Ladies and gentlemen,
I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to you today.
The theme you have chosen for this session of the Congress – "Europe in crisis – the challenges for local and regional democracy" – is timely and relevant.
There are indeed a number of worrying trends.
We see resurging nationalism and talks taking decisions home.
We have also seen the rise of xenophobic and nationalist parties.
This is not progress towards a more open and tolerant society.
At the last session of the Parliamentary Assembly, I outlined my vision of the crisis.
I said that Europe is facing an economic crisis but also one of institutions.
National and European institutions struggle to respond but are often seen as insufficiently equipped to deliver concrete responses.
The crisis of institutions is closely linked to another one, the crisis of trust. We see a sharp decline of citizens' trust in European bodies, national institutions as well as the entire political class.
The cumulated effect of these three crises is the fourth one – the crisis of values. We can see it in the rise of extremism, hate speech, nationalism, vilification of migrants and the hatred of the other.
So, how do we respond to these multiple crisis?
Our first priority should be to fight corruption and other forms of misuse of power.
I have said it also in the Parliamentary Assembly; today corruption is the biggest threat to democracy. We can find it everywhere. No part of the continent is spared and no country is immune.
It would be too easy to discount it on cultural aspects. If we want to tackle it, we need structural improvements. We have to develop an independent and trustworthy judiciary; we have to ensure that freedom of expression is exercised and that parliaments have an effective oversight over the executive power.
GRECO and Moneyval are our main tools here. Yet, often, corruption at grassroots is the most visible and unjust. And this is where you come in. By designing and disseminating instruments and practices, which curb administrative discretion in municipalities, by raising the quality and the ethical standards of local and regional governance and by increasing citizens' participation in it.
Another priority is the protection of minorities. This is where our commitment to values and standards is exposed to the most rigorous tests. The situation with the Roma, the largest minority on this continent, is particularly upsetting. Many continue to live in appalling housing conditions, attend segregated schools and classes and are regularly victims of violence and hate speech.
This situation is the result of decades and centuries of discrimination. The economic crisis is a further fertile ground for anti-Roma rhetoric by populist politicians, deepening prejudice and leading to even more racism.
This is why I believe that in addition to initiatives of social inclusion, we have to work on policies that change attitudes towards Roma population. We need to tackle the deeply-rooted anti-gypsyism of our societies.
Connected to this is the fight against intolerance and hate speech. Europe is a continent of diversity. If we want it to remain one, we must take a leading role in combating extremism and violence.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Democracy is not sustainable without its local dimension. At the end of the day it is through grassroots, in our towns and regions that we are most effective in responding to the challenges.
It is in our cities and towns, that we shape an active civic position of our citizens, educate their democratic values and provide them with opportunities.
It is in our municipalities that we promote respect for diversity, foster tolerance and counter extremism.
It is by interacting primarily with towns and cities that people gauge upon the transparency and effectiveness of governance or the degree of corruption of our institutions.
The effectiveness of the Council of Europe action is what the member States expect from us. The Council of Europe must become more operational and action-oriented, more present in the field, more practical and less theoretical, not only setting the norms but also helping to remove the obstacles for their application.
You are on the right track in pursuing the reform of the Congress, in strengthening your operational dimension and broadening the
co-operation and dialogue with other bodies of this organization.
I appreciate the recent steps undertaken by the Secretary General of the Congress to adapt the structures of the secretariat in order to reflect this growing operational dimension and the need to focus on concrete follow-up action.
I can already see your increased operational capacity reflected in your assistance projects and the general co-operation programmes of the Council of Europe in the member States as well as our neighbourhood.
Unfortunately I cannot participate tomorrow at the launch of the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, but I would like to say that I am happy to see that after months of hard work of preparations and extensive consultations it is now launched.
We are all aware of course of the crucial role the local and regional authorities have to play in this. And many municipalities are ready to do it, but need our assistance.
I am fully aware of the difficult financial situation that the Council of Europe and its entities have to share with its member states hit by the economic crisis, and that the Congress has been called in to contribute to sharing these difficulties. The Congress is being asked to do more – more quality monitoring and election observation, more targeted and result-oriented thematic action, more operational and co-operation activities – with less resources.
I know many of you worry about this and I share your concerns.
As I was saying we face major challenges. The months ahead in particular are going to be full of tough decisions. These are extraordinary times and the stakes are high. Maintaining credibility in this difficult climate is harder than ever and challenging.
We all share the duty to respond to the expectations of our Members and partners. But I have no doubts that we can do it. The history of Europe has proved it over and over, again and again.
This will be a full week for you. I wish you a good Congress session.