25th anniversary of the European Charter of Local Self-Government

26 October 2010

Speech by Ulrich Bohner, Former Secretary General of the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to introduce a debate devoted to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of this key European treaty.

The opening for signature of the European Charter of Local Self-Government 25 years ago heralded a new stage of democratic development on our continent, leading to a democracy which is more citizen-oriented, more participatory and therefore more effective. It was the first international binding treaty to recognise the rights of local authorities to which member states agreed to be legally and politically committed – a genuine Magna Charta of local communities. The Charter laid down in particular, for the first time in history, the principle of subsidiarity – that the responsibility for public services should be transferred to the level where they can be delivered most efficiently, the level closest to the citizen.

But beyond the recognition of the need for decentralisation, the Charter represented an evolution of our understanding of democracy, reflecting the conviction that local democracy was a constituent element of democracy itself, not just a tribute paid to the growing power of local authorities.

This new understanding acknowledged that the devolution of power towards local communities would release their potential and stir up action involving numerous actors at all levels of governance, which would make it possible to take up the great challenges of today. Thus local authorities became the first line of response to the issues of concern to our societies – be it biodiversity, cohesion within and between communities, climate change and sustainable consumption, intercultural dialogue, or urban environment.

Twenty-five years on, the Charter has become a fundamental benchmark treaty for promoting grassroots democracy, and an integral part of the overall system for upholding and protecting democracy in Council of Europe member states. Its principles are being taken up worldwide: the UN has used it as the basis for their Decentralisation Guidelines, and we have recently seen a Latin American Charter which has been heavily inspired by our text.

To date, the Charter has been ratified by 44 of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states. During this session, Andorra is due to sign the Charter, thus beginning the process of its ratification. This decision is further proof of the vitality and relevance of this legal instrument.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Making sure that the principles of the Charter are respected by national governments, and its provisions fully implemented, remains the core mission of this Congress. Through its regular monitoring of the application of the Charter, our Congress contributes, at local and regional level, to the fundamental objectives of the Council of Europe as a whole. It is quite natural then that the monitoring and implementation of the Charter is also receiving much greater emphasis during the current Congress’ reform.

Today we will look at the evolution of the Charter over the past quarter century, and at its continuing relevance for the democratic development of this continent. The Charter is indeed an organic text which continues to develop and evolve. A kind of "case-law" of the Charter has taken root in the international law of local authorities, which continue to interpret the terms of this unique text in the light of political and economic situation that our continent has traversed over the decades, and in light of the specific developments in each country.

As we all know, last year the Charter provisions were supplemented by an additional protocol on citizen participation, reflecting the changing nature of local democracy and the expectations of our citizens. The Protocol provides a legal guarantee of the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority, which is defined as the right to seek to determine or to influence the exercise of a local authority's powers and responsibilities. We are convinced that such participation is decisive because it helps to reinforce the legitimacy of decisions, and because it enables public authorities to listen to citizens' views and to learn from them in order to improve the policies pursued and the services provided.

We are also convinced that the issue of human rights implementation at local level is inseparable from the rights and guarantees provided by the Charter, which is why it has been included in the extended scope of our monitoring activities and identified as a Congress priority for 2011-2012. Many other legal texts appeared over the past twenty-five years that have affected the framework of the Charter, influencing its evolution – the most recent one is the Reference Framework for Regional Democracy, adopted in November 2009.

These and other issues are on the agenda of this debate, and I welcome Mr Robert HERZOG, Professor at the University of Strasbourg, and Mr Claude HAEGI, former President of the Congress and now President of the European Foundation for Sustainable Development of the Regions (FEDRE), who will lead us into discussions.

I am inviting Professor HERZOG to take the floor first.