European Volunteer Centre (CEV)
Symposium on “Volunteering and Active Citizenship – two sides of the same coin?”
Berlin, 19-21 October 2011
Speech by Keith Whitmore, President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
Council of Europe
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am grateful to the organisers of this Symposium, the European Volunteer Centre, for giving me an opportunity to speak to you today and to present the position on volunteering of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.
For those of you who might not know, the Congress is a pan-European political assembly of more than 600 local and regional elected representatives from 47 Council of Europe member states, standing for some 200,000 territorial communities of our continent. As the voice of European towns, cities and regions, the Congress defends their interests vis-à-vis national governments. Our main mission is to advance local and regional democracy in Europe and monitor the situation of territorial self-government in member states.
The theme of today’s seminar is of particular importance to the Congress as volunteering and active citizenship are of major significance in the framework of participatory democracy, which is taking shape in Europe today and which the Congress is seeking to build at the grassroots level. In this framework, partnerships between local governments and civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in ensuring active participation of our citizens in democratic processes, and their contribution to these processes through volunteer work in our communities.
Volunteering is part and parcel of the broader issue of civic participation, democratic participation of citizens in political and public life, which is growing in importance today. Today, the traditional system of representative democracy is being increasingly challenged by the need to integrate the elements of direct democracy and provide a framework for increased citizen participation, which should be constant and not limited to elections alone. Volunteering is a strong component of this emerging participatory democracy.
The regional and local levels guarantee the most direct interaction between citizens and governance structures. As such, they represent a perfect ground for innovation and testing new methods in this area. They are also levels where volunteering has a major impact on the way regional and local authorities organise certain services, playing an important role in service provision and contributing to local and regional economies. This contribution of voluntary work, both economic and social, must be recognised and promoted, especially its social value in involving people in democratic processes and building active citizenship in our communities.
In this context, I should point to a specific role of volunteering in education for democratic citizenship – a concept of fostering democratic culture and developing the necessary knowledge and skills among citizens, which is being actively promoted by the Council of Europe. Last year, its Committee of Ministers adopted a Council of Europe Charter on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights Education, which stresses in particular the important role of civil society in providing such education, and volunteer work as one its key components. This issue was included among the Council of Europe priorities for 2012-2013.
Earlier this week, during its session in Strasbourg, the Congress adopted a resolution calling on local authorities to make good use of the available tools to ensure education for democratic citizenship in their communities. We are convinced that education for active democratic citizenship is all about fostering a culture of democracy among our population, all about “raising a citizen” if you wish. It is about educating people to be aware of what is going on in society and to take a stand on the issues at hand – in other words, to participate in democracy-building. This participation is crucial for the health and continuity of European democracy, for its development towards a model centred on the citizen. And as I have already said, volunteer work is an important form of this participation, and it is, at the same time, a form of practical education as well, education through experience.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are living in a particular moment of European history. On the one hand, this moment can be described as a crisis of European democracy. This crisis is characterised by a growing democratic deficit, disenchantment and disengagement among citizens, falling rates of participation in elections, a gap between citizens and democratic institutions and processes – what youth movements nicknamed Democratic Disconnect. The traditional representative system seems to be increasingly challenged by the need to introduce elements of direct democracy and to increase citizen participation. In this regard, local and regional authorities are best placed to lead the way through innovation and use of e-democracy tools in their communities.
However, on the other hand, this is also a moment of European history marked by the integration momentum and by the “awakening” of people’s activism, with citizens taking an active stand on many issues of society. This is reflected in people’s initiatives and a prominent civil society, and facilitated to a great extent by new technologies and social networks. These energy and activism must be channeled for the benefit of democracy and society, especially among young people whose current disengagement gives birth to critical social movements and alert us to the existing problems.
Against this background, volunteering comes as both a form of citizen activism, or manifestation of active citizenship, and at the same time as a vehicle for channeling the citizens’ energy.
It is encouraging that the legal framework for volunteering is beginning to take shape today. We can trace its origin back to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which laid down already in 1985 the right of citizens to democratic participation. This right was reaffirmed further in the Additional Protocol to the Charter, adopted two years ago, which speaks of the duties of both national and local authorities to engage citizens in public and political life at local level. Also two years ago, the Congress gave its full support to the Code of Good Practice for Civil Participation in the Decision-Making Process, proposed by non-governmental organisations having participative status with the Council of Europe. The Code speaks in particular of the need to involve civil society organisations at all levels of governance.
For its part, the Congress has done a great deal of work on participatory democracy, ranging from the participation of foreign residents and migrants to the participation of women and especially young people. I could mention in particular the Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life, our recommendations on the participation of women in local politics, and our proposals to set up consultative councils of foreign residents and migrants at local and regional level, or our work to promote local voting rights for foreigners and the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level.
However, what we need today is the practical partnership between local and regional authorities and the volunteer sector, and a practical framework for their cooperation. The authorities at the grassroots should support voluntary organisations, help with the training of volunteers and provide guidance in voluntary project management. They should themselves set a good example by actively participating in voluntary projects. A particular attention should be paid to involving young people and youth organisations, including by setting up youth councils or assemblies at local and regional levels. Our objective should be to bring together local and regional authorities and civil society to spread expertise and good practices, raise awareness and encourage exchanges of experience – in other words, to build partnerships for the benefit of our citizens and the improvement of local democracy and self-governance.
This is why the Congress welcomes the initiative of our counterpart in the European Union, the Committee of the Regions, which held a Forum on volunteering in January this year to look deeper into these issues. We also fully support recommendations for local authorities and civil society organisations to elaborate joint policies for the promotion of volunteering, and to set up mechanisms for civil society participation as part of a favourable framework enabling the contribution of voluntary organisations to policy-making.
Last but not least, I would like to mention a Congress initiative which has been running in Europe for several years now, and which is a good opportunity for involving volunteers. I am speaking about the European Local Democracy Week – an initiative first launched in 2007, which has since become a truly pan-European event.
The idea is to dedicate one week around 15 October each year to bringing together local authorities and residents of their communities, organising public debates on burning issues, exchanging opinions and generally raising awareness of both sides of what is going on in your local community and wider world. Last year, some 115 municipalities from 24 European countries took part in the European Local Democracy Week. Seventeen municipalities made a special commitment to organising the Week and received the status of “12-Star City”. This year’s edition took place last week, and was dedicated to human rights at local level. I hope that volunteer centres and agencies that are members of the CEV network will get themselves involved in the European Local Democracy Week next year.
I would like to thank once again the organisers of this seminar for this excellent initiative, and to wish all of us every success in our efforts for democracy, and in making partnerships and synergies between local and regional authorities and the volunteer sector.