Opening Address by Andreas Christou, Mayor of Limassol at the Forum for the Future of Democracy, (Limassol, Cyprus, 13 October 2011)
The Interdependence of Democracy and Social Cohesion: strengthening representation and democratic participation through public dialogue and civic engagement.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am pleased to welcome you to Limassol and it is an honour for me to open this conference on behalf of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. At this time - when democracy is spreading across the southern Mediterranean - the question of the interdependency of democracy and social cohesion has never been more relevant.
Social cohesion is the glue that holds democratic societies together. In Europe today, this glue is being diluted and weakened by the uncertainty that our citizens feel about the financial situation at the European level, the national level but also the local and regional level where the financial austerity measures are actually felt the most – citizens are feeling the impact through the cuts to their public services.
The importance which the Congress attaches to this issue comes as no surprise. It is clear that in a society as a whole, attitudes and practices fostering social cohesion must begin in local and regional communities, in our cities and our regions.
I am talking about promotion of equality, access to social rights, intercultural and interreligious dialogue within and between communities, integration of migrants and other foreign residents, eradication of discrimination and governance through partnership and dialogue - all these issues are factors in achieving the overall goal of social cohesion, and many of them are on the political agenda of the Congress.
It is my belief that the current financial uncertainty, across Europe and the world, has contributed to a crisis of confidence in the democratic process and is increasing the fragmentation of society. The recent riots in England, as well as the demonstrations across Europe show that citizens believe their voices are not being heard by their elected representatives. I hope that this Forum will debate this crisis of confidence and will give concrete conclusions on what can be done to halt and reverse it.
The Congress is contributing to the debate on social cohesion and democracy. The 21st session of Congress - which will be held in Strasbourg next week - has the special theme of living together in dignity. At this session we will examine ways to increase citizen participation and foster education for democratic citizenship, and will adopt relevant recommendations and resolutions. We will be debating the new forms of citizen activism and urban violence as well as the situation of Roma as a challenge for local and regional authorities. These are all priority topics in Europe today, and the Congress is taking steps to address them at the local and regional level.
Our most recent action in this regard was the Summit of Mayors on Roma in Strasbourg on 22 September, in response to the worsening situation of the Roma population in Europe and the need to mobilise local and regional action to improve it. The Summit provided an opportunity for local and regional elected representatives, institutional partners, Roma organizations and other civil society partners to meet face to face to discuss the current problems and possible solutions. The participating municipalities and regions pledged to establish a European Alliance of Cities and Regions for Roma Inclusion and set up a core group to build this new Alliance.
Another social cohesion topic which the Congress believes is a priority issue in Europe is inter-faith and intercultural tensions. In March this year we held a debate on this issue and adopted a resolution and recommendation on how local authorities can meet these challenges. In this regard, the Congress continues to provide its support to the European Network of Cities for Local Integration Policy, known as the CLIP network, which was launched in 2006 and which is working closely with the Intercultural Cities programme, another municipal network, to monitor manifestations of discrimination, racism and xenophobia.
Moreover, we have also recently adopted a resolution on the integration of young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Indeed, we have observed than the transition to adult life is a very unequal process for young people. In this resolution, we have notably invited local authorities to provide accessible and meaningful opportunities for disadvantages youth and to promote their social integration. As a follow-up, the Congress is co-operating with the Directorate of Youth and Sport on the ENTER! Project to prepare a recommendation to governments on access to social rights for these young people.
Finally, the Congress is a strategic actor of a global process initiated by the Council of Europe. We extend the action of the Council of Europe at the local level, as a part of a transversal approach. For example, following the creation of the methodological Guide to the Concerted Development of Social Cohesion Indicators by the Directorate General of the Council of Europe, the Congress in partnership with the city authorities in Mulhouse, has developed concerted social cohesion indicators, in order to examine how local and regional authorities could implement in practice the principles contained in the guide. This partnership permitted many practical recommendations for local authorities.
To sum up, I would say all of the themes and various aspects of social cohesion which will be discussed over these two days are of direct importance to local and regional authorities and for the Congress.
I would like also to stress once again that the crucial role of local and regional authorities in creating social cohesion must be taken on board in the drafting of national policies and local budgets.
I strongly hope this conference, which I wish every success, will give due account to the local and regional dimension of our efforts to improve the lives of the population of Europe through creating a more cohesive and democratic society which listens to their voices.