An Intercultural Cities Milestone Event “Making Diversity Work for Cities”

      Dublin, Ireland, 6-8 February 2013

      Opening Statement by Vice-President Ludmila Sfirloaga

      Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

      of the Council of Europe

      Lord Mayor,

      Ministers,

      Excellences,

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      Dear colleagues,

      It is an honour for me to open this Milestone Event of the Intercultural Cities network on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe and its President, Mr Herwig van Staa, who expresses his regrets for not being able to participate in person. I am particularly pleased to be here today because the Congress has been supporting this network since its inception, and has established very close co-operation and working relations with the Intercultural Cities over the past years.

      I would like to thank the Andorra Chairmanship of the Council of Europe and the Irish Presidency of the European Union for organising this conference which is taking place at a time when the economic crisis is tearing at the fabric of our societies, undermining social cohesion and even challenging the very values on which European democracy is built. In this climate, minority groups, migrants and foreign residents often become scapegoats in the discourse of extremist political forces, fuelling the negative perceptions of the majority.

      With extremism and xenophobia on the rise in Europe today, taking action in favour of interculturalism sometimes feels like swimming against the stream. In these trying times, it is particularly important for us – as elected representatives – to unite firmly against prejudice and hate speech and to denounce them publicly. The Intercultural Cities are playing a very important role in doing this.

      The philosophy of the Intercultural Cities stems from the simple truth that despite our differences, we all live together in our towns, and share the responsibility for our common well-being. Building communities together, from the grassroots up, involving all residents – regardless of their origin – is the essence of interculturalism. Today, it takes on a special importance against the background of growing European diversity – diversity that is both a source of strength but also a major challenge to European democracy and public authorities at all levels of governance.

      The Intercultural Cities were established as a response to the challenge that diversity presents for local authorities, indeed the Congress announced on the establishment of the Intercultural Cities in 2007: “The Council of Europe is launching a programme to help cities and towns across Europe manage cultural diversity not as a threat but as a resource for the development, creativity and cohesion of their communities”.

      Much has been achieved since then, and milestones such as this event are important occasions to take stock of past accomplishments and to chart out a path for the future. The Intercultural Cities, with their methodologies and practical solutions on the ground, have built an impressive record of good practices to share. It is not surprising that this network has been a stunning success, growing from a dozen municipalities in 2008 to more than 60 cities in Europe alone today, and inspiring a following in other parts of the world.

      The Congress has been following closely this work, and since 2009 has been calling on both local authorities and Council of Europe member state governments to recognize the contribution migrants and foreign residents make to European societies, to support the Intercultural Cities initiative and to adopt local intercultural policies. The Congress has called on local authorities to develop intercultural policies in their municipalities which focus on professional integration and employment, and the provision of education, welfare and housing. We have also proposed measures to ensure foreign residents enjoy full legal recognition and have every opportunity to participate in local political decision-making structures. These measures start with identity-building projects, media partnerships and awareness-raising activities. We have also recommended that local environments – for habitat, work, leisure and recreation – are designed so as to offer possibilities for intercultural interaction.

      I could also refer to a number of specific Congress proposals, for example dealing with local housing for migrants, promoting diversity in municipal employment, establishing local councils of foreign residents, and managing intercultural tensions in local communities, to name but a few. This work is ongoing, and we are currently working on recommendations to promote migrant entrepreneurship in European municipalities and to facilitate migrants’ access to regional labour markets. The Intercultural Cities’ experience is a valuable contribution to our efforts.

      Speaking of intercultural integration, we should not forget also the contributions from other municipal networks as well as projects spawned by the Intercultural Cities or closely related to them. I am referring to the Cities for Local Integration Policy, known as the CLIP Network, or the SPARDA and AMICALL projects on changing perceptions and attitudes of local residents towards migrants and minorities.

      I would like to say a few words about this important subject. Communicating diversity advantages and changing attitudes at the local level are part and parcel of fighting intolerance and promoting diversity, and they will remain our priority for years to come. In fact, during its session last March, the Congress organised a round table on building an inclusive local identity, six mayors of Intercultural Cities participated in the debate. I can say that the presentations and discussions during this round table underlined how important it is to demonstrate the advantages of diversity to all citizens, to encourage dialogue and to develop proper communication strategies and tools for this purpose. All of the mayors stressed the importance of communicating diversity advantages to local citizens in order to change their perceptions and attitudes towards minorities, migrants and foreigners. In this regard, I am very pleased that communication for diversity is one of the themes of this event.

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      It is a fact that local communities in Europe are becoming increasingly multiethnic, multicultural and multi-confessional. Today, not a single European country or large city can claim to be mono-ethnic. The true challenge is to find ways of making this diversity work for the benefit of the entire community. Building productive intercultural relations between minority/majority groups, ensuring the active inclusion of minorities and bringing about better social cohesion are among today’s main challenges for public authorities. A key role in meeting this challenge belongs to local and regional authorities, as public action at the grassroots level has the most direct and tangible impact on our citizens.

      This was also emphasised in the 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 report pinpointed the rising intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination as being 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 also important that the Eminent Persons specifically included the participation of foreigners in local life and politics, as well as the integration of migrants and people of recent migrant origin among their recommendations for action.

      In this regard, the creation of the Intercultural Cities was timely indeed. On behalf of the Congress, I would like to congratulate this network on its remarkable achievements and to express our continued support for your action in the future.

      Clearly, a lot still remains to be done. We see the work on intercultural integration as part of our search for a new model of participatory democracy, which would combine the elements of a traditional representative system and direct democracy, and which would be based on the continuing participation of all residents – including minorities, migrants and foreigners. This participation must necessarily begin at the grassroots, and should no longer be linked to citizenship of a country but instead to residency in a particular municipality, which brings to the fore the role of local and regional authorities. This 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 representative councils of foreign residents at local and regional levels.

      Today, we – the public authorities – need to find new ways of engaging citizens, the residents of our municipalities and regions, in dialogue with us and with each other, ways of providing for their more meaningful participation in democratic decision-making, which should not be limited to elections alone. We are convinced that, thanks to increased participation and improved intercultural relations, we will achieve greater inclusion and social cohesion at local level.

      The Intercultural Cities play a major role in these efforts, and I wish you every success in the future.

      Thank you.



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