President of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities, dear Mr Cools, congratulations on your election – I very much look forward to our
Secretary General of the Congress of Regional and Local Authorities, dear Mathieu,
Distinguished members of the Congress,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is now five months since the Council of Europe held its Summit of Heads of State and Government in Iceland.
The focus was of course on Ukraine and our efforts to support President Zelensky, and the Ukrainian authorities and people, in every way we can,
and of course in light of Russia’s completely unacceptable invasion of Ukraine.
A further fundamental challenge facing our Organisation and Europe as a whole, and also discussed in Reykjavík, is the backsliding of democracy.
And the execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights is also a crucial issue, so as to protect and preserve the entire Convention-system that we have built up in Europe over the past decades.
Here I would also like to express our gratitude for the Congress’ highly pertinent written contribution to the Summit and for organising an important side-event in Reykjavík in the margins of the Summit.
Our leaders adopted a crucial declaration and recommitted to the values and fundamental principles of our Organisation in Reykjavík, and committed themselves to ensure that the Council of Europe, and especially the Court, is financially sustainable.
They also underlined the “essential role of multilevel governance in delivering the Organisation’s vision, including through the Congress of local and regional authorities role in implementing the European Charter of local self-government”.
In fact, I do not believe that there was a single ambition agreed in Reykjavík that can be achieved without the work of regional and local representatives.
So, you – all of you, dear friends – and leaders like you throughout Europe – will have a crucial role in helping the Organisation meet those new and fundamental challenges we are currently facing.
And by working together, hopefully we will be able to turn the tide of the backsliding of democracy.
Yes, indeed, work is already underway.
Let me therefore highlight a few concrete examples.
As the Reykjavík Declaration made clear, the starting point for every member state is the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights –
And an essential part of this is the execution of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.
Achieving this must be an absolute and shared priority.
That is why the Reykjavík Declaration invited national authorities, and I quote:
“…to strengthen co-operation with local and regional authorities in order to facilitate the process of executing the judgments that concern them.”
I hope that national authorities do so –
And where they do not, that local and regional authorities pick up the challenge and initiate the dialogue themselves.
When it comes to helping sustain and strengthen our democracies, the local and regional levels of government have an essential role. Be it in regard to elections, education, police, courts, law enforcement and other issues.
The Summit in Reykjavík also agreed on a new set of Principles of Democracy – which will be important to implement, and which can be also seen as a measure to help us analyse the health of our democracies in Europe today.
Similarly, ensuring the effectiveness of the European Social Charter, certainly requires your engagement.
The rights to health, housing and social security mean little, unless competent authorities are there to deliver them on the ground.
So, in the spirit of Reykjavík, initiatives can be taken to help national governments to ratify and take on the obligations of the Social Charter –
And you can reach out to the Social Rights Committee and others –
Embracing the role of regional and local government as frontline partners in making social rights a reality in all our communities.
We have all appreciated the impressive performance of mayors and local government in Ukraine since the beginning of the war last year –
Providing services in the most terrible of circumstances –
And earning the greatest of respect.
The decentralisation of power in Ukraine – and empowerment at the local level – is something that the Council of Europe –
Including our Congress –
Has worked with the Ukrainian authorities to achieve.
I know that these reforms have indeed proved their value, and been highly appreciated by Ukrainian authorities.
Moving forward, the Reykjavík Principles of Democracy should hopefully further inspire local government –
For example, in putting into practice our new recommendations to member states on the principles of good governance –
And on deliberative democracy, where citizens’ assemblies can build trust and help solve problems –
As this Congress itself showed with the successful event that it helped organise in the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The continued implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government will also be critical –
As we seek to stop the democratic backsliding and deliver the peaceful, prosperous and free societies in which I think that all of us want to live in.
Summit leaders also acknowledged that a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is key to the enjoyment of our human rights –
And endorsed the Council of Europe’s work on new Conventions on the environment and human rights, hopefully, and the protection of the environment through criminal law.
The ongoing negotiations on these take account of civil society input and the impact of pollution, climate change and environmental crime on the ground.
When extreme weather events hit our communities –
As we saw so often this summer –
It is local services that are on the frontline, dealing with the flooding, the damage and the risk to human life –
And often leading the clean-up and rebuilding processes –
Just as they need to investigate and mitigate the damage done by environmental crime –
Which puts our air, land and water in jeopardy.
So, the old slogan to “think globally and act locally” will remain central to our actions –
As it has been, for example, in our Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Habitats –
Which balances the need for environmental protection on the one hand, and infrastructure and development on the other.
I am also aware of the Congress’ innovative approach to the environment –
Including the ambitious report that you adopted last year –
Which called for a “green reading” of the European Charter of Local Self-Government –
With the possibility of drafting an additional protocol –
On the very same day that you adopted a resolution on the third volume of your Human Rights Handbook on the environment and sustainable development.
You are indeed providing the impetus and leadership that we all need to make progress, together, in this vitally important area.
So, dear friends,
These are just some of the “marching orders” given to us by our continent’s leaders.
We will all work to help implement them in a positive and inclusive manner, not least through the engagement of local and regional leaders and in particular young people –
In line with the practice recommended in the European Charter of Local Self-Government –
And the call at Reykjavík to give priority to young people in democratic life and decision-making processes.
After all, young people are the community leaders of tomorrow –
Lastly, it is important that the Council of Europe equips all parts of the Organisation to meet the challenge set for us at the Summit.
That is why, as part of our reform process, we have decided to move our local democracy sector –
Including the centre for expertise –
From our Directorate General for Democracy and Human Dignity –
And to the Congress itself.
By concentrating this work in the Congress, we should be able to reduce the duplication of roles –
And ensure that our work on local democracy has greater coherence, visibility and impact –
Given the scale of the challenge facing us.
Allow me at the end to express my gratitude to you, Leendert.
You have had two and a half extraordinary years as President of Congress, with a number of notable achievements:
* Even before becoming President of the Congress, you played an important role as the Chair of the Monitoring Committee, helping strengthening its work and making it more visible.
* But as President of the Congress, from 2021 to 2023 you managed to lead the Congress through the difficult and challenging time of the Covid-Pandemic, making sure that the work of the institution was carried out as effectively as possible, with online sessions and in helping ensure the respect of the European Charter of Local Self-Government in major crisis situations.
* And of course, during your Presidency,
the completely unacceptable Russian invasion of Ukraine took place.
You have shown unwavering support for Ukraine from Day 1, and you have travelled to Ukraine on many occasions to offer your expertise and ensure that the multi-level dialogue continued, including on the roadmap for the future of decentralisation in Ukraine.
Finally, you led the Congress on the road to Reykjavik. And I note that under your leadership, the role of the Congress has been highlighted in several key Summit outcome documents.
You have been a longstanding member of Congress, and it has been a pleasure to work with you - and it is already 14 years now, I believe.
You will be sorely missed as President, but as you now end a career dedicated to public service,
you certainly deserve a long, sunny and enjoyable retirement.
Thank you for your attention.