Joint seminar between CEMR and the Congress, “1953-1988-2013: Decentralisation at a crossroads”

 Strasbourg, 26 November 2013

Opening statement by President Herwig VAN STAA, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe

Dear President Schuster, dear Wolfgang,

Dear members of the Congress and CEMR,

Dear guests of the seminar,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

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

This seminar is dedicated to two landmark events in the history of local and regional democracy in Europe. Sixty years ago, in October 1953, the Charter of Municipal Liberties, drawn up by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions, was signed in Versailles. This text, in the form of a Declaration, was the very first attempt to codify the rights of European local authorities and to assert their autonomy from national governments. On a continent that had seen an enormous concentration of power at the central level, the Charter of Municipal Liberties laid the ground for breaking this monopoly on power and counter-balancing it by local self-government, endowed with substantial competences of its own.

The Declaration of Versailles set in motion a movement that led to the creation of the European Conference of Local Authorities in 1956, this predecessor of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and the signing of the European Charter of Local Self-Government in 1985. The Charter of Municipal Liberties gave a dynamic to the development of local democracy in Europe. But it was only thirty-five years after Versailles that the principles of local democracy and the rights of local communities received a formal legal basis, when the European Charter of Local Self-Government entered into force in September 1988 in the form of a Council of Europe convention binding on national governments.

As we mark twenty-five years of this entry into force, let us remember that this event opened a new era in the decentralisation of power in Europe. The Local Self-Government Charter laid down, among others, the principles of subsidiarity as well as of decision-making and financial autonomy, leading to the devolution of competences; the rights of local authorities to be consulted by higher levels of governance and to defend their autonomy in court; and their freedom to create national and European associations, which gave a boost to developing cross-border co-operation between municipalities and regions across the continent.

At the October plenary session, we held a ceremony to mark the ratification of the European Charter of Local Self-Government by San Marino. With this ratification, all 47 member states of the Council of Europe are now covered by this international treaty. This is a historical moment which, 25 years on from the entry into force of the Charter, confirms the unanimous recognition by all European governments of local democracy as the cornerstone of the democratic system.

I would like to underline that the Congress is the only European body charged with monitoring the implementation of the Local Self-Government Charter and thus the development of territorial democracy. It is by this virtue that we carry out country-by-country monitoring exercises to assess situations at local and regional level, fact-finding missions to look into cases of potential violations of the Charter, and observation of local and regional elections to see the Charter’s practical application to the electoral process.

Over the years, the Congress has gained considerable experience and knowledge of various models of local and regional self-government, various methods and practices of the Charter’s implementation, and various tools for improving local democracy. As a body representative of more than 200,000 territorial communities of Europe, the Congress offers a unique pan-European platform for cooperation and sharing this experience, a forum for an exchange of new approaches and best practices, and a framework for coordinating our action for the benefit of communities. I should add that Congress’ recommendations, and its legal expertise of national legislation on local self-government, helped many Council of Europe member states with their legal reforms in this domain.

First and foremost, the Charter recognises local self-government as a right of communities to manage their own affairs through freely elected bodies, the right that should be enshrined in the Constitution. The Charter reaffirmed that it is at local level that the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs can be exercised most directly, and laid down, 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.

The Charter also stipulated that local authorities should have their own administrative structures and their own finances matching their competences, and that local elected representatives should exercise their duties without interference from any other authority, national or regional.

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 players at all levels of governance, which would make it possible to take up the great challenges of today. Today, local authorities have become 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.

Of course, the rights recognised in the Charter apply first and foremost to local authorities. However, the Charter also stipulates that they may also apply to regional authorities where such authorities exist. As our view of a democratic society continues to evolve, our eyes are increasingly turning to regional democracy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have gathered today to celebrate the two Charters and their significance for European democratic development at the grassroots. However, this seminar is taking place in a particular moment in the history of local democracy. It is taking place against the background of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, which is used as an excuse for re-centralisation of competences by some national governments, or for devolving competences to the regional and local level without matching financial resources.

This seminar is also taking place against the background of reflection on exactly how much decentralisation we need, how many levels of governance are optimal for an effective and efficient democracy, and how to strike the right balance between the power of central governments to redistribute resources within equalisation mechanisms and the right of local authorities to manage their resources independently.

Last but not least, is the European Charter of Local Self-Government sufficient today respond to the challenges facing local democracy, or does it need revision and further evolution? These are just some of the questions on the table today, as we ponder on the future of local democracy, the future of the legal framework for local self-government, and the relationship national governments and grassroots authorities within a balance of power that has taken shape in Europe over the past sixty years.

I thank you for bringing your thoughts to this seminar, and look forward to your contributions to this debate.

I wish all of us fruitful discussions today.

Thank you.