29th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 20-22 October 2015)
Anne Brasseur, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
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Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you so much for inviting me. The work of the Congress is of utmost importance, as well as the relations between the Congress and the Parliamentary Assembly.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address you before your timely debate on “Refugee and migrant crisis: what is the role of local and regional authorities?”
I am glad to see here former colleagues of the Parliamentary Assembly who have now joined the Congress. I am also particularly glad to see among your invitees Klaus Bouillon, who took an extremely impressive and courageous stand concerning the migration crisis during a political debate on German TV. Mr Bouillon, you are outstanding and you are a role model for all of us, at regional, local, but also at national level, and I would like to thank you for your courage.
Allow me to already start your discussions by focusing my address on what undoubtedly is Europe’s current number 1 challenge: the refugee and migratory crisis.
It is like Gabriel García Márquez’ book “Chronicle of a death foretold” – the crisis was coming but action wasn’t taken to stop it.
The Assembly and its Migration Committee has shouted loud, Greece, Italy, Malta, Spain and Turkey – who for so long struggled alone to deal with the pressure –told anyone who would listen of the dangers of ‘spill over’ as they could not cope. In fact, nobody listened to it, or not many did. I visited Turkey twice and the border with Syria. Turkey was hosting 2 million refugees. I invited the Heads of all Delegations of the Assembly to visit Turkey in June to see with their own eyes. I asked the Europe of 47 to come to their aid, not just because it was the humane thing to do, but because it was the right thing to do and I tried to explain that it was also in their own best interest. Yet that appeal, too, was ignored.
As the Mayor of Kilis told me “International delegations come and go, but nothing happens.” Let me just stress that Kilis, a town of 90 000 inhabitants, welcomed 110 000 refugees. While I was there, I spoke with Syrian refugees. They told me that they did not want to come to Europe, they wanted to stay close to the Syrian border, to go back home and start rebuilding their country. But we didn’t help Turkey, we didn’t help the Syrian refugees. Now with the rise in violence, no wonder that they want to leave the region.
The inflow of refugees and migrants to Europe reminds us that we do not live isolated from each other; it reminds us that state borders and frontiers between continents cannot, and should not, prevent people from escaping violence and persecution.
When His Holiness the Pope addressed the Council of Europe in November 2014, he spoke of the ‘globalisation of indifference’. I would add that we are now confronted with a globalisation of rejection and with a crisis which we must overcome in order to move towards a globalisation of solidarity in defence of the most vulnerable.
Politicians have to show much greater initiative, they must lead. It is precisely because they did not lead that the position is as it is.
The migration and refugee crisis requires a global solution and global solidarity, as well as action at a local level.
If ever there was a need for solidarity, it is now.
Solidarity with refugees who flee war, conflict and poverty.
Solidarity with the front-line states, the countries of transit and the destination states.
Solidarity with the countries of Europe’s neighbourhood which are also struggling as countries of transit and destination.
Solidarity within our countries, within our regions, between cities, towns, villages which is why your work in the Congress is so important.
It is our common responsibility to turn the word “solidarity” into action.
At last, the EU has started to take real action, to provide more money and reach a relocation agreement worthy of the name. There also seems to be a growing understanding by more and more European countries that there is a need for solidarity.
This is encouraging. Though this remains too little - and too late.
We have failed to anticipate the problem and now that we are overwhelmed by its consequences and implications, we are bargaining as carpet sellers about quotas and figures. This is not about carpets, it is about human beings, it’s about their lives, it’s about human dignity.
No doubt that you, as local and regional representatives, are better placed than anyone else to understand the true nature of the crisis on the ground. Your discussion with Mayors from front-line cities promises to be of utmost importance and interest.
Within the member states currently welcoming numerous refugees, the solidarity must also express itself by a fair and coherent distribution within the territory, at local and regional level.
But, we mustn’t lose the bigger picture. Unfortunately we are very good at losing it. Integration, integration and integration, that is our challenge and the bigger picture we need to look at.
If we fail to take it seriously from the very beginning - and that means NOW – the damage to our societies will be bigger than the challenge ever was.
We have the responsibility to ensure that integration, as a two way process, goes as smoothly as possible and that it is a benefit and not a long term burden on society. We must reassure our host communities while helping the refugees adapt to their new environments, and understand their rights and responsibilities. All of this will only be possible through education. Together with civil society, politicians have the responsibility to answer the questions of the population before unanswered questions turn into fear.
We have to take the concerns of the population seriously, and we have to make sure they don’t turn into fear, otherwise they could fall into the hands of extremists and we have to avoid this by all means for our own sake.
This cannot be only a top down process; this has to happen on the ground and work its way up. While of course governments have to show leadership by giving priority to integration and educational measures, it lies in your hands – at local and regional level – to make integration possible.
A prerequisite is unquestionably a fair distribution of refugees amongst and within member states. Regions and municipalities should be ready to take their share in helping to respond to this extraordinary situation. Too hot to handle is not an option at state level, nor is it an acceptable excuse at local and regional level. Refusing to reach out, as some cities have done, risks stoking dangerous fires, both within the settled immigrant community but also with the new arrivals, whether they be migrants or refugees.
That leads me to my next point, faced with the explosive combination of an economic crisis, a massive influx of refugees and the rise of extremist parties; we must put in place policies which say no to hatred.
The rise of intolerance, hatred and extremism represents one of the gravest dangers for democratic institutions and living-together. Last January, PACE launched the No Hate Parliamentary Alliance. This Alliance brings together parliamentarians in member states who pledge to adopt firm and proactive public positions against racism, hatred and intolerance.
I would like this alliance to be extended beyond the Parliamentary Assembly to other international bodies, such as the European Parliament and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as well as to figures in the voluntary sector, sport and religion. I was honored that His Holiness Pope Francis agreed to support our No Hate Parliamentary Alliance. Yesterday the International Olympic Committee also supported this campaign.
This movement also needs you to relay its message at the grass roots level, where it all starts. With the current influx of refugees and migrants settling in our European cities, it is more than ever important that local and regional elected representatives join in saying “no” to hatred, and I would encourage you to explore how the Congress could be part of this campaign. I will give you the “No Hate” badge, and of course one in French ‘Non à la Haine”, to you Mr President.
Let me summarise my message in a blueprint of 8 priorities for politicians:
[Hand out the No Hate button]
As we focus all our attention to the migration and refugee crisis, let us not forget that there are other on-going crises that still need to be tackled including the extraordinary challenges of terrorism. The latest deadly terrorist attack on a peace march in Turkey is a tragic reminder of the need to tackle terrorism.
Ukraine its territorial integrity and its internal reform also remain high on the agenda of the Assembly. Linked to the issue of Ukraine, it is my regret that the Russian delegation to PACE has decided not to participate in our work and I have tried and will continue in my efforts to keep the door open for dialogue. The worrying trends in Azerbaijan in areas such as media freedom, independence of justice, liberty of the person, to name but a few, are also of great concern. You will certainly have seen the plethora of statements coming from the different bodies and institutions of the Council of Europe.
On a positive note, allow me to highlight the excellent collaboration between the Assembly and the Congress in organising the local election observation mission in Ukraine. Let me thank you for having invited our delegation to join yours on this occasion and I am looking forward to the conclusions of that mission.
La coopération entre nos deux assemblées est également excellente grâce à vous, Monsieur le Président, puisque vous alliez deux qualités exemplaires : celles d’être membre du Congrès et de l’Assemblée !
Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Let me conclude by reminding you, that as local and regional elected representatives, you have real concrete power to change the world for better. You can bring solidarity back at the local level, where it actually starts; you can combat hatred and intolerance at its roots; you can raise awareness at schools, you can encourage better understanding and interaction between communities.
My former political responsibilities as Deputy Mayor of the city of Luxembourg made me well aware of how important it is to be present and close to the people. Your role and responsibilities in defending the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are invaluable, as there can be no truly democratic society without high-quality local governance.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have tremendous responsibility.
We only can succeed if we work together, and it is our duty to succeed.