Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
Check against deliver
Members of the Congress,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I should like first of all to congratulate the President of the Congress, Mr Keith Whitmore, on his election. I am certain that he will steer the renewed and reformed Congress confidently into fulfilling its mission, and I look forward to strengthening co-operation with the Congress in the common effort of making the Council of Europe and its institutions more efficient, more visible and more relevant in the European political landscape. I would like also to congratulate the newly-elected Vice President of the Congress, as well as the leaders of political groups.
With the new President and the new Secretary General having been elected in March, and with its membership renewed at this Session, the Congress is set to pursue its activities with a new vigour, at a time when the local and regional input into the European construction, and the role of local and regional authorities in European governance, are crucial as never before.
Europe is at a turning point in its history, and so is the Council of Europe. This is why I proposed a comprehensive reform, which received full support of the Committee of Ministers.
I am grateful for the Congress' support to the reform process, and for the fact that the Congress itself launched its own reform already in 2008, motivated by the desire to improve its work, to increase the impact of its action and to reaffirm its relevance for local and regional communities and their political leaders.
I should now like to say a few words on the subject which will certainly be among the key priorities of the Council of Europe in the months and years to come, and in which I expect the Congress to play a major role, namely our work on Roma.
As you know, a High Level Meeting on this issue was held in Strasbourg last week. This was the outcome of my initiative launched in mid-September, in order to reinforce Council of Europe action, also against the background of the recent developments in many parts of Europe.
The participants at the meeting, ministers and other high governmental representatives, adopted the Strasbourg Declaration, which will serve as the blueprint for our future action.
In a nut shell, the Declaration can be summarised by the following points;
- strong and unconditional condemnation of discrimination, stigmatisation and hate speech,
- re-affirmation of the fundamental values and principles which must guide our action,
- emphasis on social inclusion,
- the need to improve co-operation at European level,
- focus on concrete action and dissemination of good practices, and finally,
- the critical role of local authorities.
None of these points comes as a surprise to you, especially not the last one. You are at the forefront of the efforts to integrate Roma and Travellers. It is at the local level where most challenges are, but it is also at the local level where most best practices have been found. We want to build on this precious work and experience, and work with the Congress in order to achieve the critical mass of positive change.
For me personally, perhaps the most important decision in the Declaration is the creation of a European Programme for Training of Roma Mediators. Again, this is not new. Such Roma mediators already work in many of our member states and the experience is overwhelmingly positive.
Mediators are a direct and most effective way to translate Council of Europe standards and policy recommendations into practice. They provide an opportunity to make a real, measurable difference in the lives of Roma. This is why we are ambitious. We will train mediators, but also trainers for mediators, at the scale not yet seen before. As I have already announced, we intend to train up to 450 mediators in education, employment, housing and health, already in 2011. Moreover, we also have the intention to train up to 100 lawyers to help Roma in seeking remedy in domestic courts for alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter.
But this is hopefully only the beginning. Our total annual capacity for training mediators and lawyers is more than three times as much. We certainly hope that, when the programme is up and running, we will receive support for expanding the training. I am very much encouraged by the strong interest of the European Commission in this respect, but I also hope for support from individual governments, and why not local and regional authorities who are the end users, if I can use this term, of the mediators.
The term Roma mediator is to some extent misleading and it would be better to call them mediators for Roma. Some will be Roma themselves, as it is the case in most existing mediator programmes, especially in the area of education, but others will be professionals working in public services in areas with Roma population. What we have in mind is people working in the local employment office, or utility company, or hospital, court or police station who come in daily contact with Roma.
The aim of the exercise is to bridge the gap between Roma and the rest of the society; to contribute to higher attendance and better results for Roma children in school, to encourage and assist Roma in seeking access to public services, to facilitate the dialogue, interaction and above all, to establish trust. And this has to go both ways. Mediators are not only there to work with Roma, they are also there to work with non-Roma majority, with attitudinal and procedural obstacles to their inclusion. Not in theory, not in general, abstract manner, but very concretely, in every day situations. We will train the ambassadors of trust.
Our success largely depends on the support we will receive from the local authorities themselves. Hence my appeal to the Congress which will be our main partner in this endeavour. Many of you will be contacted in the coming weeks and months with regard to the selection of candidates for training. You will receive concrete information as to the modalities and procedures to follow. But I should like to use already this opportunity to launch a strong call for your support and co-operation. Together, we can make a difference.
Europe has always been a continent of minorities. We have also been a continent where all the three monotheistic religions are present. This has become even more visible with migration.
Living in a multicultural and multi-religious environment is a challenge. But sometimes we should also be capable of regarding this multiculturalism as being beneficial.
The Council of Europe, with its unique institutions and network has to take a lead in this – local and regional authorities have to play the most important role – as do parliamentarians.
I am very pleased to see that the President of the Parliamentary Assembly has been invited to speak here today. Let us create a strong network of political leaders at local, regional, national and European level that jointly can take on this task – of living together in the 21st century.
Together we have to get people on this continent to respect each other, to find something interesting and good in those who are different from ourselves.
We are not asking people to give up their identity – only to respect the identity of others. Or, to quote Dr Martin Luther King, who once said: "I want to live in a society where people are being judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character".
We ask everybody to consider themselves as part of a European identity based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. One should preserve one's own identity and at the same time be part of something bigger.
In Greek poetry it is said that "bowing down to little things is slavery, but bowing down to things bigger than ourselves is freedom".