"As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe"
Distinguished committee members,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Human rights, democracy and the rule of law belong to all of us, on equal terms.
But ensuring that we all have equal access to them is a challenge.
For this, a whole range of factors are in play.
Governments must provide the political will, of course.
But there are other, everyday issues that also mean that our experience of our rights can vary.
Whether we belong to a minority or vulnerable group – and the physical realities of where we live – just to mention two such factors.
Certainly, rural communities often face specific challenges.
And while these vary across our 46 member states –
There has been a general trend over recent decades.
The proportion of people living in many of Europe’s rural areas has fallen.
And this has resulted in ageing populations in these areas, with lower levels of prosperity, leading to less investment in services and infrastructure.
On the upside, this trend is not unavoidable.
The digitalisation of our economies increases the opportunities for working and learning at distance, and for coordinating and delivering services in new ways too.
Indeed, restrictions on people’s movement associated with covid-19 have helped push this trend forward.
And many countries have found that there has since been a flow of people moving out of towns and cities.
We must wait to see how widespread and long-lasting that proves to be.
But this might be an opportunity.
This may be a moment in which technology and circumstances combine to improve the quality of life in some of Europe’s rural areas.
And that seed falls on fertile ground.
There is plenty of evidence that where people in a community know one another personally –
And where citizens are closest to the authorities that represent them –
Trust is established, democracy is enhanced, and governance is improved.
I know that your next speaker, Mr Jan Aman, will certainly touch on some of these issues – and others – when he talks about the very important and innovative work being done by the Duved Cluster Initiative.
It is fascinating to see such innovative approaches to societal development, that in many ways turn traditional thinking up-side down.
In Sweden’s Duved it will be a rural area – and not a city – that leads the way – in transforming how we think about development and society.
In the Council of Europe, we are aware of the problems that many rural communities face –
We have taken steps to help member states address these.
And some of the best examples come from the work of this Congress.
Take for example your report on developing urban-rural interplay, asking member states to –
Reduce the digital divide;
Ensure equal access to basic public services and equivalent living conditions;
And promote links between cities and towns on the one hand, and countryside communities on the other.
Then there is also your work on the responsibilities of local and regional authorities for the future of youth in rural areas –
What can be more important than engaging with young people –
And help develop measures that enable them to participate in political and public life –
With representation of minorities as a priority point.
And finally, there is your report, Beyond Elections –
Looking at the use of new methods for decision making in Europe’s municipalities and regions.
This lays out the potential for involving citizens in decision-making more directly:
And this is a crucial point, I believe.
As in Duved, close-knit local communities can no doubt serve as engines for innovation.
But to maximise the value of those ideas, we need to share them.
For this, the Council of Europe’s strategy for Best Practice in Local Government can play a vital role –
Identifying good examples –
Explaining them –
And helping other local and regional governments to adapt and adopt them.
Our Centre for Expertise supports a number of our member states in implementing such best practices –
Including in a diverse range of rural communities.
More generally, by awarding a European Label of Governance Excellence, we try to encourage municipalities to comply with our 12 European Principles of Good Democratic Governance.
These principles include democratic participation, public ethics and accountability, and sustainable development – fully in line with our commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, running through every level of government across our continent.
Several rural authorities have been awarded a Label of Governance Excellence.
And I hope that many more will follow.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Europe’s strength and uniqueness are rooted in its diversity, but also our common values.
The role of rural communities – and not only cities – are crucial.
But within each country, and across our continent, their needs and experiences are vitally important.
The Additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government makes clear that everyone has a right to participate in the affairs of their local authority.
But ten years after the Protocol entered into force, what does that mean in practice for our rural communities today?
In this fast-changing, tech-driven world?
How can those communities develop new and fresh models to renew local democracy –
So that every individual has a voice and so that a human rights culture underpins even more rural life?
This could be a pivotal moment – if we are ready and understand what we see and experience and if we are able to seize the moment or opportunity.
Driven by innovative people and local communities, throughout Europe.
I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas.
Thank you for your attention.