Joint conference between the Congress and the City of Strasbourg

“Residence-based participation: a new reality of modern democracy”

Strasbourg, 27 November 2013

Opening statement by Herwig van Staa, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Dear Mayor of Strasbourg,

Dear members of the Congress and of the Strasbourg Club,

Dear guests of the conference,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you to this conference on behalf of the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. I would like to thank our partner, the City of Strasbourg, in particular its Mayor Roland RIES, for organising this event in the context of the Council of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy this week.

This conference is taking place against the background of multiple crises in Europe today. On the one hand, the current representative democratic system and politicians have not succeeded in responding effectively to the economic downturn that has caused considerable hardship to citizens. This has led to further frustration and a loss of citizens’ confidence in the institutions of power and their political representatives. As a result, citizens today do not feel that the existing system of governance is able to respond efficiently to their needs and concerns. At the same time, they do not feel empowered enough to influence political decisions that affect their daily lives.

This causes the disillusionment of citizens with traditional mainstream politics, a loss of their trust in the institutions of governance, and either apathy and abstention from voting in elections, or escape into extremism and vote for populist parties. Worse than that, people begin to question democratic values and their commitment to the democratic system of government itself. At the same time, low voter turnouts, especially at local level, put into question the very legitimacy of the institutions formed as a result of elections, and to what extent they enjoy public trust and support. There are some alarming examples: only recently, the voter turnout in regional elections in Slovakia on 9 November was only 20 per cent, down from the already low 23 per cent in 2009. In the United Kingdom, over the past decade the average turnout in local elections was between 29 and 35 per cent. Even in countries where participation in local and regional elections remains high – such as, for example, in Austria, Denmark or the Netherlands – the overall trend is still downward, with a decrease of some 5 per cent compared to the previous decade.

The crisis of values and this crisis of legitimacy are only aggravated by the economic crisis, with its climate of resentment and a search for scapegoats who are, as usual, people other than the majority population – migrants, foreigners, minorities.

Today’s multiple crises are unravelling in the context of a growing diversity of European societies. There is not a single mono-ethnic State left in Europe today, and very few mono-ethnic communities, even at local level. There is an increasing number of citizens on this continent who live in one country but bear the nationality of another. While those in this situation who belong to the European Union have the right to vote in local and European (but not national) elections, those who are non-EU do not have such rights in all of the European countries. We have to deal with two categories of foreign residents, and we have to find ways to integrate them properly.

In the Council of Europe, we are convinced that in order to respond to the multiple crises, public authorities must engage better their citizens through greater citizen participation – in particular at local level where such participation is the most direct and easier to ensure.

We are convinced that participation is a new reality of modern democracy. For many decades, our thinking has been geared towards building democracy, equal participation and social cohesion in a homogenous, mono-ethnic society bound by cultural unity. We must learn to operate with cultural, ethnic, confessional and lingual minorities in our society and build social cohesion across cultural differences.

The objective of today’s conference is to examine these challenges, which have been for a long time on the agenda of the Council of Europe and its Congress. The results of discussions will feed into the Congress’ report on changing perceptions of cultural diversity through socialisation in the spirit of respect and tolerance.

I wish you productive and constructive discussions.

Thank you.