Local Governments’ Meeting for Peace-building

Diyarbakir, Turkey, 21-22 September 2013

“Local Governments as International Actors: Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe”

Speech by Leen VERBEEK, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities Council of Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to address this conference on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

As an assembly of local and regional elected representatives from 47 countries of this continent, the Congress represents a platform for co-operation at the grassroots that is truly pan-European. Its main mission is to advance democracy at local and regional levels by improving the quality of governance in our communities, defending the interests of territorial authorities vis-à-vis national governments, and promoting their role in European democracy building.

This role of local governments today goes beyond that of mere service providers. The decentralisation of power, a process that the Congress has been driving forth for almost 60 years, has led to a significant transfer of competences to the grassroots. As a result, a growing number of responsibilities are today included in the remit of local authorities: responsibilities for implementing human rights in their communities by ensuring conditions for their full exercise; environmental responsibilities to ensure sustainable development; social responsibilities for the well-being, cohesion and intercultural dialogue within their communities – and this list can go on.

The implementation of these responsibilities requires substantial financial means and budgetary autonomy, and local authorities today are growing stronger not only politically but also financially. Just to mention some figures, local and regional authorities represent two thirds of all public investments and 30 per cent of public spending, including 60 per cent of all the expenditure on education, more than 30 per cent on health and between two thirds and three quarters on culture.

This increasing sphere of local competences and financial power mean that local governments have become a political force to be reckoned with. Indeed, local and regional authorities today are fully-fledged political players in the development of their communities, and they are projecting this authority at national, European and international levels. At the same time, the challenges that Europe and the world are facing, increasingly transversal in nature, require transversal solution and therefore close interaction between at all government levels.

This situation has brought to the fore the need for multi-level governance – a system based on equal partnership between European, national, regional and local authorities operating within their clearly defined responsibilities. In other words, the need to replace the delegation of power from top to bottom by power sharing across the board, in which local authorities stand out as fully-fledged partners and political actors.

This new role of local governments brings them to prominence on an international scale as well. With their decision-making and budgetary autonomy, local authorities are increasingly becoming international actors in their own standing. At the same time, European integration and the disappearance of political borders open up opportunities for inter-municipal and inter-regional cross-border co-operation unseen before. The Council of Europe’s Madrid Convention of 1980 lays down a legal framework for such direct co-operation of territorial communities belonging to different countries. As a result, we are witnessing today an unprecedented empowerment of actors at subnational level, and a rise of cities and regions within the European and international political architecture. This is reflected in particular in their international representation, international networking and City Diplomacy activities.

Today, we have a plentitude of representative structures of local and regional authorities at international level. The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe and its counterpart in the EU – the Committee of the Regions – are just two examples, but I can also mention the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, the Assembly of European Regions, the Conference of Regions with Legislative Power or the Conference of Regional Legislative Assemblies of Europe, as well as, on the global scale, UCLG - United Cities and Local Governments. Cities are also represented in the UN Advisory Committee of Local Authorities, while regions increasingly have their own representations abroad, separate from national embassies.

This direct action outside national borders has opened the door for joining municipal and regional forces into specialised networks which have mushroomed across the world – such as the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, for example. In Europe alone, I could mention Eurocities, Energy Cities, the Covenant of Mayors, Cities for Children, Cities for Local Integration Policy, Cities for Human Rights, or the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, recently launched by the Congress – to name but a few.

This growing phenomenon of co-operation and networking at municipal and regional levels has prompted the Congress to draw up a report on this subject, which is currently under preparation. I would like to say a few words about the issues addressed in the report.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Indeed, horizontal co-operation between local and regional authorities in different countries lies at the heart of the Council of Europe’s vision of territorial democracy and, for this reason, is one of the rights enshrined in the European Charter of Local Self-Government, now in force in virtually all Council of Europe member states.

As I have just said, the last 20 years have witnessed a remarkable surge in bilateral and multilateral co-operation initiatives involving not only Europe’s local and regional authorities but also their counterparts beyond Europe’s borders. Local governments are becoming increasingly active in this field, developing more and more projects with their counterparts in other countries, both inside and outside Europe. There are many factors behind this boom, which is linked to developments in globalisation, improvements in communications and increased mobility through low-cost travel and easing of visa regimes.

International co-operation between local and regional authorities – sometimes referred to as subnational diplomacy – has begun to demonstrate its potential with respect to territorial development and cohesion, furthering the Council of Europe’s aim to achieve greater unity among its members. Economic benefits are being realised by increased trade, economies of scale, better use of resources and the forging of strategic economic alliances to better compete with large economies on the global stage. Political benefits include the erosion of barriers of cultural differences and more effective representation of common interests in international fora.

Such co-operation, characterised by the adaptability, flexibility and fluidity of its arrangements and the lightness of its structures, is leading towns, cities and regions to discover new, effective and imaginative ways of working together. By doing so, it is becoming an important engine for European integration and territorial cohesion. Local authorities are co-operating in an increasingly diverse range of fields, including infrastructure projects, investment in research and technology, exchanges and training programmes, intercultural dialogue and promotion of shared cultural heritage.

This co-operation remains for the most part little known and poorly understood. There is a clear need for greater visibility and sharing of experience in this field, to make national, regional and local governments more aware of what is possible and how best to proceed. A key feature of the success of such initiatives lies in good consultation and co-ordination between the different tiers of government to avoid misunderstandings and ensure maximum coherence in policies and strategies.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to conclude by stressing that the Congress is well placed to act as a catalyst and facilitator in this field, and has for more than twenty years been taking a pioneering role in promoting such co-operation and campaigning to improve the legal framework, including the Council of Europe’s treaty law, within which such co-operation can develop.

The rapid evolution of this sphere of activity makes it all the more important for local and regional authorities to pool their experiences and work together to share experiences, identify good practices and establish indicators for evaluating projects.

The Congress is committed to working to overcome obstacles to inter-territorial cooperation, supporting European networks of territorial authorities as a way to address common interests and challenges. We will be pursuing our efforts, working together with national delegations and associations of territorial authorities to promote inter-territorial cooperation projects, in the interests of improving European territorial cohesion and meeting the challenges of the current economic downturn.

Thank you.