Origins and history
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities grew out of the conviction that there was a need to give local, and subsequently regional, authorities a forum to have their say in the early stages of the process of European integration. Starting as a mere committee of the then Consultative Assembly in 1953, it subsequently became the “Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe” and was finally, in 1994, established as the “Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe”. Its remit is to assess the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government in the 47 Council of Europe member states.
With two key dates – 1957, the date of the first session of the Conference of Local Authorities, and 1994, the birth of the present Congress – the path of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities illustrates the unanimous recognition by governments of local democracy as a cornerstone of the democratic system. Today, the Congress is a major player in fostering genuine grassroots democracy in the 47 Council of Europe member states.
In 1953, the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe – now the Parliamentary Assembly – set up a “Special Committee on Municipal and Regional Affairs”. Two years later, the Assembly requested the creation of a European conference of local elected representatives. The new body, which brought together 124 local elected representatives from 13 of the then 15 Council of Europe member states, sat for the first time in Strasbourg on 12 January 1957. Chaired by Frenchman Jacques Chaban-Delmas, it took the title “Conference of Local Authorities of Europe” and first met every two years, then every year. In 1975, it changed its name to “Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe” and in 1983 it became the “Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe” (CLRAE).
In the 1960s, the Conference mainly concerned itself with all the effects on local authorities of the process of European integration but it also took an interest in the issues of housing and urban renewal. It sought to encourage a sense of European identity in towns and cities, especially through twinnings. Forward-looking in the subjects it dealt with as well as in its policy approaches, for example with regard to subsidiarity and devolution, it was the first to propose, in 1978, a European definition of regions, showing that the latter can contribute to the harmonious development of Europe at both political and economic levels. Its work resulted in the European Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation, which, from 1980 onwards, enabled border regions to begin working together focusing on specific objectives.
At the same time, the CLRAE wanted a European charter that guaranteed local authorities’ rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis central government. The drafting work began in 1981, resulting in the adoption by the Committee of Ministers in 1985 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, in the legal form of a convention, which came into force in 1988. In 1992, the adoption of the European Urban Charter and, in particular the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages constituted the CLRAE’s two other major achievements prior to the extensive development of its role and structures.
On 9 October 1993, the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe member states, meeting for their first Summit in Vienna (Austria), approved the creation of “a consultative organ genuinely representing both local and regional authorities in Europe”. This was the first official step in setting up the Congress, the direct successor of the CLRAE. In early 1994, this new body became a Council of Europe organ in its own right, officially tasked with representing the local and regional authorities. Called “the Congress”, it is divided into two Chambers, one for the local authorities and the other for the regions, and was given new tasks and responsibilities, the most important of which were the monitoring of local and regional self-government in states that have ratified the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the observation of local and regional elections in member states.
At the turn of the 1990s, the new Congress had much greater challenges to face than in the past. The former “Eastern Bloc” countries, almost all of which joined the Council of Europe from 1991 onwards, are still highly centralised and regard the Congress’s expertise as enormous help in the process of structural change. The Congress also became involved in the restoration of peace in former Yugoslavia by taking action at local level in particular, as it was later to do in the Southern Caucasus, where it set up “Local Democracy Agencies” and encouraged local elected representatives to engage in dialogue and work together.
From 1997, the Congress worked on drawing up a “Reference Framework for Regional Democracy”. A genuine code of rights and duties of regional entities, it was approved in 2009 by the Ministers Responsible for Local and Regional Government. In 2003, the Congress adopted the Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life. In addition, “European Local Democracy Week” was launched for the first time in 2007 on the Congress’s initiative. The aim of this annual pan-European event is to raise awareness of local political life and invite citizens to engage in dialogue with their local councillors. One year later, paying heed to developments in urban policies, the Congress adopted the “European Urban Charter II - Manifesto for a new urbanity”. A further step forward was taken in 2009 with the opening for signature of an additional protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority.
From 2010 onwards, the Congress stepped up its activities relating to its specific tasks, first and foremost its monitoring visits and the observation of elections. Since 2015, a new, post-monitoring and post-observation procedure has made it possible to assist national authorities in improving the implementation of Congress recommendations through the signing of roadmaps. The co-operation programmes launched by the Congress in 2011 also provide practical support for local and regional elected representatives in several countries.
2013 marked the culmination of a long process aimed at establishing a harmonised legislative space for European local and regional democracy. With San Marino’s ratification of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, all 47 Council of Europe member states are now covered by this international treaty.
1957: First session of the Conference of Local Authorities
1975: The Conference's remit is broadened to include the dimension of regions
1988: Entry into force of the European Charter of Local Self-Government
1990: First local election observation report
1993: Creation of the first Local Democracy Agency
1994: The Standing Conference becomes the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
1995: First report on monitoring of the implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government
2003: Adoption of the Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life
2007: Launch of European Local Democracy Week
2008: Adoption of the European Urban Charter II: Manifesto for a new urbanity
2009: Additional Protocol on the Right to Participate in the Affairs of a Local Authority
2009: Adoption of the Council of Europe Reference Framework for Regional Democracy
2013: The European Charter of Local Self-Government covers all 47 Council of Europe member States
2015: Signature of the first road maps for the implementation of Congress recommendations under the post-monitoring dialogue
2017: 60 years of promoting local and regional democracy within the Council of Europe
2019: Joint Ceremony in Brussels to celebrate the 25 years of the Council of Europe Congress and the EU European Committee of the Regions