Forum for the Future of Democracy 2011

‘The Interdependence of Democracy and Social Cohesion’

Panel debate 2

‘South-Eastern Mediterranean:
building democracies that nurture social cohesion’

Keith Whitmore (Moderator)
President, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

Throughout history, democracy – a genuine, mature democracy – has proved itself to be the best model to avoid social disaster, and to deal most effectively – in the long term – with the consequences of possible economic and social upheavals. Public control over national resources ensures its optimal and most efficient use for the benefit of all population groups.

However, democracy in itself does not automatically ensure a cohesive society. The market economy, which is by most standards the economic base of pluralist democracy, may create shocking disparities among different social groups if left to its own devices. We need therefore a political will and commitment by all political and governing forces in society to take positive measures for fostering social cohesion – through market and labour regulations, through social assistance programmes, through equal opportunities standards, through micro-credits and special provisions for small businesses and private entrepreneurs – I can continue with this list.

Such measures require, on the one hand, a strong legal framework at the national level but, on the other hand, practical implementation at the grassroots. It is in our local communities where national policies and strategies can be tailored to the realities on the ground, and where the results of such measures are the most tangible for citizens. In fact, the work for building cohesive communities can and must begin at local level without waiting for high-level decisions in the capitals. The main principles on which this work must be based are non-discrimination, equal treatment and respect for the individual, equal access to public services, and guarantees of social rights. As long as these principles are translated into local administrative practice, nurturing social cohesion begins.

The recent events in the Arab world have also shown that the local and regional dimensions of development are the keystones for the changes that people are hoping for. The countries acquiring new freedoms today have long been suffering from social and economic problems, unemployment (in particular among young people), urban poverty, the absence of democracy and in some cases failed efforts of regional development and decentralisation. This failure has been due, among other things, to a weak local governance structure, marginalization of citizenship and the limited role of the population in local development.

During the events of the Arab Spring, people in various countries have shown great insight and maturity towards achieving their objectives and moving to restructure governance systems, or at least showing their readiness to do so. However, what they need is the know-how and experience, on the one hand, and genuine local ownership of development processes and programmes to ensure sustainable solutions. Achieving this, in turn, requires good local and regional governance.

We, as Europeans, should support this new mentality. The nature of the Arab Spring shows the need for a bottom-up approach, which will require capacity-building in our communities, at local level. In Europe, we have accumulated substantial experience which we are ready and willing to share with our counterparts on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

I could mention our work on fostering good intercultural relations between different community groups, which is another important aspect of a cohesive society. The Council of Europe and its Congress of Local and Regional Authorities have been strong advocates of promoting intercultural and interreligious dialogue at local level, as a means of reducing interfaith tensions and fostering cohesion. In this regard, the Intercultural Cities programme run jointly by the Council of Europe and the European Commission has been a successful example of advancing good practices in intercultural relations.

There are many other good examples that can be easily replicated at local level in the South-Eastern Mediterranean, in these and other areas. Social cohesion has many aspects. For example, it also means better local integration and inclusion, and it is certainly helped a great deal by greater and equal citizen participation in political and public life. These and other issues related to social cohesion are on top of the political agenda in Europe as well, so the time seems right for synergies between the two shores.

We must benefit from the structures already in existence for creating such synergies, sharing this experience and channeling possible co-operation, specifically at the local level. I am speaking about the Euro-Arab Cities Forum and its Steering Committee that are advancing the process of Euro-Arab dialogue at local level, launched way back in 1984 in Valencia, Spain. A special relationship was firmly established between European and Arab municipalities by the Euro-Arab Cities conferences in Marrakesh, Morocco, in 1988 and in Valencia, Spain, in 1994. This dialogue received a new boost with the Euro-Arab Cities Forum in Dubai in 2008 and most recently in Malaga in February this year.

Of course, this Euro-Arab dialogue was originally conceived as a dialogue for peace, but today we are aware that it is also a dialogue for emerging local and regional democracy. Seizing the momentum created by the Arab Spring, the Congress is now proposing to organise a third Forum of Euro-Arab cities in 2012. Its objective will be to pursue a coordinated response of European cities in assisting the democratisation process in the Mediterranean, at the invitation of the countries concerned.

Our meeting here today is, on the one hand, a good opportunity to examine the way that democratic development at the Mediterranean may be taking, what its specificities are – or might be – compared to European democracy, and how this process can be channeled to ensure better social cohesion of society being built.

On the other hand, this is an occasion to discuss how we, Europeans, our governments, parliaments and local and regional authorities can contribute to and help with this process.