Saturday, 22 October 2016

Congress of Local Authorities at the Council of Europe

I've been appointed as one of 18 UK local authority or regional assembly members to serve on the Congress of  Local Authorities at the Council of Europe for the next 4 years.

For those not in the know the Council of Europe was established by Winston Churchill after World War II to foster good relations between Europe's member states.  He first called for the creation of a body like the Council of Europe in 1943.   This led to the Council of Europe being established by the Treaty of London in 1949.  Initially there were 10 signatories to the treaty.  Now 47 countries are 'signed up to' the Council of Europe   The Council of Europe is both older and wider than the EU which only has 27 member states (if you don't count the UK).

Bust of Winston Churchill at the Council of Europe
For those of us old enough to remember the Cold War and the battles that were had with the Eastern Bloc over Human Rights - they were largely 'fought' in the context of the Council of Europe and wider international diplomacy.

Over the years the member states of the Council of Europe have signed over 220 treaties between them covering all manner of things from terrorism, to animal welfare.  However most fundamentally they are about embedding democracy, the rule of law and human rights within the 47 member states.  The Council of Europe works largely by consensus, by persuasion, and by pointing out or establishing 'facts.'

Within the scope of the Council of Europe are a number of institutions such as the:
Council of Ministers
Parliamentary Assembly
Congress of Local and Regional Authorities
Court of Human Rights
I found attendance at the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities both very humbling and very interesting.

The Council of Europe is one of the few places outside the UN where delegates from all Europe's countries can meet each other.  As we all know there are too many places in Europe where there are tensions.
Map of the 47 countries - note Belarus is not a member.
I witnessed several 'encounters' between the Russian and Ukrainian delegates and there were several in depth discussions about the situation in Turkey.

For many of the new and emerging democracies of Europe the Council of Europe and its standards are seen as the benchmark against which they need to develop their democracies.  It was also very interesting both to see how other 'good Europeans' embraced everything and how far behind the UK some countries are - and that includes some of the founder members of the EU such as with regard to gender equality at a political representation level.

The representatives to the Congress of Local Authorities are meant to reflect each countries diversity - with particular focus on political representation and no worse than a 70:30 split between the genders.  However looking around the Chamber I was very conscious that it looked like the UK was leading the way in terms of minority diversity.

As a citizen of the United Kingdom though, and someone committed to greater partnership working across Europe it dawned on me increasingly whilst I was there that we don't see and understand 'Europe' in the same way as our continental friends.   We think differently to them.  Our constitutional background, our approach to fundamentals such as democracy and human rights is different.   Most crucially of all - we have no written constitution.

Also, with some exceptions such as the European Convention on Human Rights few of the Treaties signed over the years by the UK can be used as the basis for court challenges in the UK.   For us Parliament is Sovereign.  We all look to Parliament for our laws and ultimately to safeguard our democratic values.  Other European States look to their written constitutions and the various international treaties and conventions for their norms and values.

However whilst we differ in our approach we do appear to be marching along a similar path - looking to deepen and broaden democratic values and principles.

Does it matter if our approach is different if we reach the same goal?  As a pragmatic Brit I would say 'no' - however the Council of Europe experts don't like what they see as the UK's 'exceptionalism.'  They have assessed the UK's compliance with the European Social Charter unfavourably and on a par, in parts, with Turkey and Ukraine.  I had an 'exchange of views' with a Spanish Law Professor on this assessment and pointed out that 3.6 million EU citizens had come to the UK to live and work because of our liberal labour market and not because of our weather!

A number of delegates from other countries came up to me afterwards and indicated their agreement with my approach.

I spoke in 3 other debates.  Two related to gender – first with regard to gender equality at all levels of politics and another on ‘gender budgeting.’

The Council of Europe wants all European countries to have at least 40% female representation at all political levels.  Many European countries are no where near that level.  Having heard an inspirational speech from Mayor from an Austrian town of around 12,000 people  - who happened to be a young woman - I was able to interject that in the UK some 31% of councillors are female.  At CWaC 37% of councillors are female and both the leaders and deputy leaders of the ruling and opposition groups are female as is the leader of Cheshire East.  In 2011 when I became Mayor of Frodsham we had, and that council still has, a gender balanced council.  I am not personally in favour of quotas – but I did suggest that those institutions that haven't achieved reasonable representational levels should account to their communities as to why that hadn’t happened.

We also had a debate on ‘gender budgeting.’ My first reaction to the title of the debate was one of incredulity – and this was not helped when one delegate suggested that spending on motorways was  masculine and spending on pavements was feminine.  However on reading the papers it became clear that ‘Gender Budgeting’ was Euro-speak for making sure that public sector budgets reached and assisted everyone.   I was therefore able to support the principle – and pointed out that any public sector budget and spending that did not deliver for all its citizens was inherently defective.  I went further in my remarks and pointed out that public sector budgeting had to consider not only gender but also had to consider all the disadvantaged and minorities.  The rapporteur agreed with me.

The other debate I spoke in was about Turkey and in particular the removal of elected Mayors by the national government.  This process had started before the coup and has continued after it.

I spoke in support of the Turkish people and made the fundamental points about the need for the respect for the rule of law and human rights.  I went on to say that when democracy is under threat the answer to that threat is more democracy and not less democracy.

When the UK leaves the EU the Council of Europe will be one of our main points of contact with other European countries.