23rd Session of the Congress

      (Strasbourg, 16-18 October 2012)

      State of the Congress 2012

      Speech by outgoing President Keith Whitmore

      Mr President,

      Members of the Congress, dear colleagues,


      Distinguished guests and observers,

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      First of all, I would like to congratulate you, Mr President, dear Herwig, on your election to this position and to wish you every success in steering the Congress for the next two years. I have no doubt that with your experience and dynamism, you will do an excellent job at the helm of this assembly.

      Dear friends,

      This is the last time I will be addressing you as President and member of this Congress. It has been a truly exciting 16 years with this remarkable institution - more than half of my 30-year political career – and, today, I feel proud to have participated in turning the Congress into what it has become: a truly consultative, monitoring and operational body of the Council of Europe, fully engaged with the intergovernmental sector and other partners in improving the governance of our communities and the quality of life of our citizens.

      Over the past years, the Congress has grown within the Council of Europe’s institutional architecture to become a major stakeholder and actor in the intra-institutional meeting set up by Council of Europe Secretary General Jagland – together with the Presidents of the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and Court of Human Rights as well as with the Commissioner for Human Rights. We have seen success in reasserting ourselves as equal partners of national governments and parliaments and, today, the Congress is clearly engaged in an increased dialogue and co-ordination with the Committee of Ministers, through regular exchanges of views with Permanent Representatives in Strasbourg, their Rapporteur Groups and steering committees.

      The Congress has also been actively participating in conferences of specialised ministers, as there is a growing range of areas where joining our action with national governments will maximise its impact for the benefit of our citizens. In the past month, for example, I have had the privilege of representing the Congress at the conferences of Justice Ministers, focusing on responses to urban violence, and of Ministers responsible for social cohesion – both subjects of direct relevance and high importance for local and regional authorities, especially in this time of economic crisis.

      We have continued to build synergies with our institutional partners; with the Parliamentary Assembly, in particular, the Congress is promoting increased consultation and exchange, especially at the level of the rapporteurs of the two assemblies. This complementarity of action and cooperation in concrete areas was also the emphasis of the so-called Chaves report, adopted by the Conference of Ministers responsible for local and regional government in Kyiv in November 2011 and endorsed by the Congress. I want to thank the Parliamentary Assembly and especially its General Rapporteur Sir Alan MEALE, who is with us today, for the excellent cooperation over the last years.

      We have strengthened our monitoring activities and broadened direct political dialogue with both national governments and territorial authorities, to ensure an effective follow-up to our recommendations. Through this monitoring and observation of local and regional elections, we are designing post-monitoring co-operation programmes to assist member states to overcome the existing problems in the field of local and regional democracy. Last year saw many good examples of this work, with the Congress’ participation in the Council of Europe Action Plans for Ukraine and for Albania – in particular through the project on strengthening local government structures and co-operation of local elected representatives in Albania. I could also mention seminars on developing post-monitoring procedures and step-by-step implementation road maps, organised by the Monitoring Committee in Vannes and Sarajevo in July and September this year.

      Furthermore, the Congress is developing its contribution to the Council of Europe’s policy towards neighbouring regions and is taking an active part in implementing, together with the Venice Commission, action plans for democratisation in Morocco and Tunisia. Congress delegations have visited these countries on several occasions over the past year and, this afternoon, we will be debating in this assembly the opportunities for local and regional democracy presented by the Arab Spring and the Congress’ action in this regard.

      We have refocused our thematic activities to ensure maximum contribution to the Council of Europe’s core objectives of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Among recent examples of such actions are the launching of the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, the broadening of the European Local Democracy Week, and our Pact of Towns and Regions to stop sexual violence against children as part of the Congress’ contribution to the Council of Europe’s “One in Five” Campaign to fight sexual abuse of children. I would like to thank our Thematic Rapporteur on Roma/Travellers, John WARMISHAM – who is also Coordinator for the European Local Democracy Week – and Thematic Rapporteur on Children, Dusica DAVIDOVIC, for their active work.

      We have seen success in advocating the role of local and regional authorities in promoting and implementing human rights in their communities, and in creating conditions for their full exercise at the grassroots – something that was regarded before as a prerogative of national governments alone. Through our Monitoring Committee and our Thematic Rapporteur on Human Rights, Lars O. MOLIN, we are developing co-operation with the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU, and making progress in raising human rights awareness at local and regional level, of which a good example is a recent seminar on human rights and local governance in Tirana.

      Through our Governance and Current Affairs Committee, we are developing responses to the current challenges faced by local and regional authorities, which are linked to such broad issues as the economic crisis, the growing diversity of our societies and the need for better local integration, as well as the crisis of public confidence in democratic institutions and the need for greater citizen participation and re-engagement in democracy – in particular that of young people. In this regard, the Congress has been contributing to the debate on the future participative model of European democracy, not least through our active participation in the World Forum for Democracy here in Strasbourg last week.

      I invite you to peruse my activity report, The State of the Congress 2012, for more details on these and other activities over the past year. I would only stress once again that these activities are proof of the growing operational capacity of this institution that has become more result-oriented and more relevant to the core mission of the Council of Europe. We have more rapporteurs from more countries; this reflects the successful move towards involving more and more members in the activities of the Congress: we became more inclusive.

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      If the Congress is different today, it is due to the broad and comprehensive reform that we have undertaken over the past years. When I assumed the Presidency of the Congress two years ago, I made a commitment to steer this assembly through the implementation stage of the reform process. I have led the Congress with an open heart and an open mind, and I would like to thank all members of the Congress for their support and active participation. I am proud to have been able also to contribute my energy and my ideas to this process, and to see the reform bear fruit today.

      I also wish to express my gratitude to Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress, who was also elected in the midst of the reform process and who successfully rose to the challenge, carrying out his duties with great skill and vigour. Through Secretary General Kiefer, I thank, of course, all the members of the Congress Secretariat who have helped me in my work and made my duties as President that much easier.

      Today, we celebrate the NEW CONGRESS, with its new membership and new leadership, carrying forward its mission of upholding, defending and advancing local and regional democracy, and of making local and regional self-government stronger, and truly representative of our citizens.

      And as I wish every success to this NEW CONGRESS – to all of you – with the challenging tasks ahead, I would like to offer a recipe for success from the French revolutionary Danton: “De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace” – Audacity, more audacity, and yet more audacity!

      Thank you.

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