International Conference “Angewandte Bürgerbeteiligung – wie es wirklich geht

Ludwigsburg, 18-19 April 2013

“Bürgerbeteiligung aus europäischem Blickwinkel

Speech by Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

“The final version is the German version.” – Check against delivery

Mr Chairman,


Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me indeed to participate in this conference on a subject that has been in the centre of public debate in Europe – the need for a renewed democratic model, based on continuous and comprehensive information and participation of all citizens in governing processes. I would like to thank the organisers for the opportunity to contribute to these discussions and to present the perspective of the Council of Europe, an organisation of 47 European countries, engaged in strengthening democracy, human rights and the rule of law across our continent.

I will speak from the grassroots perspective – that of local and regional communities, European municipalities and regions, where interaction between citizens and public authorities is the most direct and its results have the most immediate and concrete impact on people’s lives. As the level closest to citizens, the local and regional tier of governance also represent a great potential for innovation as far as citizen participation is concerned, often acting as a testing ground for new forms of participation before they become accepted at national and European level as a good practice for all. Not to be misunderstood: each specific situation, culture and legal framework needs a specific approach. A “one size fits all” approach cannot satisfy the diversity of realities!

Within the Council of Europe, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities – which is a pan-European assembly of local and regional elected representatives – acts to promote and enhance such citizen participation at the grassroots, where its results are the most effective.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Paradoxically, the need for a participatory model of democracy has been brought to the fore by multiple crises affecting Europe today. First and foremost, the international financial and economic crisis has had a severe impact on European economies, threatening the social cohesion of our societies and the very foundations of the European democratic model. As a major consequence of the economic crisis, we also have an impending social crisis, with a growing number of families in economic distress and rising unemployment figures.

But most importantly, these crises have revealed the limits of the current democratic system and have heightened public distrust in democracy. Because of some serious shortcomings in the functioning of democratic institutions, these institutions were not able to anticipate, prevent and react to the crisis quickly and adequately, without causing hardship to the people whom they are meant to serve and protect. Due to the growing imbalance of power between economics and democracy, important decisions are increasingly being taken outside parliaments and outside the democratic process and outside the well-established social partnership. More and more such decisions are being prompted by those who have not been democratically elected and granted legitimate decision-making authority. Many of these micro-economic decisions with huge macro-economic impact are seen as prejudicing subsequent decisions of politicians in governments and other executives. These, in turn, are desperately trying to convince their parliaments to rubberstamp these – de facto hardly to be changed – decisions. Consequently citizens see themselves confronted with statements like “There was / is no alternative”.

As a result, people have doubts about democracy because they feel unable to influence the political decision-making process on issues of the utmost importance to their daily lives. This is also the reason for citizens’ diminishing trust in politicians and political parties. People are feeling that they are not being heard by politicians, that they are being kept out of a system that has become deaf and blind to the concerns of citizens 'on the street'. In the last few decades, political parties – an essential component of representative democracy – have been falling into disrepute, as is evident from the rise of populist movements in nearly all European countries.

It has become clear that the traditional system of representative democracy is not fully meeting the expectations of our citizens and is not serving efficiently their needs any longer. This situation has prompted a debate on the future of the European democratic model as such, which has been a key issue over recent years. For example, the Council of Europe has been discussing since 2005 the evolution of European democracy and to what extent the current democratic model corresponds to today’s realities. In October last year, the Council of Europe held its first World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, whose objective was to take this debate to the global scale. This experience will be repeated in November this year, with the second World Forum focusing on e-democracy and e-participation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The underlying principle of democracy is the principle of political equality, which means an equal participation of all citizens in the political decision-making process. However, today, it is exactly this participation of citizens in governance that the traditional system is lacking. Instead, we are witnessing a growing gap between the democratic institutions and the citizens, a lack of public trust in democratic mechanisms and people’s dissatisfaction with traditional structures and models of political representation as well as with democratic processes as a whole.

A 2010 report of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly described this situation as a “crisis of democracy”, largely due to the lack of effective rights of citizen participation and other institutional deficits of democracy (for example, the weakness of parliaments vis-à-vis the executive, government work geared to short-term electoral success and lacking long-term vision, etc.).

Today, people want more accountability, more transparency and a greater say in decision-making. However, there is a feeling that their political representation became a class of its own, with its own “rules of the game”, and increasingly detached from the realities of the high street. This leads to a loss of confidence among citizens in the institutions of power and politicians in particular. The 2009 Eurobarometer showed, for example, that local authorities in Europe enjoy trust of only half of the population – and this is the highest score! The figure for national and European politicians is even lower.

This growing gap means that the two main components of the representative system – citizens, as a source of legitimate power, and democratic institutions of their representation – are becoming disconnected, and citizens can no longer influence decision-making in those institutions.

So, citizens are naturally looking for other forms of representation and other ways of defending their interests, by-passing the detached “representative class”. As a result, we are witnessing today a surge in people’s activism outside the established institutions of governance – through civil society, voluntary activities and social networks, for example.

From Occupy Wall Street to Indignados, from Génération Précaire to Pirate Parties, people are demanding new forms of democratic participation in governance, and are seeking to assert themselves as direct stakeholders in making decisions affecting them. From this picture, it is clear that the commitment of citizens to democratic values has not diminished – however, they simply do not see the current system of governance as representing and upholding these values any longer, at least partially.

The paradox of today’s democracies is that, although never before have so many people lived in democracies, never before have so many people been disappointed with the quality of the democracy they live in and experience on a daily basis.  While democracy offers real promise in terms of social justice, fair distribution of life chances and opportunities for all, the way in which democracy is exercised at present does not allow it to deliver on these promises. This is one of the main reasons why so many citizens in today’s Europe are turning their backs on institutionalised politics, not taking part in elections or, if they do vote, are showing populist, nationalistic and even xenophobic tendencies.

Another challenge to representative democracy is the migration of millions of people within or into Europe. A globalised world of today means more opportunities for people of different cultures and ethnic origin to communicate, travel, live and work around the globe. We are witnessing today, for example, more and more foreigners setting up shop in Europe. Just to give you an idea, the city of Frankfurt reports that in 2011, 52 per cent of all new business start-ups were enterprises of migrants.

The result is growing ethnic and cultural diversity of European communities, which are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. Yet, many millions of migrants, who are not citizens in the legal sense of the word, remain excluded from political participation and decision-making, and are often discriminated against because of their ethnic background or religious beliefs. Their political and legal status is a question of utmost importance for the future of democracies in Europe. The exclusion of immigrants, even those from second and third generations, from political participation means that the representative system is not working for them, which is severely damaging for democracy. Growing social tensions over religious issues between the established electorate and groups of immigrants in many European countries are a sign of this.

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”, described the main challenges to European democracy today as being linked exactly to the issue of cultural diversity, which all levels of government have to face. The true challenge is to find ways of using this diversity for the benefit of the entire community – which means reaching social consensus on the legal framework by which everyone has to abide despite cultural differences, ensuring equal treatment and equal access to social rights and public services, and fostering intercultural dialogue and harmonious relations between different cultural and religious groups.  A key role in meeting this challenge belongs to local and regional authorities.

The current crisis of the representative system means that representation can no longer be seen as the only expression of democracy. Democracy needs to be developed beyond representation, through the introduction of more sustained forms of interaction between people and authorities in order to include direct democratic elements in the decision-making process.

The current situation in Europe shows that the traditional system of representative democracy is already being increasingly challenged by elements of direct democracy. The new participatory model should be combining representative and direct democracy and should be designed as a process in which all persons, not just nationals, are involved at all times, not just during elections, in the conduct of public affairs at local, regional and national levels.

Participatory democracy should involve broad access of citizens to information on public action and to consultations with public authorities, as well as self-organisation of civil society into citizen groups and associations, interaction between direct democracy and indirect (representative) democracy (for example, debates in parliaments on citizen initiatives), innovation and greater use of new communication technologies (in the framework of e-democracy), and many other elements. Direct democracy also means a better sharing of political power.

Thus, the first component of the new democratic model is a better framework for citizen participation. New information and communication technologies offer vast opportunities in this field, in the framework of so-called e-democracy – for example, in carrying out direct consultations with citizens and receiving their feedback on public action, in introducing e-voting and e-governance in a broader sense, and in setting up a general framework for e-participation and provision of e-services.

The present-day European constitutions hold representative democracy to be compatible with the institutions of direct democracy, also at local level. In many cases the national legislative framework only provides broad principles recognising the possibility or the basic forms of citizen participation, with regional and local authorities being granted quite general powers to lay down detailed rules.

Currently, the referendum – sometimes known as “local public opinion poll” – is the most widespread type of citizen participation used in almost all Council of Europe member states. Apart from local referenda, popular initiatives, different kinds of public meetings of local residents and, particularly in smaller municipalities, people’s assemblies are relatively widespread procedures. In a large number of countries, local citizens are consulted in various ways on specific issues prior to the final decision of the local council, and the popular initiative is also used for requesting and surveying the preferences and opinions of local citizens before a final decision.

Another innovative idea is participatory budgeting, whereby the initiatives of citizens and civil society – many of which may have their own external funding – are included into local budgets according to municipal priorities.

Then, we need measures to extend and enlarge rights of participation: the participatory rights of Europeans should no longer be linked to citizenship, but to the length of residence, and they should be extended through various forms of participatory democracy. In this regard, the Council of Europe has made a wide range of proposals to increase and encourage the participation of migrants in political life, through the granting of political rights to non-citizens.

For example, the 1992 Council of Europe Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level in particular provides for the right to vote and to stand in local elections for everyone who has lived in a given community for five or more years. Today, more than 20 European countries in practice effectively grant foreigners the right to a local vote, and several countries the right to stand in local elections.

The Convention also provides for the establishment of consultative councils of foreign residents as local and regional representative structures for migrants – a practice that has been spreading across Europe.

Various forms of direct participation are already being increasingly practiced at local level – such as local and regional referenda, popular initiatives, citizen petitions, popular assemblies and citizens’ meetings, neighbourhood councils, public hearings and consultations with citizen panels, but also the form of various participative structures such as already mentioned councils of migrants and foreign residents, youth assemblies, even children’s councils, to name but a few.

One of the successful initiatives of the Congress testing various participation schemes at the grassroots level is the European Local Democracy Week, which has become a truly pan-European annual event since its first launch in 2007. The Local Democracy Week serves to bring together local citizens and their public authorities to learn about local democratic processes, hear each other’s concerns and decide on priorities for the community.

Another example is the European Charter on youth participation at local and regional level, which marked its 20th anniversary last year and which suggests lines of action to engage young people in democratic processes at the grassroots. In this regard, the Council of Europe system in the field of youth, whereby recommendations to national governments are elaborated with the participation of representatives of youth organisations, is unique and could serve as an example for any future participatory framework.

These examples show that one of the key requirements for a successful model of participatory democracy is the decentralisaton of power towards the level closest to the citizen – the grassroots level. This process is based on the legal framework of the European Charter of Local Self-Government – a key European treaty for local democracy, adopted in 1985 and binding on 46 countries which have ratified it to date. In 2009, the Charter was complemented by the Additional Protocol dealing specifically with the right of citizens to participate in the affairs of a local authority.

Giving more competences to local and regional authorities and increasing citizen participation also necessitates a new model of governance, which is a second major component of participatory democracy. A new concept reflecting this vision is that of a system of multi-level governance, which would replace the existing system of vertical hierarchical subordination of the different tiers of government by their horizontal equal partnership.

The transfer and delegation of competences would thus be replaced by the sharing of responsibilities among the different levels of government – local, regional, national, European, and sublevels in between – based on the delimitation of clearly identified competences. This delimitation, in turn, must be based on the criteria of effectiveness and efficiency of action when assigning responsibility to a particular domain of governance.

The system of multi-level governance is a response to yet another challenge to representative democracy – the fact that problems facing today’s society became too complex for national governments to cope with them alone. These problems are also increasingly transnational in nature, and their solutions transcend nation-States and require action across borders. Therefore, multi-level governance must also become transnational in nature which, for cities and regions, means a greater framework for inter-municipal and inter-regional co-operation across borders.

These two components – of citizen participation as well as of multi-level and transnational governance – must be based on the solid foundation of active democratic citizenship, which is the third major component of participatory democracy.

It seems to be self-evident indeed that in order to enhance citizen participation, we need active citizens participating in democratic processes to begin with. We need citizens who are well informed of their rights and civic duties, of the situation in society in general and their community in particular, and who are capable of exercising these rights, fulfilling these duties, and taking an active stand in defending democratic values. We must equip citizens with the knowledge, skills and understanding of democratic processes, and help develop their attitudes in order to empower them to play an active part in democratic life. This is necessary to ensure the quality of participation and therefore the quality of participatory democracy.

We must begin with creating a broad framework for education for democratic citizenship in our societies, spanning all levels of governance but embedded in particular at the grassroots. It is at the level of our local and regional communities where people learn their first democratic experience, and where their interaction begins with society, with public authorities and with democratic institutions and mechanisms. In this respect the Council of Europe can make valuable contributions to an exchange of experiences and to the development of common values and standards, which are then implemented into practice at local and regional level.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To sum up, the way to overcome the current crisis is through greater participation of our citizens in democratic processes and decision-making at all levels of governance, and especially at the grassroots. Increased public participation and direct involvement in local governance will give our citizens a sense of empowerment, and will help to restore confidence and bridge the gap of the democratic deficit.

A participatory model of democracy will require a new, decentralised system of multi-level governance, based on a comprehensive framework for citizen participation – especially at local and regional level, as the level closest to the citizen – and supported by active democratic citizenship. Local and regional authorities have a key role to play in the new system by ensuring ‘proximity governance’ and the grassroots implementation of national policies. Participation at local level must go hand in hand with local integration for better social cohesion, as well as policies fostering intercultural dialogue between population groups and engaging them in democratic processes for the benefit of the entire community.

I would like to conclude by stressing that over the past decades, democracy has made a tremendous progress, both in Europe and worldwide. In 1949, the Council of Europe was founded by only ten European countries considered to be democratic – today, it embraces 47 member states. However, today’s multiple crises are a reminder to all of us that democratic development is not a status quo but a process of permanent evolution, moving towards a democracy that is truly participative and centred on the citizen. This will, however, only work if there is common ownership: by citizens, politicians and not least by the staff in the administrations.

We must seize this momentum.

Thank you.