World Forum for Democracy
Strasbourg, 10 October 2012
Round table on “Active citizenship in emerging democracies”
Speech by John Warmisham, Coordinator for the European Local Democracy Week, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to thank the organisers for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate on active citizenship, on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.
We in the Congress consider this issue to be of crucial importance for our efforts to enhance citizen participation and to build participatory democracy in Europe. We are particularly pleased that this importance has been recently reaffirmed by our partner in the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly, in its resolution on the promotion of active citizenship in Europe, adopted last June, which stresses the key role of local authorities in this process.
It seems to be self-evident indeed that in order to boost citizen participation, we need active citizens participating in democratic processes to begin with. We need citizens who are well informed of their rights and civic duties, of the situation in society in general and their community in particular, and who are capable of exercising these rights, fulfilling these duties, and taking an active stand in defending democratic values. The level of the civil and political awareness of citizens that is necessary to ensure the health and development of a pluralist democracy is a crucial element of democratic citizenship.
However, this does not happen overnight. Building such citizenry is a process in itself, which involves civic and human rights education, access to democratic mechanisms, and both institutional and legal framework allowing for direct interaction with public authorities and for the exercise of the freedom of expression. In addition, non-formal education and lifelong learning are also increasingly becoming an important sector for equipping citizens with the needed skills and understanding to empower them to play their role in society.
What we need is an institutionalised Hyde Park in every municipality, where citizens could bring their own “soapbox” to stand on. This is a challenge indeed. Speaking your mind and defending your opinion is not always an easy task even in countries with long democratic traditions, let alone emerging or new democracies – not to mention that the freedom of expression as such seems to be under attack from many different angles over the past decade or so.
We in the Congress are convinced that we must begin with creating a broad framework for education for democratic citizenship in our societies, spanning all levels of governance but embedded in particular at the grassroots. It is at the level of our local and regional communities – villages, towns, cities, provinces and regions –where people learn their first democratic experience, and where their interaction begins with society, with public authorities and with democratic institutions and mechanisms. It is not by accident that starting at the grassroots and building up is a career path of many a politician.
That is why the Congress is fully supporting the Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education, adopted by the Council of Europe two years ago, which places a special emphasis on the role of local and regional authorities in fostering such education. And that is why we adopted one year ago in October our own recommendations to local authorities for developing municipal policies on education for democratic citizenship and creating appropriate frameworks for their implementation.
There is a growing range of available tools, which could be put forward and used for this purpose. In practical terms, the European Local Democracy Week – a pan-European event organised at the Congress’ initiative every year in October since 2007 – is one excellent example, followed today by hundreds of municipalities in more than 30 European countries. Being Coordinator for the European Local Democracy Week, I am proud to say that over the past five years, this initiative has revealed a wealth of good practices and innovative approaches by local authorities and citizens themselves in getting together to discuss the issues of concern for their communities and to decide the action to take. Such direct encounters are certainly one way of boosting active citizenship, and I am pleased that the Moroccan municipalities have recently expressed their interest in replicating the Local Democracy Week model on their soil.
Of course, building active citizenship goes hand in hand with boosting citizen participation. In this regard, involving all citizens, all residents of communities in community affairs and decision-making is crucial, and this would include women, young people, children, minorities, migrants, foreigners, people with disabilities, the elderly – they are all stakeholders in both the community’s present and its future. We recommend in this regard setting up consultative citizens’ structures at local level – youth assemblies and children’s councils, councils of foreign residents, women councils, etc. – as well as holding regular townhall meetings, public debates and consultations with citizens, organising local referenda and promoting citizens’ initiatives. The right of foreign residents to vote and stand in local elections is a major boost to both local participation and integration, and we are pleased that more than 20 European countries currently give this right to non-EU foreigners living in their territories.
Good practices in this context could be found, for instance, in the practical implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level, and the revised European Charter on youth participation at local and regional level. Clearly, the recent European Citizen Initiative is another promising example in this regard.
Participatory budgeting is yet another example, which is being increasingly practiced in a number of European countries, in particular Germany, the United Kingdom and Nordic states. Under this practice, citizens become involved – through consultations with their associations and social groups – in the preparation of and decisions on local budgets. This process is based on pulling together the various initiatives and proposals of citizens and civil society at local level, organising them into clusters corresponding to local budgetary priorities, and including them into local budgets.
Finally, the success of these efforts depends to a great degree on the ability of local authorities to build partnerships with educational and training institutions, civil society, professional associations, the private sector, various citizen groups, the voluntary sector – in a word, all the stakeholders involved in the process. There are good examples to follow in this area, too, and I hope all this accumulated experience will be put to good use in emerging democracies as well.
I would like to conclude by stressing that local authorities have a duty to promote and facilitate active democratic citizenship, because the quality of local democracy is an essential building block for the quality of regional, national and international democracy. Our cities have the potential to become catalysts for nurturing, developing and spreading the values that lie at the heart of democracy. By developing education for democratic citizenship and making intelligent use of the available tools and good practices, local authorities can take an important step towards realising this potential, and can ensure that their cities are places which enable their citizens not only to develop personally but also to contribute fully to public life.