Conference of European ministers responsible for local and regional government Budapest, Hungary, 24-25 February 2005 

To be checked against delivered speech

Speech by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Minister,

Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The advancement of democracy across our continent, spurred on by the dramatic changes in the European political landscape over the last 15 years, has made it easy to lose sight of the fact that democracy should not be taken for granted. It does not occur by itself, nor does it flourish by itself once it comes into being. From the French Revolution to the Weimar Republic, history teaches us that democracy is not a permanent state but a continuous process which requires constant commitment to maintain it and which must be fostered daily.

Amercian author Paul Auster wrote recently: “Democracy does not happen by itself. We have to fight for it every day, otherwise we risk losing it.”

That fight must be fought at all levels, because democratic processes bind together all layers of our societies, making them democratically cohesive – from small villages and towns to larger municipalities and big cities, to regions and the central government, to cross-border and interregional cooperation. Here again, recent historic events in Serbia and Montenegro, Georgia, Ukraine remind us with a vengeance what democracy is all about – it is about the power of people, it is about the participation of all citizens, it is about inclusion of everyone.

Democracy is not confined to electoral codes alone; it is not something that can be measured only by the fairness of the electoral process. Democracy is a culture, a spirit which cannot be imposed from the outside but which must be nourished from within. It must come from the citizens themselves, and from a culture which must be practiced and not only during elections.

Yet, today we often witness growing political apathy amongst the general public. What can we do to change this? What can we do to make democratic citizenship a daily practice rather than a fancy notion for scholars?

In a democratic society, the political process begins at a grassroots level, laying down the foundation for the democratic edifice as a whole, without which democratic stability of society may be in question. Local and, where appropriate, regional authorities have a crucial role to play in the democratic fabric of our societies. Indeed, I am convinced that their role will increase even more in importance in the future our societies become more and more complex. Local and regional authorities must seize the momentum generated by democratic developments and the fall of totalitarian regimes in Europe – regimes which abhor local and regional democracy exactly because it gives control to the citizens through their elected representatives at the level closest to them.

Today there is a growing awareness by central authorities that local and regional representatives, in direct contact with vital public forces, are best placed to respond to the evolving needs of our citizens, protect their interests and defend their rights. From kindergartens to schools, from public transport to municipal police, from sports facilities to the territorial development, local elected representatives ensure people’s involvement in public and political life and give them the sense of empowerment and participation in the decision-making directly affecting them. But the challenges facing local authorities are broader than providing public services; I am thinking here for example not only of their direct role in dealing with natural and industrial disasters and emergencies, but also the way they tackle criminal activities and improve urban safety.

The decentralization processes in a lot of our members states, where local and regional authorities are called upon to assume more and more responsibilities, not only increase their role and impact on the domestic scene but also lead to their growing participation in cooperation at European level and their increasing involvement in cross-border and interregional co-operationv on a longstanding tradition in terms of partnerships and twin town programmes, which fosters good neighbourly relations, promotes mutual understanding and trust between the peoples of Europe. It also develops a democratic culture of a more cohesive society, not imposed from the top, but backed by a “bottom up” approach by the population.

This approach is rooted in the fact that it is at a grassroots level where education in democracy, democratic participation and commitment to democratic principles begin. But it is also at this level where apathetic attitudes begin, loss of interest in being involved in democratic processes such as elections, and mistrust in government.

It is a harsh reality: citizens are disenchanted with politics and electoral turnouts are poor. Only in Sweden and Belgium is turnout for local elections over 80 %, and in one of those countries, Belgium, voting is compulsory. In most countries turnout is only in the 40 to 60% range, and sometimes even 20%.

More than ever before, citizens expect ethical behaviour, transparency and accountability from those they select for public jobs. They want a greater say in public affairs. People resent as undue discrimination the fact that they are excluded from public office or at least from the electoral roll because they are not citizens of the country in which they live and work.

Especially in these days of the loss of citizens’ interest towards politics and of increasing abstentions during elections, it is of paramount importance to encourage individuals and give them the means to become involved in civic life.

We must not be frightened by these challenges, but must strive to foster new ideas on how to reinvigorate interest and public participation in local and regional political life, break the chains of indifference and bring about the ‘awakening’ of democratic activism also at national and pan-European levels.

We must create new initiatives to increase the participation of women, especially as elected representatives, as well as young people.

I know that great improvements have already been made to tackle these problems.

The Council of Europe has declared 2005 the European Year of Citizenship through Education, with the aim to launch throughout our continent a campaign to popularise and put into practice policies and programmes of education for democratic citizenship, developed within the Organisation.

As for foreigners’ participation, there is an increasing number of countries that allow all foreign residents to vote and stand for election at local level, a number that I hope will continue to grow.

As regards good practises, I am also thinking of the code of conduct for the local councillors, of the institution of local and regional ombudsmen, of the Local Democracy Agencies’ programme, and of the Charter on the Participation of Young People in Municipal and Regional Life.

Many countries– are exploring the ways in which new technologies, such as e-voting, can enhance citizens’ participation.

The forces unleashed by democratic transformations and technological advancement, and the changes they herald, carry both a potential for distorting democracy, as well as opportunities for reinventing it. This is exactly what this conference is about, because for the first time, you have chosen to have a full conference devoted to thinking in strategic terms rather than focussing on a specific topic.

You will be able to share views on current political priorities and relate them to the needs of your own countries and to the work you intend to carry out in conjunction with the Council of Europe, to respond to these new challenges. I wish to thank very warmly the Hungarian authorities for the invitation and for their generous hospitality.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our shared belief that providing good local and regional governance is a major challenge which we intend to meet at domestic level and through our co-operation within the Council of Europe should not remain confined only to the circles of ministers responsible for local and regional government. The Heads of State and Government should be aware of the objectives that you seek to promote and endorse them at the Third Summit of the Council of Europe wich will be held in Warsaw in May this year. Their Plan of Action for our Organisation must be receptive to the ideas that will result from this conference. I am confident that one of the consequences of the Summit will be an increased importance of local and regional self-government in the political and civic life across Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen, let us remember that democracy on our continent begins with Europe’s towns, villages. This is why you can achieve a lot, bearing in mind that the slogan “Think globally – act locally” is not an empty phrase but a true reflection of reality and of the importance of grassroots action to complement, and even spearhead, activities at higher levels.

Let us all join forces with renewed vigour to make local and regional democracy work even better for our citizens, for a better future of our continent.

The Council of Europe, as a pan-European Organisation of values and principles, has a special responsibility towards 800 million Europeans. Genuine democracy and good governance at all levels is what our fellow citizens expect.

You are about to draft an ambitious agenda for local and regional democracy for the years to come. The Council of Europe is ready to play its part in implementing it, bearing in mind the famous words of Seneca: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult”.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Let’s roll our sleeves up. Thank you.