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Address to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

Address to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
Strasbourg, 27 March 2018

Dear President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities,

Dear colleagues,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to speak at this 34th plenary session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and I would like to sincerely thank you, Madam President, for your kind invitation.

In my speech, I will first make some general remarks on the main political challenges we currently face; I will then highlight the role played by local and regional authorities in promoting democracy and civil society participation; and finally, I will focus on the initiative on Academic Networks I launched in January, and put forward proposals to cooperate closely with you on this subject.

Dear colleagues,

I come to address you in a particularly difficult moment, not only for our organisation, but for Europe as a whole.

We are all aware of the serious challenges the Council of Europe is facing: – terrorist attacks in our member States – the most recent in Trèbes, in France, increasing mistrust among our member States, re-emergence of dividing lines across the continent, worrying authoritarian tendencies, and budgetary concerns.

There are however many other specific challenges that we, as elected representatives, are confronted with on a daily basis, including the resurgence of extremism and xenophobia within our societies, attacks on media freedom, growing poverty and inequality, and the still unresolved question of providing an effective response to the migration and refugee phenomena. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the economic crisis, these problems have become even more acute.

In the face of such complicated and seemingly overwhelming difficulties, the temptation might be to throw in the towel, to become discouraged, and to lose faith in ourselves or in our potential.

But – as I declared when I was elected President of the Parliamentary Assembly last January – in such difficult moments there is no room for pessimism.

On the contrary, we must turn to the message at the heart of the European Anthem – the Ode of Joy – which starts with the words "Freunde, nicht diese Töne!": "Oh friends, no more of these sounds" – or, in other words, "let's cast aside the sounds of lamentation and rediscover the will to build".

We must recall the great success of European history and concentrate all our efforts and energy on what we can deploy in these extraordinary times, to fulfil our main responsibility, which is to preserve European unity.

I believe that there are three key words which should guide our actions in order to pursue this goal in such challenging times:

The first is MISSION. We have to be true to our mission - which is defending democracy, human rights and the rule of law in our everyday work. This is the case first and foremost in our own countries, but also at the European level. We must not forget that Europe is not only a geographical entity, but a way of living together, based on the respect of human dignity, freedom and justice.

- COURAGE. We must be outspoken, and not be afraid to denounce any violation of human rights committed in any part of our continent and by any authority. Only by maintaining the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights can we achieve greater success.

- UNITY. Despite divisions – and even conflicts – we should tirelessly seek to emphasise what unites us, to focus on the fulfilment of our common mandate.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is leading the way forward by example. And here I want to pay tribute to some of your initiatives aimed at bringing people together and preserving European unity:

- The "Alliance of European Cities against Violent Extremism": – this is an extraordinary project which provides our European cities with a common space for dialogue and a framework to come up with joint strategies to address one of the greatest challenges of today.

- The "European Local Democracy week": - during this week, initiatives are promoted in all 47 member States to foster democratic participation at the local level.

Indeed, the success of democracy is not possible without the participation of our citizens in civic life.

Dear colleagues,

Let us talk more about democracy building and your role – as local and regional representatives – in understanding our citizens' needs and expectations.

Friedrich Hayek, Austrian economist and philosopher, stated "Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government, providing school of political training for the people at large […] It is only where responsibility can be learned and practiced in affairs with which most people are familiar, where it is the awareness of one's neighbour rather than some theoretical knowledge of the needs of other people which guides action, that the ordinary man can take a real part in public affairs because they concern the world he knows".

Alexis de Tocqueville also understood very well that participation in local government is the best means of keeping democracy alive – "local assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations", he said.

If democracy dies at the local level, it also dies at the wider, national level.

This is the reason why, for instance, I look with hope at the on-going manifestations of young people in the United States. I see these as an expression of a positive ideal of peace and fraternity.

These young people, who have unfortunately also been themselves victims of violence, want to make their voices heard, take a leading role and participate in public life.

This is a signal from citizens showing us how to make democracy come alive.

Constructing democracy is indeed not a top down process, but the reverse.

Our work as politicians can only be relevant to the needs and concerns of our citizens if we are in constant dialogue and cooperation with them.

Let me therefore briefly highlight two areas where I think your role, as local and regional representatives, and your direct relations with citizens, are the most valuable, and where greater recognition to your efforts should be given.

The first is the migration and refugee crisis.

This crisis requires global responses and global solidarity. But no strategies or solutions will work unless fully supported and effectively implemented at the local level.

And here, I think in particular about your role in:

- building secure and welcoming communities

- creating spaces to promote active contribution and civic engagement of migrants and refugees

- supporting skills development and opportunities for linguistic integration and education

- strengthening partnership with civil society organisations, in order to further facilitate integration.

I strongly welcome that addressing the consequences of the migration and refugee crisis continues to be a top priority of the Congress' work, and I appreciate that tomorrow you will debate a report on "Unaccompanied refugee children: the role and responsibilities of local authorities".

The rapporteur, Ms Nawel Rafik-Elmrini, will present a thought provoking set of recommendations based also on the successful initiatives promoted by the City of Strasbourg and the Department of the Bas-Rhin. I would like to give one example of these initiatives, the "Solidarity reception network" - Le Réseau d'accueil solidaire.

The second area I would like to highlight is Fighting corruption.

At the heart of democracy lies the essential trust our citizens put in others to work on their behalf and to fairly pursue the common interests of all people.

Local and regional representatives are citizens' first and direct contact point with the State. Corruption, however threatens not only our citizen's trust in their local and regional representatives, but in all democratic institutions. It is essential that all of us, as elected officials, be, and be seen to be shining examples of transparency and ethical behaviour in society.

In this regard, I cannot but commend that you have decided to focus the 35th session of the Congress in November on the fight against corruption. I am sure your discussions will lead to finding new ways to strengthening the capabilities of local and regional authorities in promoting good governance, transparency and ethical behaviour, as well as to addressing the issue of fostering citizens' participation as a mean of reinforcing the accountability of local authorities.

Furthermore, I would also like to mention and praise your initiative of appointing a "General Rapporteur on Promoting Public Ethics and Preventing Corruption at the Local and Regional Levels", and I wish Mr Herwig van Staa strength, courage and perseverance in continuing the good work he is doing!

Dear Colleagues, Dear Friends,

I started my speech talking about challenges, and how to overcome them, but there are opportunities too: opportunities that we will only be able to make the most of by working together.

Let me therefore share with you a few words about my initiative on Academic Networks – an initiative that I launched in my inaugural speech in January.

I believe that the Council of Europe should fully seize the opportunity of having a stronger interaction with the academic community and to strengthen the mobilisation of teachers, researchers and students of its 47 member States around the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This could be partly achieved through the creation of Academic Networks.

We already have positive examples in the House, such as the Academic Network on European Social Rights – whose aim is to defend and promote the rights embodied in the Social Charter – and the former European Academic Network on Romani Studies – a project which aimed at supporting efforts towards the social inclusion of Romani citizens in Europe.

It would be a credit if we were to succeed in creating European Academic Networks for the main Council of Europe Conventions – and here I think, in particular, of the Istanbul Convention or the Conventions against Corruption.

And – why not –, something that we could discuss together is the idea of having an Academic Network on the "European Charter of Local Self-Government".

For all these issues – fight against corruption and domestic violence, and promoting Local Self-Government – the Academic Networks could be used to further raise the visibility of our work, to promote research, exchange of information and best practices, as well as to provide us with expertise and policy advice on future activities to be promoted, or on implementation measures.

Furthermore, this initiative would ultimately reinforce the connective tissue of European civil society – the main driving force for democratic perseverance and change for our continent.

I therefore look forward to gathering ideas on this matter and moving forward on this and other initiatives with you.

Thank you for your attention.

I am now happy to reply to your questions.