Cities and the Diversity Advantage: Towards More Effective Communication and Public Debate

Conference on the results from SPARDA

(Shaping Perceptions and Attitudes to Realise the Diversity Advantage)

Brussels, 13 June 2012

Opening Statement by Pesident Keith Whitmore Congress of Local and Regional Authorities Council of Europe

Secretary General Stahl,

Director Palmer,

Director Cygan

Dear colleagues,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to open this conference which will take stock of the results of the SPARDA project and its important work since January 2011. These results represent a specific, concrete methodology on communicating diversity and building dialogue on diversity issues with the local population. They are extremely useful for the work of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe on the integration and participation of migrants in our communities. I am sure that they are equally useful for the activities of other partners working in this domain, whom I welcome here, in particular the Committee of the Regions with which the Congress has been building synergies in the integration of migrants.

I would like to thank the organisers for giving me the opportunity to open this event, to present the current work of the Congress on migration, and to look at how the SPARDA project dovetails with this work. I am particularly pleased that this projects has been closely linked with the Intercultural Cities network, with which the Congress has established very close co-operation and working relations.

In fact, during its latest session in March, the Congress organised a round table on building an inclusive local identity, with the participation of six Intercultural Cities’ mayors. I should say that presentation and discussions during this round table underlined exactly the need to show the advantages of diversity to all citizens, encourage dialogue and develop proper communication strategies and tools for this purpose. The SPARDA project is seeking to meet this need by pursuing this very objective.

However, I would like to begin by looking at the very specific context of the current situation in Europe, in which this project has been carried out, and which has prompted ongoing debates about the future of European democracy, both within the European Union and the Council of Europe.

This situation is characterised, on the one hand, by two simultaneous crises. One is the obvious economic and financial crisis, with its devastating impact on all levels of governance – and in particular the local and regional levels, which often have to make hard choices with regard to budget cuts and the provision of social services. We all know that at a time of the economic hardship, it is far too often the Unknown Other – foreigners, migrants, minorities – who unfortunately become the scapegoats in the eyes of the population and some public authorities.

The other crisis is a less evident one of democratic mechanisms and procedures, characterised by a growing gap between the institutions and the citizens, the feeling of exclusion from decision-making, a lack of public trust in democratic mechanisms and representative figures, and people’s disillusionment with democratic processes as a whole, due to the lack of effective rights of citizen participation and other institutional deficits of democracy (the weakness of parliaments vis-à-vis the executive, government work geared to short-term electoral success and lacking long-term vision, etc.). This situation was described in a 2010 report of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly as a “crisis of democracy”.

Indeed, all signs of a systemic crisis are at hand today. According to the 2009 Eurobarometer, only half of European citizens today trust their local authorities – and this is the highest score, while the figure for national and European politicians is much lower. Most European citizens see corruption at all levels of governance as a major challenge to democracy –this, in a system of governance based on the rule of law and equal treatment which we proclaim. Many Europeans feel disempowered and excluded from decision-making on matters affecting them. This crisis must be addressed urgently if we are to advance into the future with a stronger, not weaker, democracy.

At the same time, and on the other hand, this crisis is taking place against the background of growing ethnic and cultural diversity of European communities – due both to the influx of external migrants and internal migration within the European continent – and a surge in people’s activism outside the established institutions of governance – through civil society, voluntary activities and social networks, for example.

This means that we – public authorities – need to find new ways of engaging citizens and providing for their better and more meaningful participation in democratic decision-making, not limited to elections alone. We need a new model of continued citizen participation and feedback on public action, combining elements of direct democracy with the traditional system of representative democracy in building what can be described as “participatory democracy”.

In this regard, I am pleased to welcome the entry into force just two weeks ago, on 1 June, of the Additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, dealing with the right of citizens to participate in the affairs of a local community. This is an important addition to the legal toolbox for increasing citizen participation, including the participation of migrants and minorities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Indeed, local communities in Europe are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. Today, not a single European country or a large city can claim to be mono-ethnic. The true challenge is to find ways of using this diversity for the benefit of the entire community, beginning from the grassroots. Building productive intercultural relations between population groups, ensuring integration of minority groups and bringing about better social cohesion are among today’s main challenges for public authorities at all levels of governance, responses to which represent an integral part of participatory democracy we are seeking to build. A key role in meeting this challenge belongs to local and regional authorities, as pubic action at the grassroots level has the most direct and tangible impact on our citizens.

Given this growing diversity of European societies, the new model of participatory democracy must necessarily involve migrants, foreign residents and minority groups, and must begin with their integration. Needless to say, the local level is the first line for such democratic integration as well as participation, which is why the Council of Europe and the Congress have been staunch advocates for the right of foreign residents to vote and stand in local elections, and for the establishment of councils of foreign residents at local and regional levels. For us, integration and participation do indeed go hand in hand.

This was also emphasised in a 2011 report of the Group of Eminent Persons, commissioned by the Council of Europe and entitled “Living together: Combining freedom and diversity in 21st century Europe”. The task set for the Group was to identify major challenges for European democracy today, and their report described these main challenges as being linked exactly to the issue of diversity, which all levels of government have to face.

The Eminent Persons have pointed out that the rising intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination are among the main threats to our living together, and stressed that towns and cities “bear the main responsibility for ensuring that culturally diverse societies are open societies, in which people belonging to different cultural groups […] can feel at home and make their own contribution”. It is important that the SPARDA project has been seeking to find responses exactly to this challenge.

It is also important that the Eminent Persons have specifically included among their recommendations for action the issues of participation of foreigners in local life and politics, as well as of integration of migrants and people of recent migrant origin. Responses to this challenge lie in reaching social consensus on the legal framework by which everyone has to abide; in ensuring equal treatment and equal protection of citizens’ rights – by, among other things, promoting local integration and access to social rights and public services for all, such as housing, education, health care and employment; as well as in fostering intercultural dialogue and harmonious relations between different cultural and religious groups.

Specific action in this regard must include two major components.

One component are measures to ensure equal access to social rights and public services, which may involve affirmative action and special efforts to remedy the inherent disadvantages, and which must include access to employment, access to education, access to housing, and access to health care, among others. There is a wide range of issues involved: evaluation of the existing skills and competences linked to issuing work permits, vocational training and professional education, language-learning, etc.

These measures, in turn, should be based on the broad foundation that includes, on the one hand, measures to promote active citizenship in local communities (education on national laws and local regulations, education for democratic citizenship and human rights education, among others); and, on the other hand, interculturalism (local intercultural policies, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, etc.).

This brings me to the second component, which is action to fight prejudice against migrants and to raise public awareness of their cultures and contribution to the local community, in order to ensure non-discrimination and equality in human rights protection. In this regard, of particular importance are such issues as political discourse of elected representatives and public officials, portrayal of migrants in the media, and mediation between ethnic groups and the host community, among others. This serves one overarching purpose: to bring about change in negative attitudes and perceptions towards migrants in the local population, and to show local residents the true benefits of diversity.

This is where the SPARDA project comes into play. The project represents another excellent example of co-operation between the Council of Europe, the European Union and its Committee of the Regions, and other institutional partners. It responds both to the issues on the agenda of the Council of Europe and its Congress, and to those included in the European Agenda for Integration elaborated by the European Union. The matters addressed under SPARDA are certainly also linked to the Global Approach on Migration and Mobility, GAMM, which is currently being discussed within European institutions.

A concrete outcome of the SPARDA project, as I have said at the outset, is a specific, step-by-step methodology on how to foster community dialogue, engage collective action and participation, and evaluate the results for further action.

I welcome this important new tool for local and regional authorities, and I would like to thank the project team and all SPARDA participants and stakeholders for their hard work over the past 18 months. Thanks to you, we have this valuable result today, and I look forward to our discussions today which will include, I am sure, also the issue of the practical application of this methodology.

Once again, thank you, and I wish all of us interesting discussions today.