-European annual event marked in October since 2007, with hundreds of municipalities in more than 30 countries taking part every year. This is not to mention that more than 20 European countries today give non-EU foreign residents the right to vote in local elections.

A special case of local integration is the situation of some 12 million Roma in Europe today, and the Congress has been working, since convening the Summit of Mayors on Roma last year, on building a European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, to bring together numerous existing initiatives and practices in this area.

In general, our experience shows that networking at local and regional level is a particularly practical way of sharing experience on what works on the ground, pulling together resources and implementing specific proposals. This is why the Congress has been advocating stronger and broader inter-municipal and inter-regional co-operation, co-operation across borders, in addressing the issue of living together – not least through co-operation between cities and regions of origin and of destination of migrants.

But of course, we need a strong democratic legal framework as a solid foundation for such action, and we need a political will to go forward.

Thank you.