22nd Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

Strasbourg , 
Check against delivery
Distinguished members of Congress, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
Thank you for the invitation to speak to you here today.
This session is taking place in the wake of a major phase in the reform of our Organisation.
The objective of the reform is to make the Council of Europe more useful for our member States and to implement the common values we share in a more effective and efficient way. Our activities must respond to the concrete challenges of the day in order to have a better focus and maximum impact.
And these challenges are manifold. The European project is experiencing turbulence. Many speak about bringing decisions home. The "renationalisation" of European politics, of our common achievements, is still a real threat.
As I have said on many occasions, the old ghost of nationalism is again visiting our Continent. Nationalism always comes from something bad and always leads to something even worse.
Xenophobic attitudes are growing. More and more people seem to define their own identity against other people's identity. They want to protect their own religion or culture by keeping foreigners out, or by expelling them. Together with the wish "to bring decisions home", it becomes dangerous. 
Today's reality is that in many parts of Europe our democratic values are under threat from new technological and economic forces and growing populist tendencies. Against this background, it is even more important that we insist upon the compliance with democratic norms and values. In the same way a market benefits from some regulation, our democracies need standards and values, checks and balances.
My message is that we must not let the language of extremist forces slowly become mainstream in Europe. The European political mainstream has to join forces and find a way to combat hate speech and agree on a common language to speak to the public about our common reality, which is diversity. 
Issues of discrimination and the relations between majorities and minorities are intensifying; therefore we need education policies to address intercultural issues and to promote living with cultural diversity. 
The role of the Congress is especially relevant in this regard. It represents the voice of local and regional authorities and provides a forum for dialogue with national governments.
I am pleased that the Congress is now, as part of post-monitoring activities, developing practical country-specific co-operation to address major problems. 
I particularly welcome your efforts to mobilise local and regional action to improve the situation of Roma, which resulted in the Summit of Mayors on Roma in September 2011, and the current action to build a European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion, in co-operation with my Special Representative for Roma issues.
I also welcome the Congress' contributions to both the report of the Group of Eminent Persons on Living together in the 21st century Europe, and the Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for local and regional government, in Kyiv in November 2011. The Kyiv Conference pointed to the important role of local and regional authorities in the economic revival of their communities, and approved an agenda in common for joint action between the national and local levels. This agenda is very relevant in its responses to the economic crisis, increased citizen participation in Europe, better application of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and the fight against corruption. The agenda of this session, with the current affairs debate on the impact of the financial crisis, also shows that the Congress is tuned in to the major challenges of the day.
In the current situation, the Congress needs to focus on finding concrete, practical and operational responses to the problems at hand. I must add that this also applies to the rest of the Council of Europe. 
The objective of the reform is to focus us all on the real needs of European societies, and to equip ourselves with the resources we need to respond to these needs. Resources will be limited for the foreseeable future. We live in times of constraints and severe cuts in public spending, but I nevertheless want to report to you that there are signs of confidence on this front. The voluntary contributions that the Council of Europe received from member States in 2011 were 35% higher than the year before. The total receipts from the European Union also increased by 18%. Our means remain clearly limited, but they are big enough to make a difference.
Solidarity and co-operation between partners and between different layers of government are key words for dealing with today's financial and other challenges; we must stand together and join our efforts in order to have strong and credible responses. This means a stronger and more concrete dialogue between governments, parliaments and local and regional authorities, and European institutions.
We must also ensure a dialogue beyond our domestic and immediate challenges. Our world, and indeed that of our neighbourhood, is in constant motion and this is having a profound impact on us. Therefore, we launched the Council of Europe's policy towards countries in the neighbouring regions last year. Just over a year after the beginning of the historic developments in our Southern neighbourhood, we have a coherent policy and also bilaterally agreed
co-operation priorities which are about to be implemented, first in Morocco and then Tunisia. We have also started consultations with Jordan. I think we eventually can look even further. In addition, the beneficiary countries are not only in the South, but also in our neighbourhood to the East, and in Central Asia where we have started to work with Kazakhstan. In many cases a common denominator is a vision that a stronger local and regional democracy needs to be developed and the Congress is very closely involved.
I would also like to mention the neighbourhood policy in order to illustrate a new, more reactive, more operational, more political organisation.
I am sure that the Council of Europe and its constituent parts – such as the Congress – is starting to reap the rewards of modernisation. We are addressing today's challenges and responding to the expectations of Members and partners. I am confident that, together, we will succeed in this mission.
Thank you.