Conference on European Democracy EUDEM 2013
The Final Report of the “Future of Europe Group” – striking the balance between “unity” and “diversity”?
Panel 6: The perspective from “outside”
Vienna, Austria, 7-8 May 2013
“What is left for Strasbourg?” - Statement by Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities Council of Europe
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Ladies and Gentlemen,
First of all, I would like to thank the organisers for giving me the opportunity to present the perspective of the Council of Europe in today’s discussion, and more specifically, the perspective from the local and regional dimension, in the spirit of the earlier debate on the “bottom-up” vision of the European future. This is a very special pleasure to do this at the eve of the Austrian chairmanship of the CoE’s Committee of Ministers which will commence on 13 November 2013 for a period of 6 months.
I already had the pleasure of taking part in the EUDEM conference last year, when I outlined our ideas with regard to the new democratic model needed in Europe today. This is a model of participatory democracy, which
- will develop representative democracy further, by integrating the elements of direct democracy into the traditional representative system;
- will be based on a comprehensive framework for continued citizen participation in governance – not limited to elections alone;
- will involve all community residents in the participation process, regardless of their origin and citizenship;
- will rely on a new, decentralised system of multi-level governance – a horizontal equal partnership with clear delimitation of competences for local, regional, national and European levels;
- and will be supported by active democratic citizenship in our societies, as well as increased direct cross-border co-operation between cities and regions – and therefore greater direct interaction between citizens themselves.
I am grateful to the organisers for keeping this tradition of introducing the Council of Europe perspective in the EUDEM debates. I find the theme of this year’s conference highly important for designing future steps in moving democracy in Europa forward – out of the crisis, and towards the participatory model – and to address not only the dimension of the European Parliament but also the national, regional and local levels as sources of legitimacy.
It is a challenge indeed to strike the right balance between unity (which implies, I would add, solidarity among nation States and among the different and various groups in society) as well as diversity – which also implies constant dialogue and interaction between these States and between these groups, in order to keep together the fabric of our societies and to ensure their development and sustainability.
It is especially challenging because these two notions are supposed to be not opposing but complementing each other, in the spirit of the European Union’s motto “United in diversity”. Needless to say, the difficulty of combining the two and achieving the right balance has become especially clear against the background of the current crisis. The crisis has put to a test the unity and solidarity part of the equation, and, in the eyes of many, is turning diversity from a source of strength into a cesspool of discord.
The Council of Europe produced two years ago its own report that addressed the challenges facing European democracy. This report, entitled “Living together: Combining freedom and diversity in 21st century Europe”, was commissioned by Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland and prepared by a Group of Eminent Persons led by Joschka Fischer. Presented in April 2011 to the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly, the report describes the main challenges as being linked exactly to the issue of diversity, and manifesting themselves in rising intolerance, xenophobia and discrimination.
The Eminent Persons stressed that responding to these challenges must begin with reaching social consensus on the framework of values and principles by which everyone has to abide – in other words, with establishing the boundaries of the acceptable within a democratic society. Putting it another way, diversity itself must exist within the framework of what unites us. I believe this is an interesting conclusion for our discussion, because it is an important premise that should be applied to the European institutions as well. There is a saying “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”, and if this principle is good for the society it is equally good for its institutions of governance.
The problem is that today there is no consensus on the interpretation of the results of the political, economic and social analysis of the situation. Different conclusions are drawn from the same input figures. Where some see the need for less spending, others see the need for more investment. Where some see the need for more national sovereignty, others see the need for greater solidarity and sharing of responsibilities between member states, and for giving greater competences to the European level. Where some see the need for recentralisation and more power to the national government, others see the need for greater devolution towards the level closest to the citizen, for empowering local and regional communities and boosting citizens’ participation.
What we need first is the consensus on the limits of what is acceptable. Can guarantees of fundamental human rights – including social rights – be sacrificed to austerity? Should social assistance be exempt from budget cuts to prevent further marginalisation of society? Should our efforts focus only on citizens in the legal sense or include foreign residents as well? Should there be special measures with regard to migrants and minorities – for example, Roma?
These are some of the questions with which the Council of Europe is concerned today.
What we bring to the table in this discussion is more than 60 years of our experience in building consensus based on democratic values, and in bringing together European countries to achieve ever greater unity between them – which is mandated by the Council of Europe Statute as our main objective.
Today, the Council of Europe represents a unique pan-European platform for co-operation of governments, parliaments as well as local and regional authorities from 47 countries across the continent, far beyond the European Union. We are proud to say that all countries of Europe, with the sole and regrettable exception of Belarus, have been brought into our orbit and committed themselves to building democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.
The Council of Europe contributes to the unity v. diversity debate with its own conclusions drawn from the analysis of the situation – analysis which is based on our constant monitoring of the state of democracy in Europe. This monitoring is carried out through an extensive network of control mechanisms:
- first, by the main constituent bodies – the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights;
- secondly, in the form of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights;
- thirdly, by specialised bodies set up under specific conventions or partial agreements between Council of Europe member states – such as the Venice Commission for Democracy through Law, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the Advisory Council on the protection of national minorities, and many others.
I should add that the Council of Europe also has a unique co-decision-making mechanism in the youth sector, which involves both governments and youth organisations in a joint structure for elaborating and implementing youth policy. Engaging young people in democracy is, of course, highly important for sustaining the democratic development of the continent.
Our conclusions enjoy broad recognition for their focus on values, principles and standards, rather than the balance of national interests. They are seen as being untainted by ulterior motives, vested interests and, should I say, “economic and financial” considerations. We can see it clearly in the report of the Future of Europe Group, which focuses on the economic and monetary union and better functioning of EU structures as a way out of the crisis with a stronger European Parliament and some additional elements involving national parliaments as a suggested remedy aiming at “strengthening democratic legitimacy and accountability” (as mentioned on page 5 in the report). It mentions the competition of “models of society” without defining the European one(s). Would it not be worth to discuss this issue in a future EUDEM conference?
The report is not concerned too much with the crisis of legitimacy, the lack of public trust and citizens’ disillusionment with democracy, the democratic deficit and a growing gap between citizens and democratic institutions, as well as challenges posed by an increasing intercultural and inter-ethnic mix in Europe – which could be explosive if left unattended. It does not address the national, the regional and the local dimension of the challenges for democracy.
These are, however, the issues that are on the agenda of the Council of Europe. For the Council of Europe, values come first, which is why we are often referred to as the “guardian of democracy” and the “human rights watchdog”.
This also explains a drastic shift of political attention from the European Union to the Council of Europe, and a boost in cooperation between the two, in the wake of referenda on the European Constitution in some countries – referenda that produced negative results.
We in the Council of Europe are raising alarm today about the fact that the values on which European democracy and society are based are being undermined and eroded – and this represents the main danger for both European democracy and European unity.
The first danger lies in an increasing loss of trust of our citizens in democratic governance as such. The crisis has revealed serious deficiencies of democratic institutions to deal effectively with its consequences, and has also highlighted a growing gap between citizens and institutions of power, the deficit of democratic participation and the “disconnect” between institutions and citizens in political decision-making. As a result of the crisis, political decisions are increasingly being made outside the democratic governing institutions of representative democracy, by non-elected officials and bodies having no legitimacy from the people – civil servants, technocrats, financial and credit institutions, rating agencies, etc. Or “Troikas” proposing the privatisation of water supply services to local authorities in Portugal and Ireland while Services of General interest are confirmed as a public task in the Lisbon Treaty.
As a result, democracy - and their elected representatives at European level as well as in national parliaments and governments – are seen as not being able to deliver on its promise of equality and social justice. This leads, on the one hand, to disillusionment, a lack of commitment to democracy and the questioning of democratic values. On the other hand, we are witnessing a surge in citizen activism outside the established institutions of governance – in social networks, protest movements and violent extremism.
A side effect of the lacking citizen participation is less public control, leading to low transparency and growing opportunities for corruption. Corruption today corrodes all levels of governance and represents a major danger to the rule of law and therefore democracy in Europe.
Another danger is a loss of social cohesion in European society, which is undergoing an increasing fragmentation and growing gaps in income levels. In December 2012, Eurostat announced that 24 per cent of citizens in the EU – almost 120 million – are at risk of poverty or social exclusion. For example, unemployment among young people has hit a 50 per cent mark in certain countries. The increasing marginalisation of vulnerable groups has put growing social pressures on public authorities, especially on local governments, which struggle to maintain social assistance and services to the growing number of households in economic distress. In this situation, vulnerable groups become easy prey for extremist and xenophobic rhetoric.
The third danger will present itself if we fail to manage the growing cultural diversity of European society, which has already become multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-confessional. This is especially felt at local level, highlighting the need for local intercultural polices aimed at fostering dialogue between community groups and promoting local integration of minorities and migrants.
It is finding responses to these dangers that have been “left for Strasbourg”, if I may refer to the title suggested for my intervention.
I should also remind you that the Council of Europe underpins the European human rights protection system, which is unique in the world. This system is centred on the European Court of Human Rights that has the right to accept individual complaints from citizens against their governments, after the decision of supreme courts in their countries. The Court watches over the respect of individual rights and freedoms guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights. While this Convention has been ratified by all the 47 member states, we are currently in the process of negotiating the accession of the European Union as a whole to it. This will harmonise the human rights protection process because EU institutions will also become subject to the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Court, and therefore subject to the control by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers over the execution of Court judgements.
I would add that the efforts of the Council of Europe to create a uniform legal space of democratic standards across the continent, through more than 200 European conventions adopted to date, represent another part of our contribution to building a Europe united in diversity. Here, too, there is a consensus that it is the common standards that unite us, and it is their diverse practical application that may differ from country to country.
Up to a point, I could say that against the background of bickering that we see within the European Union today, the Council of Europe shows steady consensus on a wide range of issues, and continues to provide policy recommendations on furthering democracy.
For example, our Parliamentary Assembly has already spoken in favour of investment into growth vs. continued austerity, and the Congress is likely to support this position when it debates the impact of the crisis on local and regional authorities later this year. Both these assemblies of elected representatives have supported the proposal to lower the voting age to 16 years, as a measure for engaging young people. We are also unanimous in calling for measures to ensure better access of young people to fundamental rights, especially social rights.
Furthermore, the Parliamentary Assembly advocates giving more human rights responsibilities to EU bodies – such as FRONTEX, for example – while the Congress is promoting human rights implementation at the grassroots and is raising awareness of the responsibilities of local and regional authorities in this regard. I should add here that we have developed human rights indicators to gage human rights implementation in our communities, which will be used to assess the information gathered during visits to member states. The Congress intends to produce regular reports on these issues, highlighting common problems.
The Council of Europe is also contributing to the EU action with regard to migration within Europe, because it is in a position to involve at the same time the countries of origin, transit and destination of migrants, all of them member states.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I could continue with these examples but I think the message is clear. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg is making an important contribution to the issues we are discussing today – by providing a framework of principles that should guide member states in the process of achieving greater unity based on common values, and the process of building inclusive and cohesive societies. Most importantly, we contribute by providing a vision for the future that is sometimes lacking within the EU, a vision of participatory democracy – often limited within the EU only to the participation in elections to the European Parliament. Even the report of the Future of Europe Group which we are discussing today speaks of strengthening democratic legitimacy and accountability in terms of involving to a greater extent the European Parliament, not citizens and communities in a broad sense.
Especially amidst today’s crisis, EU institutions increasingly act as a fire brigade putting out fires, whereas the Council of Europe is concerned with preventing the fire in the first place – building a house of Europe with fire-resistant materials, if I may say so.
Finally, I would like to stress the importance of the local and regional dimension in the vision of future Europe. This dimension, based on people’s right to self-government and on decentralisation of power to the level closest to the citizen, is a landmark feature of European democracy. The European Charter of Local Self-Government, a key Council of Europe convention, lays down the legal framework for local and regional democracy, whose situation is constantly monitored by the Council of Europe Congress. And while the administrative practice in implementing the Charter varies from one country to another, creating diversity, it is the binding core principles of local democracy that remain unchanged and cement the unity of common self-government standards among member states.
We are convinced that the system created by the Charter should serve as a basis for multi-level governance, a new model that we are advocating. Local and regional authorities must become equal partners of national governments and EU institutions in the future European governance – even the proposed model may be applied differently within the EU and the Council of Europe, due to the differing political and legal regimes between the two.
I would like to conclude by stressing that today, there is no alternative to further integration, which will naturally bring greater unity. This is an imperative in response to the challenges of today’s world. In politics, the globalised world in the digital era is moving towards penetrable borders, increasing migration, direct interaction between people and their broad access to governing processes. In the economy, the future development will be underpinned by large economies and economic coalitions such as North America, the united Europe and BRICS. Against this background, hiding behind the door of national sovereignty is an economic and political suicide.
So, what is left for Strasbourg, for the Council of Europe, in the process and the discussion of the future of Europe?
First, to provide a complete picture of the situation of democracy, human rights and the rule of law at all levels of governance across the European continent, not limited to the EU countries nor to the economic aspects;
Secondly, to provide vision, guidelines and standards – not bound by economic considerations – for furthering and developing democracy (again, at all levels) through greater citizen involvement and participation, through developing active citizenship as well as promoting intercultural dialogue and intercultural policies to bind together European multi-ethnic societies;
Thirdly, through Council of Europe conventions and recommendations, to harmonise the single European legal space of such democratic standards, and to work jointly with the European Union to apply them in 47 European countries – and in particular, as far as the EU is concerned, in the countries covered by its neighbourhood policy, in its candidate countries and the East European Partnership countries but also, today, in the countries of the southern Mediterranean;
Finally, to promote the bottom-up approach in further democracy building, aimed at empowering citizens by giving more competences to local and regional authorities, to towns, cities and regions, and by applying a multi-level governance model that will clearly define the responsibilities of every tier of government.