Back "Embedding democratic values at grassroots level"

High-level political conference on the margins of the 4th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe member states
Reykjavik 15 May 2023
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As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe


Minister of Infrastructure,

President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities,

Mayor of Reykjavik,

Distinguished guests,


It is an honour and a pleasure to take part in this important event here in Reykjavik today – at the even of a historic Summit.

For more than seven decades, the Council of Europe has helped construct – almost stone by stone – a unique Convention system and democratic institutions throughout Europe.

The Court and a range of treaties and tools have helped transform the way we live –

Safeguarding our fundamental rights.

But contrary to the positive developments we have seen over such a long period of time, we are today facing the rise of an old ghost – aggressive nationalism, and a democratic backsliding all over our continent.

Russia’s totally unacceptable war of aggression against Ukraine has reminded us of just how important –

And fragile –

Peace remains – even in Europe.

But extreme populism and nationalism can be found elsewhere on our continent as well.

And it poses a clear threat to the future of our democratic societies.

That’s why Europe’s leaders are gathering here in Reykjavik –

They are invited to recommit to the values and standards that this Organisation protects and promotes – and that we all share.

And to apply these –

To the challenges that Europeans face in their daily lives.

Of course, it is national governments that commit to treaties and standards –

They also ratify our treaties –

And governments are responsible for ensuring compliance.

But national governments cannot achieve this alone.

Local and regional authorities are not only closer to the people they represent –

They are also responsible for delivering so many rights and services on which citizens depend –

From schools and kindergartens to hospitals and clinics, to police services and crisis shelters.

Local authorities are often also the first port of call for grassroots organisations, businesses and individuals who need help –

Or who want to contribute to their communities –

A reality that became very clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, where local services were so frequently the interface between people in need –

And the professionals and volunteers who provided it.

Looking at the most likely outcomes of the Summit this week, what role will local and regional governments play in helping implement the decisions that are going to be taken in Reykjavik ?

If you ask me, I believe local and regional authorities will be essential to meeting almost every pledge and promise.

Let me give you a few examples.

The Summit is set to endorse a set of Reykjavik Principles for Democracy –

Part of a much-needed response to democratic backsliding in many countries.

These Principles include holding free and fair elections –

Including those conducted by, and for, local and regional authorities.

Local and regional authorities are already active in ensuring democratic participation –

With innovative ideas, such as the “Council of Cultures” –

A consultative body established by the former Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, and elected by migrants –

Providing them with a political voice and influence.

And giving priority to the participation of young people in democratic life and decision-making, including through education.

For this, the Council of Europe has elaborated its Framework of Competences for Democratic Culture, a very useful teaching tool.

And the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities has produced a very helpful booklet for younger children –

“How to make your town a better place” –

Which the City of Metz in France uses as a tool for participation in the children’s municipal council.

Initiatives like this are really important to equip young people and help them better understand their democracies.

The Summit will also underline the urgency of action on the environment –

To counter the triple crisis of pollution, climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

This will be impossible without all of us taking part –

Transport, housing, and waste disposal are among the policy areas often determined by local and regional authorities –

As a matter of fact, many local communities are already driving change to deliver a safe, clean, and sustainable environment.

Barcelona has created a network of green spaces and wildlife corridors.

Munich has set itself a goal of becoming 100% reliant on renewable energy in two years time.

And Reykjavik - which is hosting us this week – has done a lot, and aims to be fully carbon neutral by the year 2040 – and the city is now doing good work on investment in green infrastructure and social development.

Dear friends,

The last issue that I want to mention here today, is the situation that made the need for this Summit so urgent and clear.

And it is all about Ukraine, of course.

Ukraine will no doubt be the no. 1 issue at the Summit.

We must continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine, and together with you we already provide support covering a wide range of areas from investigation of war-crimes to assistance to Ukrainian law enforcement and the judiciary, and local government.

And the extraordinary way in which local mayors, leaders and administrators have stood up against Russian intimidation –

Often at real risk to their own safety –

Is testament to their resolve.

There is an obvious and urgent need to register and record all loss and damage, resulting from grave human rights violations that have taken place in Ukraine as a consequence of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified full-scale military aggression.

Preparations are therefore now being made so that the Council of Europe can play a leading role in setting-up  a Registry of damage, and this will no doubt be a very important deliverable – if not the main result – of the upcoming Summit.

What is clear is that without delivering justice there cannot be any lasting peace.

In support of the work now being done in Ukraine and throughout Europe at the local level, we all very much appreciate the role of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities that provides guidance and monitoring –

And helps share best practices about how to uphold our local democracies.

Finally, we are indeed fortunate to have such determined, dedicated and professional leaders and administrators in our towns and cities thoughout Europe. 130,000 local and regional authorities throughout Europe.

They make the world of difference to people’s lives – and they do it every single day.


Thank you for your attention.