Chamber of Local Authorities
18 March 2013
COMMUNICATION OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE CHAMBER
Strasbourg, Wednesday 20 March 2013
When I was elected, I expressed my intention of making an increase in the number of signatory states to the European Charter of Local Self-Government the focus of my term of office as President of the Chamber of Local Authorities.
My ambition, based on that of my predecessor, was clear: 100% of the Council of Europe supporting the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
It is my great pleasure to announce that our friends in Monaco have just joined the big family of signatories to the Charter. I also thank the Monegasque delegation which played a crucial role in this decision. I know that San Marino, the last country not yet to have signed the Charter, is now waiting patiently. I went there a few months ago, and I am confident in their political will to join us. I also know that the San Marino delegation to the Congress is working towards this.
This final signature will be a major step towards harmonisation of our policies on local self-government in Europe, meaning the whole continent, 100% of the continent, which is the objective that I had set myself. This is not a purely symbolic figure, having within it potential, by no means negligible, for giving new impetus to our Charter. Thus the entire continent will be able to benefit from the advantages of the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
For us, it will be a success, the final success of the work that we have been doing here in the Congress for many years now, and it will also ensure that the Congress’ role within the Council of Europe has a future.
This prospect illuminates our short-term future, and I am optimistic about what lies ahead. But at this session, we need to open up longer-term prospects for our authorities.
This spring session will enable us to do so as we consider a subject which, I feel sure, is going to transform our authorities’ future, and I refer to the changes brought about by new technologies in the exercise of local democracy.
The debate we are holding on this subject is entitled “Smart cities: new technologies serving democracy” . We are all aware, and have been able to see for ourselves, that new technologies are not just new tools which improve our capacities, speed up our communications and facilitate an open attitude to the world, while at the same time causing upheavals in every economic and social sphere.
In fact they profoundly affect our societies’ culture, our cognitive activities, the way in which we build our society; in short, they affect our democratic culture and open up new prospects for the very exercise of that democracy. We see clearly that the old forms of representative democracy, which we inherited from the 19th century and which are traditionally organized around universal suffrage, are now being called into question by our citizens or simply ignored.
It is clear from the decline in political participation, the continuing rise in the abstention rate in most elections (although local elections are not the worst affected in this respect), the rise of extremist parties, the decline in collective forms of action by associations and trade unions, and public attendance at our municipal council meetings, that everything is now changing, with far-reaching effects on the functioning of our democratic model, and it is our duty to seek by every means possible to set that model on new foundations and breathe new life into it, so that it is again shared by the greatest number.
New technologies point to a promising avenue to explore in these discussions. I am thinking in particular of the networks, those famous social networks familiar to you all; thanks to them new forms of collective solidarity are being exercised, not just on a global basis, stretching from one continent to another, but also on a neighbourhood basis. What we experience on these networks opens up prospects for new communities, linking citizens to their territory, successfully bringing together within that territory, in a specific place, thousands of people who would no longer be attracted to our political gatherings or information meetings.
When an invitation to attend an event is issued via a major social network which I shall not name here, it may result in hundreds or even thousands of people gathering, even to the point of creating serious public safety problems.
We cannot ignore this development and should use the potential of new technologies to improve our democracy.
If we wish to avoid a split between a tired representative democracy, losing its intensity and capacity to mobilise people, and a civil society disconnected from the political sphere, we, as political players, must be able to develop the potential before our own eyes, which is such as to make these new forms of participation possible.
For me, this is what is at issue in our scheduled debate here, which I do not envisage as a once-and-for-all discussion giving satisfaction, but as the start of a process of reflection. In this context I should like our committees to give thought to the experiments taking place in our countries, where many and varied initiatives are in progress.
I know that we shall have some examples of all that in a few minutes’ time, and I feel certain that we must not let this development pass us by, as it should enable us to give a new dimension to our democracies, increase participation and give them new life.
I hope that excellent work will be done in this chamber and that our discussions will be useful to our citizens. In these times of crisis, we are in this instance opening up a far-reaching debate, as is our duty! We have a chance to compare experience across the whole of Europe, so let us grasp this opportunity to ensure that local democracy gains a firmer footing everywhere.