17th Plenary Session of the Congress
Strasbourg, Palais de l’Europe,
13-15 October 2009
Address by Mr Ulrich BOHNER, Secretary General of the Congress
(Wednesday, 14 October 2009)
These last few days, we have been celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Council of Europe.
I was born five years before this happy event, when large parts of Europe were still stricken in the ugliest war of history, in which the basic values of our organisation, human rights, rule of law and democracy had been violated in an open and unashamed way. My country of birth, Germany, was still governed by war criminals, responsible not only for the death of millions and millions of civilians, but also for the biggest genocide ever committed in history and to their people.
However, a growing number of European leaders started to imagine a new Europe, a Council of Europe that would be based on our shared values and give a perspective of peace and reconciliation to its member States.
Democracy was part of this challenge: in this way we were the first international organisation to go beyond the Committee of Ministers, the classical setup of an international organisation, by creating of a democratic pillar, the Parliamentary Assembly alongside. Looking at the importance of town twinnings for reconciliation, and at the gaining strength of local democracy in member States, the Parliamentary Assembly took, as early as 1957, the initiative to convene the first European Conference of Local Authorities, representing elected mayors and councillors from all Council of Europe member States.
But Europe was still divided. My first political experiences, as a youngster, include the Hungarian revolution in the autumn of 1956, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the tanks in the streets of Prague in August 1968. And we were still waiting for Greece, Spain and Portugal to abandon their dictatorial regimes. But they also included the integration and reconciliation in Western Europe, and the new “Ostpolitk” of Willy Brandt in the late 60s that provided the basis for the conclusion of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, a precondition for the events that we witnessed 20 years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “Iron Curtain”, opening the perspective for the countries in Central and Eastern Europe to become members of the Council of Europe. I was then working in the Private Office of Catherine Lalumière who, as Secretary General of the Council of Europe, had the courage and the clear vision necessary to guide and accompany this process. I shall always remember Mikhail Gorbachev’s visionary speech to the Parliamentary Assembly in July 1989, the idea of a “common European home”.
But to come back to the Congress, I have worked as part of it with a few breaks for almost 38 years. Consequently, I am most honoured that you, the elected representatives of our 47 member states, are giving me opportunity today to cast a glance over our organisation’s past, its present, and its future prospects.
My predecessor Gérard Baloup – who has left us this year, all too early – was able in 1957 to motivate the Parliamentary Assembly members in favour of creating this structure on the pattern of the Assembly itself. After being recognised by the Committee of Ministers in 1961, it has never left off developing. Gérard Baloup, a committed federalist, dreamed of a European Senate of the regions, of a European-level second chamber. The work of the Congress was carried on conscientiously, devotedly and competently by my friend Rinaldo Locatelli.
Today we are no longer so very far from what Baloup envisaged. The regions entered the Congress with the reform of 1974, albeit incompletely. The real reform that created the Congress in its present form was due to the conclusions of the first Summit of Heads of State and Government, held in Vienna in 1993. It was in 1994 that the Ministers’ Deputies were accordingly able to adopt a Statutory Resolution, creating the Congress in its present form, composed of a Chamber of Local Authorities and a Chamber of Regions.
Is it a whim of history or rather the effect of a groundswell tending towards the decentralisation of our countries that concurrently, under the Treaty of Maastricht, the European Union adopted a similar structure the Committee of the Regions? I personally am convinced that the reason lies in a deep-seated trend of our European societies towards recognition of the principle of subsidiarity and of the need to counterbalance the tendencies towards greater concentration of powers at the European level by stronger development of the grassroots regional and local dimension. European integration and decentralisation are thus movements that, far from being contradictory, really do complement each other. We have tried to develop synergy between the Congress and the Committee of the Regions by concluding, in line with the Juncker report, a co-operation agreement between the Congress and the Committee of the Regions leading to joint actions including observation of local and regional elections.
What is the present significance of the Congress and its 636 elected members in our Europe of 47 states?
Firstly the Congress has a very noble and important mission in this democratic Europe of ours, being built step by step: that of tracking, country by country, the development of local and regional democracy, in other words carrying out monitoring. President Ian Micallef convincingly enlarged on this point when he addressed the Ministers’ Deputies on 9 September this year. It is of course not the intention to set oneself up as a mentor to national governments, but to carry on a patient, ongoing public dialogue with all players, governments, local and regional elected representatives, scientists, parliamentarians and civil society on the challenges of democratic development in each of our countries.
This is the task already assigned to the Congress in the explanatory report to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, a Council of Europe convention adopted almost 25 years ago and ratified today by virtually all our member states (44 out of 47). This assignment was more recently confirmed by Article 2 para. 3 of Statutory Resolution (2007) 6 governing the operation of the Congress today. In this spirit, the Charter of Local Self-Government is complemented by other Council of Europe instruments. We therefore hope that the Conference of Ministers responsible for Local and Regional Government will adopt not only an additional protocol to the Charter, dealing with citizen participation, an underlying element of all democracy today, but also a framework of reference concerning regional democracy. We would admittedly have preferred a convention on regional democracy. However, some governments have remained very distrustful towards regionalism which they suspect, at best, of encroaching on their powers and, at worst, of fostering separatism. In the Congress we are convinced that, on the contrary, strong democratic regions will enhance the success of the states to which they belong. However, I have been compelled to learn during my long career with the Council of Europe that modesty and patience are necessary as regards the progress of ideas, before arriving at common attainments recognised Europe-wide.
The Institutional Committee of the Congress is the body that performs this task. To do so, it has enlisted the aid of a Committee of Independent Experts bringing together eminent professors from the different member states. It also works in close co-operation with the Venice Commission.
The progressive enlargement of the Council of Europe (we were 17 member States when I joined the Organisation in 1972) has also induced other changes. If the priority in the early days was clearly about standard-setting (and the more than 200 conventions of the Council testify this approach), this is not sufficient in today’s Europe. One of the tasks of today is to look not only after the implementation of the basic principles and texts (the “monitoring”) but also to help and encourage member States to put into practice the principles agreed to at European level. This has led to the adoption of additional texts, completing the conventional frameworks. I would like to mention in this context the European Urban Charter II, adopted by the Congress in 2008, the Recommendation on the participation of young people in local politics, adopted in 2003, and, more recently, the European Strategy for Innovation and Good Governance.
However, beyond carefully drafted texts, there have also been situations where assistance and action in the field are needed, thus going beyond the traditional role of the Council of Europe. After the devastating wars and conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the Congress has been instrumental for the creation of networks contributing to conflict resolution, overcoming tensions and accumulated hatred, building trust and favouring the reconstruction of local democracy and civil society in Southeast Europe and the Balkans. I am speaking about such networks as NALAS, the Network of Associations of Local Authorities in Southeast Europe, or ALDA, the Association of Local Democracy Agencies. The initiative and promotion of regional cooperation structures in difficult areas, such as the creation of the Adriatic Euroregion or the Black Sea Euroregion are based on the same philosophy. The assistance programmes for the development of local government associations, in countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan or Moldova, that we have been able to implement, point in the same direction. Such experience could also benefit other areas in Europe, such as Belarus, where the Congress has developed good working relationships with different actors.
However, given the shortage of resources of the Council of Europe, both monitoring activities and assistance programmes by the Congress could only be seriously stepped up if it were possible to find additional means, e.g. in the form of voluntary contributions by member States, the EU or other partners.
The statutory resolution mentioned earlier not only entrusts to the Congress the task of monitoring local and regional democracy, it also requests the Congress to prepare reports and recommendations following the observation of local and regional elections. This task is now often carried out with the participation of delegations from the Committee of the Regions. It benefits from the expertise of field offices of other organisations such as the OSCE, and from the experience gathered in the Council of Democratic Elections, where the Congress works together with the Parliamentary Assembly and the Venice Commission. It has proven to be an important instrument for the promotion of democratic principles at grassroots level in member States.
If standard setting and its implementation are important assets for the Congress, it is equally important to work on good practices in different fields of competence of local and regional authorities. This goes from climate change to the protection of minorities, the development of child-friendly cities to the local integration of migrants, the setting up of the CLIP (“Cities for Local Integration Policies”) network with the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions in Dublin and cities like Stuttgart, Vienna or Malmö.
The Congress has actively participated in the Council of Europe campaign to combat violence against women, but also made a big step in the field of gender equality. Since 2007, the Congress Charter requests - and this for the first time in any European assembly - that all national delegations comprise at least 30 % of the underrepresented sex, which is most often women. I am proud to say that this principle has been implemented since last year in all 47 national delegations.
The overall issue underpinning such activities is to see to it that, at the local level, our societies are ensuring respect for cultural (and religious) diversity, and that societies are inclusive, that no groups or individuals are left aside. Where our societies are not ready to grant equal rights at local level to all regular residents, we risk ending up in a system of “apartheid”, which was one of the essential weaknesses of the Roman Empire. In pursuing its objectives, the Congress is making an essential contribution towards one of the basic objectives of the Council of Europe, the promotion of Human Rights.
On the European scale, local democracy needs a high profile. Two years ago, in close co-operation with the intergovernmental sector, the Congress introduced European Local Democracy Week, held each year around 15 October, the date on which, in 1985, the European Charter of Local Self-Government was signed. This year, in co-operation with the City of Strasbourg, Local Democracy Week will have a particularly high profile in the city which is the Council of Europe's home. In addition, the European Urban Charter II, adopted last year, puts forward a set of guidelines for good governance of our towns and cities, an ideal basis for the development of the urban life of the future, taking account of the various challenges which they are required to meet, for the good of our citizens.
The Congress does not operate alone, but in the context of the Council of Europe's activities. We have co-operated closely with the Committee of Ministers, and especially with the countries which have chaired that Committee. The forthcoming Swiss Chairmanship offers a promising outlook in this respect. There are of course few countries in Europe which set so much store by the proper operation of local and regional democracy. Our President, Mr Micallef, recently started a discussion about how our dialogue with the Committee of Ministers could be better structured.
Co-operation with the Parliamentary Assembly has developed. The current President of the Assembly, Lluís Maria de Puig, was in fact once its rapporteur on regionalisation in Europe. We have concluded a co-operation agreement with the Conference of INGOs with participatory status, an agreement which we are beginning to put into practice. Over the past few years, we have developed our co-operation with the national and international associations of local and regional authorities. Finally, we are convinced that local democracy cannot operate without the participation of citizens. The Congress in this context welcomed the recent adoption by the Committee of Ministers of an additional protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, on the participation of citizens, which is to be opened for signature at the Ministerial Conference in Utrecht next month.
Local and regional democracy does not stop at the Europe's geographical borders. We have therefore concluded a cooperation agreement with the Council of Europe’s North-South Centre in Lisbon, a Centre in which the Congress cooperates, on equal footing, in the so-called “quadrilogue”, including the Committee of Ministers, the Assembly and the INGOs. We hope that this cooperation will benefit the promotion of local democracy in countries close to the Council of Europe. At world level, we have been active in promoting, in the framework of UN-Habitat, the adoption of the International Guidelines on Decentralisation and the Strengthening of Local Authorities, and their implementation. Individual relations between European cities and other cities in the world should be encouraged by a Charter of City Diplomacy that we intend to propose for adoption next year. Such a Charter should help to develop confidence building measures and thus contribute to development, reconciliation and peace in different areas in the world.
The aim of the Council of Europe according to its Statute of 1949 is to achieve a greater unity between its members. One necessary part of this is to leave behind, or reduce the relative importance of, national borders, in order to achieve the "Europe without dividing lines" for which the 2nd Council of Europe Summit called. That great European Denis de Rougement described borders as "scars" left by history, when he addressed the first "European Symposium on Frontier Regions", held in Strasbourg in 1972. Many member states had difficulties with this idea at first, because it seemed to undermine the traditional principle of national sovereignty. But in 1980, its time had come. The Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation was adopted, and now the Committee of Ministers has adopted a 3rd Protocol to that Convention. Euroregions are currently on the agenda not only at all the European Union’s internal borders, but also at its external borders, and even between states which are not members of the EU. The Congress, as it always has done, regards the promotion of transfrontier co-operation as one of its prime tasks. Thus we have, in recent years, paved the way for two major Euroregions: those of the Adriatic and the Black Sea.
Having served the Congress for nearly 38 years, in different functions, I regret that it has not been possible to elect, during this session, my successor, as it was scheduled, as a result of a serious divergence of views within the Congress Bureau. I am nevertheless convinced that my Deputy, Antonella Cagnolati, has all the qualifications to run the Congress Secretariat in the meantime. But I should like to take this opportunity to reflect for a moment on the function of Secretary General that I have now exercised for more than six years.
First and foremost, this function implies the capacity to lead a team of more than 50 people, and to look after the management of a budget of more than 6 million Euros. In this respect, the Congress is embedded in the rather rigid administrative and financial framework of the Council of Europe which does not always make things easier.
The Secretary General of the Congress is also the interface, the go-between, having to implement political guidelines from the Congress and to make sure that they are coherent with overall policies of the Council of Europe, in particular the Committee of Ministers and the Secretary General. This function requires diplomacy and a good political understanding of situations in the Council of Europe and its member States. The Secretary General also has to advise the various Congress organs on difficulties, opportunities, priorities and choices. These functions require strict political neutrality, but also a clear vision and the capacity to listen and to convince. A sense of communication is equally an important asset.
I have tried to combine these different aspects as best I could, in order to serve the Congress, the promotion of local and regional democracy in Europe and beyond, and the Council of Europe as a whole. I am confident that my successor, once elected by you, will serve the organisation in the same spirit.
I should not like to finish without saying a few words about my friend, our President, Yavuz Mildon, a convinced European and a Turkish democrat who has devoted all his energy to promoting the Congress. He has shown political courage, paving the way for some important policies, such as normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia, which came to fruition last Saturday. The health problem which he experienced last Christmas has required a slow healing process, one which is not yet quite complete. I wish him and his family the necessary courage to bring this process to a successful conclusion.
Finally, I wish to thank all my colleagues in the Congress, past and present, for their collective commitment to the success of the Congress and for their competence and know-how. I am particularly grateful to my assistants, Christine Ebel and Linette Taesch, who have supported me with patience and professional commitment.
I should also like to pay tribute to my wife Françoise and to my children and their families for the support which they have given me and for their indulgence, the reconciliation between working and family life which we all support in principle not always being easy to achieve in practice.