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Interview with the new Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

Mathieu Mori has just been elected as the new Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe for a five-year term of office. Secretary General of the Assembly of European Regions and then Director of the Interreg North-West Europe transnational cooperation programme, local and regional governments have been crucial to him all throughout his career.

Mr Mori, next January you will begin your mandate as Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe. In a few words, what are the priorities of your mandate?

The Congress is an institution helping the 46 Council of Europe’s member States implement local and regional democracy in line with the European Charter of Local Self-Government*. This is the Congress’ statutory mission and to achieve this mission effectively, the Congress needs to cooperate with the Member States. Developing a constructive institutional relationship between the Congress and the Committee of Ministers is therefore a priority for the Congress. Furthering institutional relationships generally, including with the Parliamentary Assembly and the European Union institutions, will be an important objective.

Furthermore, the Congress is only going to grow stronger with the backing of its members. I will strive to increase the ownership of the Congress by its members, making sure all members know how they can best contribute to the Congress’ work and what they can bring back to their citizens from their involvement with the Congress.

Finally, I will want to promote the role of young people in the work of the Congress. With its youth delegates who contribute actively to its political work, the Congress is already doing well and I want to make sure the Congress remains a leading organisation when it comes to youth engagement.

*This international convention lays down standards for protecting the rights of local authorities and requires the 46 member states of the Council of Europe – which have all ratified it – to comply with a number of principles.

Based on your personal experience with local governments, what do you think are the main democratic advances that have been made as a result of the recommendations of the congressional monitoring?

The Congress has indeed a strong and documented track record in helping Council of Europe member States implement local and regional democracy thanks to its monitoring and election observation missions.

The recommendations that follow these missions have helped many Member States foster reforms, enhance intermunicipal co-operation or strengthen mechanisms of citizens’ participation in public decision-making. 

Among major concrete achievements, we could mention:

– The activation of the role played by associations of sub-national authorities to promote and defend local self-government interests in several member States (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Portugal, Switzerland, Iceland, Georgia, Lithuania and Poland);

– The introduction of a variety of legal instruments to promote citizens’ participation in local public affairs (Switzerland, Iceland, Georgia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Liechtenstein);

– The ratification by more and more States of the Additional Protocol to the European Charter of Local Self-Government on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority. In September 2022, Portugal ratified this Additional Protocol;

– The recent decision by the Scottish Parliament to incorporate the Charter into Scottish domestic law;

– A decentralization strategy in Bulgaria devolving more powers to the local level while increasing municipal resources.

– The introduction of direct election of mayors in Georgia. 

On the other hand, do you see a “democratic backsliding” in a particular area or a danger for Europe?

Democracy can never be taken for granted, at national or local level. In no country can it be considered as completely achieved, and even less so in times of crises.

This is why the Congress monitors the application of the Charter in the 46 Council of Europe Member States on a regular basis.

What we see is a trend towards recentralisation in many countries. This recentralisation has taken many different forms, ranging from the refusal of some courts to apply the Charter directly, to governments’ limiting local authorities’ financial autonomy. 

Overall, the lack of consultation, inadequate distribution of competences and financial resources and excessive supervision have been identified as recurring issues that affect most of the monitored states. This leads either directly or indirectly to democratic backsliding at local and regional level.

In addition, the Congress also warns that many elected representatives have experienced at least some degree of harassment and threats of violence. Threats and attacks against local government representatives have been regularly raised during the Congress series of debates “Mayors under pressure” and received detailed coverage in the recent Congress report on the impact of hate speech and fake news on working conditions of local and regional elected representatives. This situation even leads to the lack of candidates to local and regional elected positions.

The Congress raises awareness on these issues among member States and helps find solutions.

COVID, Ukraine, the energy crisis and climate change… Europe is going through many crises. Faced with this bleak picture, how can communities sustainably strengthen their capacity to deal with these recurring crises?

Indeed, Europe is going through a multitude of crises and European local and regional authorities are at the frontline in tackling them. As seen during the Covid pandemic, the initial reaction of many governments when faced by crisis is to recentralise finances and competences given to the local level of government. This has put the exercise of local democracy under unprecedented pressure and constraints.

Yet, those European countries which did not recentralise did very well in tackling the crisis effectively, proving that multi-level governance systems do not hinder responses to crisis situations.

On the contrary, they increase the quality of decisions and allow greater flexibility in coping with emergencies as they are better suited to providing solutions tailored to specific needs. The effectiveness of response depends indeed on the right balance and interaction between centralised and decentralised capacities that must be present within the system.

The pandemic has revealed the need for a stronger system of multi-level governance in which every level – in particular local and regional – is equipped with proper competences, means and resources to respond to the emergency situation.

The Congress will therefore continue to accompany the Council of Europe Member States in implementing the Charter. 

While Ukrainian local elected officials are fully committed to their populations who are dramatically suffering from the conflict caused by the Russian aggression, how does the Congress envisage its support for Ukrainian communities in the long term?

The Congress has, from the very start, condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the Council of Europe decided to expel Russia from the institution altogether. 

The Congress was also keen to facilitate concrete solidarity between local and regional authorities towards their Ukrainian counterparts by supporting the Cities4Cities platform. This online exchange tool allows local and regional authorities in Ukraine and in the rest of Europe to share their needs and offers related to local infrastructure or humanitarian aid.

What I can share from my visit to Ukraine on the occasion of their Independence Day last August is that the decentralisation process launched in 2014 under the auspices of the Congress has been key in ensuring cities and regions had the means to react to the initial consequences of the war. The martial laws in place today have recentralised the power. 

The Ukrainian local and regional authorities expect the Congress to be at their side after the war to make sure their powers are given back to them and to finalise the path to decentralisation started in 2014. 

Ukraine is also expecting the Congress to help it reach better local democracy to facilitate the country’s accession to the European Union.

Ukraine can count on the continuing support of the Congress on all these aspects.

All over Europe, cities and local authorities are involved in cooperation beyond their borders. What is the added value of this type of cooperation as opposed to that established between states?

This type of cooperation is not in opposition to the State-led cooperation but complements it. Local and regional authorities know best the hurdles they must overcome to implement effective policies and are therefore better placed to cooperate with their counterparts in other countries. 

The Congress has developed co-operation activities which provide a link between the recommendations and resolutions adopted by the Congress members and the situation on the ground.

In line with its mission and thematic priorities the Congress focuses its co-operation activities on :

– Empowering local and regional authorities and their associations

– Building the capacities of local and regional elected representatives as agents of change

– Making young people aware of the principles of local democracy and engaging them at the local level

– Learning by doing through involvement in local initiatives to improve the quality of local democracy 

By focusing on co-operation activities where the Congress has the strongest added value we make sure we do not duplicate work undertaken by other parts of the Council of Europe or by territorial organisations.

You are very familiar with local and regional government associations, such as the AER or CEMR. In what areas do you think the associations and the Congress should strengthen their collaboration?

AER and CEMR are important strategic partners of the Congress, with common values and principles. They are both “statutory partners” of the Congress and can participate in its sessions and committee meetings. Our regular exchanges allow us to complement our respective work, for example to support Ukraine, or for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda, or promoting new forms of citizens’ democratic engagement such as through deliberative democracy models, and by improving youth participation. A particular focus of the Congress co-operation with CEMR is also on strengthening the role of national associations of local and regional authorities in member States as fully-fledged partners of national authorities in the governance system.

In addition, as European networks of local and regional authorities, we can together contribute to defending and promoting multilevel governance. The Congress has a unique expertise in the local and regional implementation of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The Congress could bring this added value to joint projects with AER and CEMR while the latter would enable more villages, cities and regions to know about the Congress work and benefit from its know-how. 

I am looking forward to furthering the good cooperation between the Congress and all territorial associations and implementing concrete partnerships for change.