22nd Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Communication by Keith Whitmore, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This session marks the latest phase of the Congress’ reform process, with the adoption of the new rules of procedure to reflect the changes made to our structures and working methods. At the next session, the last amendments to the Congress’ Charter, approved by the Committee of Ministers, will come into effect – the extension of the mandates of our members to four years, and the application of the 30 per cent minimum requirement for women’s representation in national delegations to both Representatives and Substitutes. The Congress will thus remain the only European institution to apply this gender quota.
For more than a year now, the Congress has been working in a new configuration, better adapted to respond to the challenges facing local and regional communities, better focused on the priorities of this Organisation, and better equipped to target its action on achieving concrete results. The Congress today is fully set to gain speed in this post-reform, implementation stage as an operational body representing the local and regional dimension of the Council of Europe’s work for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
This new role of the Congress means closer and more practical dialogue with national governments on issues of common concern for local and regional democracy. The necessity for this dialogue was also underlined by the Ministers of Council of Europe member states responsible for local and regional governments, at their Conference in Kyiv in November last year. The Conference itself represented a great opportunity for the Congress delegation to establish direct dialogue with governments, and I thank our colleagues who took an active part in this event.
The Ministers approved the report of the Vice-President of the Spanish Government, Mr Manuel Chaves, proposing to establish an Agenda in Common for joint action between national and grassroots authorities in the areas where such synergies are crucial for strengthening democracy and good governance on our continent. Among these areas are responses to the current financial and economic crisis, the fight against corruption, increasing citizen participation at all levels of government in Europe, and broadening the application of the European Charter of Local Self-Government to consolidate further the democratic foundation of our societies.
The report emphasised the importance of enhancing the unique role of the Congress as the European body monitoring the Charter’s implementation, and called for closer co-operation between the Congress, the Committee of Ministers and the Ministerial Conference, especially in the follow-up to our recommendations – in their practical implementation.
The current situation of the ongoing financial crisis, which was one of the major themes of the Conference, brings to the forefront the need for such co-operation and indeed solidarity between all tiers of governance – the European institutions, national governments, and local and regional authorities. The crisis has had a major adverse impact on all levels but was particularly devastating at the grassroots. Local and regional authorities today have to deal not only with the downturn of local economies and a shrinking revenue base as a result, but also, at the same time, with the obligation to step up social support to local populations, against the background of national government attempts at recentralisation, cuts in budgetary transfers and increases in so-called ‘unfunded mandates’.
The response policies in this situation must be coherent throughout all the levels of governance, in a spirit of solidarity, which necessitates consultations, coordination of action and practical co-operation. We will have an opportunity to discuss these issues during this session under the current affairs debate on the impact of the financial crisis on local and regional authorities.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The first steps of the Congress in moving into the post-monitoring and post-election observation stage of assistance in dealing with concrete problems are the co-operation programmes with Albania and Ukraine which we have launched over the past several months. More such country-specific programmes will be elaborated in the near future. They are the first tangible signs of the new orientation of the reformed Congress, but there are others.
We have been pursuing the follow-up to the Summit of Mayors on Roma, held last September, in an effort to mobilise local and regional action to improve the situation. In co-operation with the Special Representative of the Council of Europe Secretary General on Roma issues, the Congress is currently working to launch the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, decided by the Summit. We will be discussing this work as a special item on this session’s agenda.
To contribute to the Council of Europe ‘One in Five’ Campaign to combat sexual violence against children, the Congress organised a seminar in February on the Campaign’s local and regional dimension, as part of its Strategic Action Plan to lead the fight against sexual abuse of children at the grassroots level.
With major transformations underway in the southern Mediterranean, as a result of the Arab Spring revolts, we have also been formulating co-operation programmes and possible activities in Morocco and Tunisia, as part of the Congress’ contribution to the neighbourhood policy of the Council of Europe. A report is currently being prepared on ways in which the Congress and European local and regional authorities can help their counterparts in North Africa to seize opportunities for building local and regional democracy in those countries.
I had an opportunity to point out this new orientation of the Congress during the annual exchange of views with the Committee of Ministers, on 16 November. I stressed that the Congress is now very different from what it used to be as we are tackling the core issues of the Council of Europe, in addition to our central mission of monitoring local and regional democracy. Today, other important fields of Congress action include, for example, promoting human rights and human rights awareness-raising at the grassroots, improving local governance and the rule of law, pursuing local integration for better social cohesion and increasing citizen participation, in particular through such tools as the European Local Democracy Week.
However, the core mission of the Congress remains monitoring the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government and observing local and regional elections in member states. Since the 21st Session last October, the Congress fielded monitoring missions to Italy, Portugal, Moldova, the “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and observed local elections in Bulgaria. With the new rules of procedure aimed at carrying out more monitoring and more comprehensive election observation, and as the number of monitoring missions per year almost tripled over the past three years, we now have a much clearer picture of the situation of local and regional democracy. The sheer number of monitoring reports during this session is a testimony to that. This, in turn, allows for designing a more targeted post-monitoring action and result-oriented co-operation programmes.
Monitoring also gives us an opportunity to raise awareness of the responsibilities of local and regional authorities with regard to human rights implementation and to ensuring human rights education, as well as in upholding the rule of law in our communities. Just two weeks ago, on 2 March, I had an opportunity to speak of the role of the grassroots level in the practical implementation of the rule of law, at a conference convened by the UK Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. I pointed out that local and regional authorities are becoming direct players and stakeholders, on a par with national governments, in ensuring both the rule of law and the exercise of human rights in their communities. The Congress’ monitoring activities serve to strengthen this role.
I would like to invite you to find more detailed information on the activities of the Congress over the past year in the brand new publication “The State of the Congress 2011”, which is available for you. I encourage you to use this very informative brochure also for contacts with your colleagues at local and regional level, as well as with the ministers and parliamentarians of your respective national governments.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to conclude by stressing that the Congress continues to play very actively its unique role in the Council of Europe’s work for local and regional democracy. With its reform completed, the Congress is now fully set to respond to the challenges facing European societies, in line with this Organisation’s priorities and in the most operational way, focusing on concrete achievements.
It has always been our ambition. Let us now turn this ambition into reality.