Conference of European Ministers Responsible for local and regional government

Utrecht (Netherlands), 16-17 November 2009

Address by Alan Meale, Chairman of the Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs of the Parliamentary Assembly

(on behalf of the President of the Parliamentary Assembly)

Monday, 16 November 2009

Chairman of the Committee of Ministers,
Secretary General,
President of the Congress,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to address you today on behalf of the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Mr Lluis Maria de Puig, who is unfortunately unable to be here owing to other parliamentary commitments.

He has asked me to wish you every success for this Conference.

As everyone here today will be aware - the importance of ensuring democratic participation by all citizens in local public life and of enshrining this right in a legal instrument was underlined at the 15th Conference in Valencia in 2007.

Needless to say I am pleased to see that this wish is now being given practical effect with the opening for signature of the additional protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority.

In this context, on behalf of the COE I want to underline the success of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, especially in the new democracies, by it bringing decision making processes closer to citizens and our wish, as parliamentarians, is that new steps may be taken in this direction in accordance with the subsidiarity principle.

We at the Counsel of Europe are convinced that the protocol is both important and necessary given the clear public disinterest in local affairs which is now apparent. I trust and hope that many of you here today will sign this new instrument because, once signed and ratified, it will encourage citizens to take part in local life by giving them a genuine sense of belonging to their communities.

My Assembly also welcomes the opening for signature of Protocol no. 3 to the Madrid Convention - an initiative to which it lent its support in 2008 with its Recommendation on transfrontier co-operation.

We also note with satisfaction that local and regional authorities are today becoming increasingly involved in inter-regional and cross-border co-operation activities, and that this Protocol will inevitably facilitate such activities even further.

On behalf of my Counsel, I therefore urge you once again to sign these two protocols.

Ladies and gentlemen the Conference which is opening today is to focus its attention upon good local and regional governance in turbulent times - the challenge of change.

Today in this period of financial crisis, which as we are all aware is having repercussions at all levels, global, national, and regional or local, it is important that we establish legal regulations and instruments to guarantee democratic stability.

Needless to say we are all aware of the potentially destructive impact of this crisis on social cohesion and other related disastrous consequences - I am thinking in particular of corruption and the climate of insecurity to which corrupt practices are liable to lead - However, these are only some of the many possible outcomes of such near financial meltdown.

Our Parliamentary Assembly has also been dealing with this issue, and my Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs, will shortly be preparing a report on the crisis, in co-operation with the Congress of local and regional authorities.

This is why I am particularly glad that the Utrecht Agenda today includes establishing good local and regional governance and also recognising via the acquis the role played by the Council of Europe in this field.

In this connection, the Parliamentary Assembly has been closely associated with the work on the Strategy on Innovation and Good Governance at Local Level, and it backs the proposal to continue discussions in this field - particularly on the 12 principles for good democratic governance at local level.

Ladies and gentlemen after the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the Strategy is our most important instrument in the local authorities’ field as it reinforces the Charter, the two instruments being complementary.

The Charter as you know is geared to promoting decentralisation and backing up local authorities in combating the misuse of power by central government, whilst at the same time the Strategy is designed to promote good governance and safeguard the public against misuse of power by local authorities themselves.

Ultimately, however, it is for you, Ministers and government representatives, and for us parliamentarians, to work to ensure that our respective Governments and Parliaments get things changed and adapt their local and regional administrative systems in our constantly changing world.

As far as the European Local Democracy Week is concerned, and with an eye to making this event more visible to the European public - the Parliamentary Assembly is proposing to co-operate with the Committee of Ministers and the Congress - in identifying one or two themes each year and circulating explanatory memorandums expanding upon such themes around the member states. This we believe will help give new impetus to such an important event.

Finally, I would like to conclude by asking you to take note of the Reference Framework for Regional Democracy and encouraging the Committee of Ministers to ratify it. The Reference Framework we believe is a definite step forward and a valuable basis for further discussions.

I must point out however at this point that the Parliamentary Assembly intends to continue to advocate a legal instrument covering the regional level. However, as a democrat I’m aware from experience that things don’t always progress as quickly as one would like.

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen, I hope that this Conference will enable us to advance towards improving the functioning of democracy, obviously with our European citizens’ interests and aspirations in the forefront of our minds.

Thank you.