High-level Conference “Diversity in Europe: a Strength for the Future” (Tirana, 8-9 November 2012)

      Session 1: “Dialogue with Mediterranean Neighbours: Sharing best experiences towards open and sustainable democratic societies”

      Speech by Vice-President Helena Pihlajasaari, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe

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      Mr Chairman,

      Ministers,

      Excellencies,

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      It is a great honour for me to address this High-level Conference on behalf of the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and I wish to thank the organisers for giving me this opportunity. This Conference is one of many activities organised during the Albanian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers that are of direct relevance to the Congress, and we are pleased to have been cooperating closely with the Albanian authorities throughout the past six months in promoting local and regional democracy and democratic governance at the grassroots.

      As a pan-European assembly of local and regional elected politicians representing more than 200,000 territorial communities of this continent, the Congress is convinced that the process of building democracy and fostering democratic values must begin at the level closest to the citizen. Any democratic system can only be stable and complete if it is based on the solid foundation of local and regional democracy, which has been a landmark feature of European democratic development. It is by giving our citizens the right to self-government, by empowering local and regional authorities to deal with the immediate concerns and needs of their communities that we can truly involve citizens in the democratic process, boost their democratic participation and strengthen their commitment to democratic values.

      The Congress and its predecessor, Conference of Local and Regional Authorities, have been advancing territorial self-government in Europe for more than fifty years through the decentralisation of power and measures to improve the governance of our communities and the quality of public services at the grassroots. We have accumulated substantial experience in this process, experience that we would like to share with our neighbours on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

      We are convinced that the transformations under way in North Africa as a result of the Arab Spring offer tremendous opportunities for democratic development in those countries, which must necessarily include building democratic self-government at local and regional level and ‘democracy of proximity’ to citizens. This means, essentially, pursuing the priorities that are not much different from those we have been facing here in Europe: a proper legislative framework for local and regional self-government based on democratic principles, norms and standards; greater competences and financial autonomy for local and regional communities; greater participation of citizens in community affairs, in particular women and young people; empowerment of women through equality action; promotion of good governance and fight against corruption; equal access for all to quality public services and social rights such as housing, education, health care and employment, among others.

      This is why the Congress has been actively involved in elaborating the Council of Europe policy towards neighbouring regions, together with the intergovernmental sector and the Parliamentary Assembly, and has been closely associated in particular with the implementation of the Action Plans for Morocco and Tunisia.

      Our action for the southern Mediterranean is built on our long-standing experience in the region: the 1984 Friendship and Co-operation Agreement between European and Arab Towns, which led to conferences of Euro-Arab towns in Marrakesh in 1988 and in Valencia in 1994, then to the creation of the Euro-Arab Cities Forum which met in Dubai in 2008 and in Malaga in February 2011. Today, we are proceeding with this action in close co-operation with other actors and Council of Europe bodies to ensure its coherence and that it is driven by demand from the neighbouring countries themselves.

      Only three weeks ago, at its plenary session in October, the Congress debated a report on opportunities for local and regional democracy presented by the Arab Spring, and adopted a resolution and a recommendation for both local and regional authorities and national governments of Europe. In these texts, we call for establishing practical co-operation with their counterparts in the southern Mediterranean in order to promote the principles of local democracy and to ensure the transfer of best experiences in local and regional self-government gained on European soil.

      In practical terms, the Congress is proposing two types of intervention:

      - an immediate assistance, through institutional co-operation, to help establish an adequate legal framework for a real local and regional democracy to take root;

      - in a second stage, to support initiatives on democratic governance and co-operation with newly elected local representatives drawing from the know-how and experience of the Congress elected members, based on the peer-to-peer principle as well as pre- and post-election process.

      Our immediate assistance will be based on the relevant Council of Europe standards, mechanisms and instruments for enhancing local and regional democracy – such as the European Charter of Local Self-Government and its Additional Protocol on democratic participation, the Reference Framework for Regional Democracy, the Code of conduct for the political integrity of local and regional elected representatives, the Charter on Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life, the Charter for Regional and Minority Languages and the Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education, among others.

      Congress delegations have already paid several visits to Morocco and Tunisia to establish co-operation with relevant stakeholders, and we have also received delegations from these countries in Strasbourg. In Morocco, building on our experience with this country, the Congress will continue its assistance with the new legislation on regionalisation, following their request made in 2010. We are organising an exchange of views between a delegation of the Congress and members of the Specialised Committee of the Moroccan Parliament, to take place in Rabat. We are also pleased that a number of Moroccan municipalities will be organising the Local Democracy Week this year, modelled on the European Local Democracy Week, which the Congress has been promoting since 2007.

      For Tunisia, we will be contributing to the work of the National Constituent Assembly and will share experience with the future Parliament in drafting legislation on regional and local self-government. We are also offering expertise to accompany the electoral processes and will possibly be observing local and regional elections in both countries. We will also be developing initiatives aimed at raising leadership capacities of newly elected representatives, building confidence and creating conditions for setting up national associations of local authorities.

      Last but not least, the Congress is also considering offering a “special partner status” for Moroccan and Tunisian local and regional elected representatives to participate actively in the work of the Congress committees and the Congress sessions.

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      We are convinced that the political changes in the countries of the southern Mediterranean open up great prospects for democratic development at local and regional level, and in particular for dialogue and co-operation between municipalities and regions. This opportunity must not be missed.

      Thank you.



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