2nd Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Social Cohesion
(Istanbul, Turkey, 11-12 October 2012)
“Building a secure future for all”
Speech by President Keith Whitmore
Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
Council of Europe
Madam Deputy Secretary General,
Mayor of Istanbul,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to address this Conference on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. I would like to thank the organisers and in particular the Turkish authorities for giving me this opportunity, but first and foremost for holding this Conference in the first place, in a moment when social cohesion is under serious strain from the economic crisis.
This Conference is indeed taking place in a time when the economic and financial crisis is threatening the very foundation of social cohesion. The crisis has had a grave impact on the situation of everyone, but especially of the already vulnerable groups, and the number of households in economic distress is rising. This year’s statistics show that in the Eurozone alone, the number of households whose essential costs exceed 40 per cent of their income grew by 13 per cent and pushed local social expenditures on these households up 16 per cent.
With the crisis, vulnerable people are likely to become even more at risk of marginalisation, and some people who are (or were) integrated in society are likely to become excluded. Local and regional authorities are the first to face this reality as they bear the primary responsibility for the well-being of their communities, and hold key competences in relation to social protection. However, today they find themselves under the double pressure: an obligation to increase social assistance to a growing number of citizens in distress against the background of a shrinking revenue base, cuts in intergovernmental transfers, limited tax authority and budgetary autonomy and, most recently, fiscal austerity measures.
At the same time, social cohesion goes beyond economic circumstances. Building a cohesive society and a secure future for all also requires equal participation and inclusion, equal access to social rights, eradication of discrimination, intercultural and interreligious dialogue within communities, integration of migrants and other foreign residents, action for children and young people, special measures for vulnerable groups – all these issues are factors in achieving the overall goal of social cohesion.
The Council of Europe’s New Strategy for Social Cohesion rightly calls for establishing a continuous dialogue with citizens and strengthening citizen participation in democratic decision-making. We are convinced that restoring people’s trust in public institutions, ensuring citizens’ contribution to policy-making, and ensuring that the political staff of these institutions reflects the diversity of our society are also essential requirements for social cohesion.
All these issues are prominently featured on the political agenda of the Congress today. Local and regional authorities play a crucial role in achieving a cohesive society – role that is only increasing with the crisis – and it is important to make sure that they have the necessary power and means to fulfill this role.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The crisis also causes growing tensions between cultural groups within communities, a search for scapegoats and, as a result, a rise in xenophobia, hate speech, religious intolerance and extremist political discourse. A terrible side effect is a surge in domestic violence, directed mostly against women and children. In this regard, I wish to express my appreciation for the efforts of the Turkish authorities in opening for signature and being one of the first countries who signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence here in Istanbul on 11 May 2011, under its Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. I am convinced that building a secure future for all also means being safe from fear and safe from violence at home for women and especially children, because children who witness domestic violence at home may bear the consequences for their whole life.
Today, as never before, the crisis revealed the need for solidarity – solidarity between different tiers of governance and joint policy elaboration to ensure coherence of responses and its social repercussions, but also solidarity between different sectors of society and different cultural groups. The need for solidarity between national and local and regional authorities was particularly emphasised by the Ministers responsible for local and regional governments at their Conference in Kyiv in November last year. The Ministers approved an Agenda in common, which sets as a top priority joint action of different tiers of governance in response to the crisis.
Building a secure future for all also means building cohesion and solidarity between cultural groups of society through intercultural and inter-faith dialogue and policies, as well as through intergenerational dialogue. The Congress addressed the need for solidarity between generations in its 2007 resolution and recommendation on intergenerational co-operation and participatory democracy.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to conclude by emphasising that the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities remains very active in many fields relating to social cohesion. Our recent proposals for local and regional action include recommendations on combating racism, increasing citizen participation and active democratic citizenship, boosting women participation in politics, improving integration of migrants and foreigners, preventing violence against women and children, reducing intercultural tensions, building community partnerships for urban safety, and tackling excessive debts of households, to name but a few.
Our proposals for Roma inclusion in particular have been followed by the organisation of the Summit of Mayors on Roma in 2011 and current efforts to build a European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion. At our session next week, we will also be debating new reports on engaging young people in democracy and on regional measures to combat sexual abuse of children.
I am confident that by joining our efforts, coordinating our action and building synergies between different tiers of governance, we will be able to turn into reality our goal of building a secure future for all.