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angle-left null The European voice of local and regional authorities
13 September 2019

The European voice of local and regional authorities


Herwig Van Staa

For a long time, municipalities and regions had virtually no role to play on the European scene, and many people rightly felt that Europe should be more attentive to the concerns and needs expressed at the level which is the closest to its citizens. When I started my political carrier in the late 80s, as a municipal councillor of Innsbruck, the long-term president of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), Dr Josef Hofmann, informed me in detail about the objectives and activities of its organization. Our discussion had a decisive influence on my view and activities at that time and in the future.

Before that I had been engaged in a scientific carreer: it led me, via the Institute for Regional Development (with a focus on small regions in the Tyrol and questions concerning municipality mergers), to the Institute for Alpine Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Innsbruck. At those institutes the concepts for the Working Group of the Alpine Countries (Arge Alp), founded in Mösern in the Tyrol in 1972, were worked out. Today, the Arge Alp includes the Tyrol, Vorarlberg, Salzburg, Bavaria, Saint Gall, Grisons, Ticino, South Tyrol, Trentino and Lombardy. It was one of the first transfrontier cooperation activities in Europe, soon carried out through a permanent office based in Innsbruck.

The issue of local and regional democracy became more and more prominent on the European political agenda, especially after the fall of the Berlin wall: it was one of the main topics of the first Summit of Heads of state or government of the Council of Europe, which took place in Vienna in October 1993. In January 1994, as a result of the Summit, the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, in which the long-term mayor of the European city of Innsbruck, Dr Alois Lugger, had earned great merits as its president, was transformed into the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe and, as a new institution of the Council of Europe, was anchored in its institutional structure together with the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the European Court of Human Rights. In the same year, the Committee of the Regions of the European Union was set up, which up to now is the only and central consultative body of the municipalities and regions in the legislative process of the European Union.

Right from the beginning, my activities at European level have focused on promoting the role of local and regional authorities and on developing, enlarging and strengthening town twinnings. It was obvious that a broad and sustainable network between the cities and municipalities was needed in order to advance their interests and concerns in Europe. As mayor of Innsbruck, I was able to ensure that partnerships with six cities throughout Europe - from Denmark to Georgia - were concluded or further developed. The strengthening of local 2 and regional democracy in the Central, Eastern and South-Eastern European countries has also always been of particular concern to me. In this context, the Eastern Partnership of the Council of Europe has to be mentioned particularly, but also the Logon Network of the Austrian Association of Towns and Cities, which has made the transfer of knowledge and assistance in setting up local and regional structures in those countries its central task.

In January 1995, the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, making hundreds of thousand of victims, was still raging around the capital Sarajevo. Many of us felt sad about the fact that Europe remained powerless, and were ready to express support to the people who were facing such a tragedy. This is why my friend Dr Josef Hofmann (Deputy Mayor of Mainz, Germany) and I (as Mayor of Innsbruck) decided to honour the invitation addressed by the Mayor of Sarajevo, Tarik Kupusovic, to all Mayors of the world, to commemorate, in the heart of the city, the 1000th day of the Sarajevo siege by Serbian militia. From the friendly city of Zagreb, we had to catch an airplane organised by the UN (insiders called it "Maybe Airlines") to reach the airport of Sarajevo. Blinded vehicles of the French army accompanied us to the city, through the snowy landscape, through the Serbian lines, and through their controls. Accommodation was provided at Hotel "Holiday Inn". One wall had been blown off by military action, and had been replaced by UNHCR plastic covers. At certain hours, gunfire from Serbian snipers was to be heard.We visited the destroyed National Library that had been built during the Austrian times and the market place where a rocket had hit dozens of people. On top of it, my suitcase was stolen on the morning of departure: hopefully it helped some local inhabitant to overcome better the hardships of Bosnian winter! This experience gave us a glimpse of what could happen in Europe if our efforts for lasting peace and living together despite our differences were to be sacrified to new nationalistic propaganda.

Even within the European People's Party, the recognition of municipalities and regions and their concerns was by no means self-evident. For years we had to fight for the recognition and financial endowment of the European Association of Local and Regional Authorities, which we had set up together with Dr Josef Hofmann as the umbrella organisation of Europe's local and regional associations close to the EPP. In order to strengthen the role of local and regional authorities in Europe, close and coordinated cooperation with other key European local and regional policy bodies, in particular the European Committee of the Regions (CoR), the Council of European Municipalities (CEMR) and the Assembly of European Regions (AER), was of course a matter of central concern to us.

Shortly after my entry into the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe in 1995, I was elected Chairman of the EPP Group in the Congress, and then President of the Chamber of Local Authorities (in 1998) and finally President of the Congress itself (from 2002 to 2004). A special objective and challenge of these years in my successive functions was the promotion of the ratification and implementation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, adopted in 1985 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. On the basis of the provisions of the Charter, I have always been committed not only to giving more powers to local or regional authorities, but also to providing them with the means to effectively exercise those powers. My special commitment for the local and regional authorities of Europe runs like a red thread through all my European activities. A decade later, when I had the unprecedented honour of making a second term as President of the Congress (from 2012 to 2014), I was able to witness the Charter being ratified by all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, making it binding throughout Europe as a minimum standard for the competences, legal status and financial, human and organisational resources of local authorities. In this respect, I would like to pay a special tribute to Jean- Claude Frécon, who was the President of the Chamber of Local Authorities at the time and became my successor as President of the Congress (from 2014 to 2016).

We have also fought for extending the influence of the Charter of Local Self-Government beyond Europe. Under the leadership of Dr Heinrich Hoffschulte, First Vice-President of the CEMR, we strongly supported the drafting of a World Charter of Local Self-Government in order to guarantee minimum standards of local democracy for municipalities throughout the world in order to sustainably develop the community, to strengthen civic participation, to develop the local economy and to strengthen social cohesion. Unfortunately, despite very encouraging signals, particularly at the UN conferences in Nairobi in 1999 and 2000, the process of establishing a World Charter met a lot of resistance from some large states. Despite all this, a world charter was finally adopted at the Un Habitat summit in Nairobi in 2006. Local government representatives themselves have also been able to organise a world wide association, called CLGU (Cities and Local Government United), with a secretariat based in Barcelona.

I also took an active role, after my election as Governor of the Tyrol Region in 2002, in efforts at European level to create a charter of regional self-government, granting the regions of Europe rights and guarantees comparable to those of local authorities in terms of their existence, legal status and facilities. Despite the Congress’ unanimous support in its Recommendation 34 (1997), the draft charter met severe concerns from several of the Council of Europe's more centralist member states. After years of negotiations, a compromise was found, through the adoption in 2007 of a legally non-binding document: the reference framework for regional democracy, which is regularly used by the Congress as a yardstick for its monitoring activities at regional level. Furthermore, as part of the efforts to implement a Charter for Regional Democracy, great progress has been made in decentralising competences in the member states of the Council of Europe. At the forefront of the European regionalisation process are always the so-called "strong regions": the regions with their own legislative powers, their own parliaments and their own governments. Their liaison networks RegLeg (the Conference of the Heads of Government of the European Regions with Legislative Powers) and CALRE (the Conference of the Presidents of the Parliaments of the Regions with Legislative Powers) have also played and continue to play a pioneering role in this process.

Due to their topographical conditions, mountain regions have to face major challenges that do not exist in the same way in the lowlands - a large proportion of inhabitable wasteland, settlement pressure on areas in valleys, various and intensified conflicts of use, higher infrastructure costs, longer transport routes, higher production costs, high expenditure on natural hazard management, to name but a few. As a result, in many cases the economy in mountain regions cannot compete with production in favourable locations. In order to raise awareness at European level of these disadvantages caused by natural conditions and to have them taken into account and compensated for in European regulations, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities adopted the Mountain Regions Charter in 2003, which served as the basis for the CoR's decision to create an Integrated European Policy on Mountain Regions in 2008. The creation of the Alpine Convention, the binding international treaty network of the eight Alpine states Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France, Italy, Slovenia, Germany and Monaco, as well as the European Union, has to be mentioned in this context too. Under my responsibility, we were able to establish the Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention in the Tyrolean capital Innsbruck.

Since its last major reform in 2013, the Congress has increasingly focused its activities on the rule of law, human rights and democracy. These areas - the pillars of the Council of Europe, as it were - are particularly relevant for local and regional authorities. The many activities aimed at promoting the concrete implementation of human rights “on the ground”, including the protection of minorities and of more vulnerable groups such as the Roma, have 4 to be mentioned in this respect. Great progress has been made in the Congress and the Council of Europe in the areas of the rule of law, separation of powers and inclusive societies, particularly in the fight against anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination, as well as in respecting each other's religions and common European values.

Strengthening democracy at the levels which are the closest to the citizens has always been one of the core tasks of the Congress, and it remains a constant challenge. In this area, the Congress has made great progress through its regular monitoring and post-monitoring activities as well as the strong involvement of audit courts, audit offices and ombudsmen. My second presidency of the Congress coincided with a six month period when Austria was chairing the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe : its priorities included improving the quality of democracy and governance at local and regional level. Unfortunately strong political support did not materialize with enhanced financial means. The difficult financial situation the Congress - like the entire Council of Europe - is currently facing must not tempt us to accept a reduction in the Congress’ core tasks. On the contrary, we must work together and make efforts to further improve the quality of local and regional democracy and thereby contribute to the realisation of a Europe of local and regional authorities.

One of the worst and most widespread enemies of democracy is corruption. It undermines citizens' confidence in the rule of law and in its elected representatives. The population turns away and is no longer willing to get involved in political processes. Such an apolitical climate among the population can develop into an ideal breeding ground for the emergence of oligarchies or even dictatorships. For this reason, the Congress has made the fight against corruption one of its core themes in recent years. In May 2014, the Ministers of Justice of Bavaria, Austria and Italy, the Presidents of GRECO, OLAF, EURORAI and the International Corruption Academy, judges of the European Court of Justice as well as leading representatives of the judiciary, public prosecutor's offices, academia and research discussed preventive and repressive measures at European, national and regional level at the homonymous international conference. Since then, strategy papers have been drafted on the key areas of the fight against corruption - public procurement, nepotism, conflicts of interest, transparency, protection of whistle-blowers, misuse of administrative resources in elections - and adopted unanimously in the 2017 and 2018 plenary sessions of the Congress. The cornerstones and intentions of this initiative of the Congress were adopted by the European Union in the preparation of its White Paper on Corruption. I would urge all colleagues to continue to raise awareness and prevent the dangers of corruption in order to combat this worst enemy of democracy in a sustainable manner.

Another focus of my work in the Congress was cross-border cooperation. The common work across all party boundaries - in particular the close and extremely loyal cooperation with my colleague Karl-Heinz Lambertz from the German Community of Belgium - made great progress possible. In 2006, under the Austrian Presidency of the EU, we were able to use the work of the Council of Europe and our close networking with the CoR to ensure that the Regulation on the European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation - EGTC Regulation - was adopted by the EU. This milestone was important for the municipalities and regions of Europe, especially since the 1980 Madrid Convention on Transfrontier Cooperation and its additional protocols - although binding for the 39 member states who have ratified them – contain only few obligations, but rather proposals and examples of good practice. In 2011, the CoR established the EGTC Platform, of which I was the first chairman, with the target to jointly advance this cross-border cooperation. From the very beginning, a central concern was the opening up of the EGTC to entities from non-EU states in order to enable local and regional authorities from the member states of the Council of Europe to participate in these new forms of cooperation across national borders.

The Congress has always welcomed the European Union's initiatives to establish macroregional strategies and has called for the involvement of local and regional authorities. In order to facilitate better cross-border cooperation at regional and local level, the Congress, in a resolution of March 2013, has unanimously advocated the establishment of an Alpine Macro-regional Strategy. In May 2013, the European Parliament gave its support to the initiative, which was subsequently formally endorsed by the Committee of the Regions. In December 2013, the European Council instructed the European Commission to work with the Alpine states and regions to develop the basis for the establishment of the EU Strategy for the Alpine Region (EUSALP) by March 2015. After the adoption of the Communication and the Action plan by the EU we could achieve that the establishment of the EUSALP was unanimously confirmed by the European Council in June 2016. In the EUSALP, the regions are anchored on an equal footing with the member states. Regionalised and federal member states are represented in the Executive Board by a regional representative at the side of the federal one. Due to its structure and the decision-making process, the EUSALP is a role model of how the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity can be successfully implemented in daily practice. Macro-regional strategies fulfil an extremely important function as a link between the European Union and its regions and the people living in these regions.

Much has also been achieved through the close and coordinated cooperation of the Congress with the Committee of the Regions of the European Union. Beginning with my Presidency of the Congress, this extremely successful cooperation between the CoR and the Congress has been coordinated through regular meetings of the Contact Group of the same name.

Over the past two decades we have been able to achieve a great deal through the close cooperation of all political groups. In terms of content, the activities of the Congress during this time have ranged from influencing the EU Convention on the future of Europe and the Mountain Charter, coping with the financial and economic crisis and strengthening human rights at local and regional level, strengthening the commitment of young people through education and training, digital media, interregional cooperation, the role of the media as a tool of participatory democracy, strengthening diversity through intercultural education and communication strategies, the rights of people with disabilities, new forms of democratic participation and perspectives of cross-border cooperation in Europe.

I have always warmly welcomed the fact that, following the opening of the Council of Europe to Eastern Europe, new Member States have been admitted. These new Member States, some of which have historically been heavily burdened and still have limited experience of democracy, have fitted very well into the Council of Europe and are now making extremely important contributions. I have always tried hard to improve the local and regional situation and note that, despite a number of setbacks and sometimes unsatisfactory situations, there has been an overall positive development in this area. I have never thought much of imposing sanctions such as the withdrawal of voting rights against Member States. On the contrary, I have always advocated maintaining the willingness to talk and have always been committed to openly addressing deficits and discussing related issues.

A central focus of my second presidency has also been on the greater involvement of young people, the extension of their rights to information, consultation and participation. Since then, each year all 47 national delegations have been invited to select one youth representative to participate to the plenary sessions of the Congress at the latter’s expense. Within this framework, the youth delegates discuss current core issues of the Council of Europe and bring their findings and points of view to the plenary session of the Congress. In my view, it is very gratifying that the participation of these youth delegates has significantly broadened and enriched the range and spectrum of political discussions in our sessions.

I had the privilege of serving in leading positions in the Congress for more than 20 years and, looking back, I feel proud of the progress made and the results obtained. I would like to pay tribute to my colleagues from both Chambers of the Congress, who have been the voice of local and regional authorities at European level throughout this period, while also thanking the successive Secretaries General and their fellow civil servants for their work: this has indeed been a collective enterprise, and without the commitment and joint work by the Congress members and its staff, what we have achieved would not have been possible.