Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me to address today this important forum, organised at a time when the question of migration is increasingly becoming a burning issue for our societies, both in countries of origin and destination.
This forum also gives us an opportunity to reaffirm and reinforce the spirit of Euro-Arab dialogue, which was launched way back in 1984, with the signing in Valencia, Spain, of the Agreement of Friendship and Cooperation between European and Arab Cities.
Our efforts to bridge Europe and the Mediterranean have been gaining momentum since then, including through the Council of Europe North-South Centre for Global Interdependence and Solidarity, which is one of the organisers of this event. I should also mention the establishment of the Euro-Med Parliamentary Assembly, the EMPA, modelled on the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly.
The Euro-Arab dialogue is also part of a special relationship established between European and Arab cities, which has been reaffirmed by the Euro-Arab Cities Forums in Marrakesh in 1988, Valencia, Spain, in 1994, and recently in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in February this year.
I am particularly pleased that this dialogue continues today in Tangier, Morocco, the country which was among the first to launch this process and which has been receiving increasing attention from the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, an elected assembly that I represent.
The Congress was instrumental in creating the National Association of Local Authorities of Morocco, with which we are now expecting to boost our cooperation. The question of cooperation with Morocco will be on the agenda of the Congress at its Plenary Session next month, with the expected participation of Omar Bahraoui, Mayor of Rabat and Chairman of the country’s Local Authorities Association.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The theme of this session is the role of local authorities in migration issues. It is clear that, despite its relatively recent appearance as a significant social question in some countries, migration is not a short-term, ephemeral or reversible phenomenon.
The twin factors of growing globalisation and demographic trends mean that we have reached a stage where no country will remain unaffected by this issue and the social transformation it entails.
Many former countries of emigration (such as Ireland) have now become countries of immigration– and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. That is why migration will remain a burning political question for the years to come – and not just on the international and national stage, but also for local and regional authorities which face the immediate consequences of this phenomenon.
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is actively involved in migration issues, working in tandem with the other elected body of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly. This is only natural because the question of the implementation of national policies, including on migration, rests on the shoulders of local and regional authorities within their territorial communities, where people actually live and work and where most immediate problems arise.
In view of the complexity of the issues at stake, the Congress has developed its activities in several priority fields: the first, which is of particular interest to us here today, is the integration and participation of people of immigrant origin in Europe’s towns, cities and regions.
In this respect, the Congress has promoted the implementation of the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level. This Convention opens the possibility of creating consultative bodies at local level elected by the foreign residents in the local authority area or appointed by individual associations of foreign residents. The Convention also provides for granting every foreign resident the right to vote in local elections after five years of lawful and habitual residence in the host country, as well as to stand for election.
However, an imaginative, proactive social integration policy is urgently needed at municipal level. Municipal policies must find ways and means to find work and accommodation for migrants – whilst side-stepping the hostility and potential racism their presence may provoke amongst the local population. Cities also need an institutional framework to share their experiences and best practices.
In this regard, you may have heard about the Network of Cities for Local Integration Policy (CLIP), launched by the Congress in September 2006. Its objective is to further the cause of social cohesion, and to improve the situation of migrants in Europe’s cities, and their effective and sustainable participation and integration at local level. We also expect this project to provide a portfolio/casebook of evaluated initiatives and guidelines for good practice and a database of integration policy at local level in Europe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today I am also here in my capacity as a member of the Committee of the Regions of the European Union, which is also very much concerned with migration issues. The Committee of the Regions believes that European States should act together on migration issues in a spirit of solidarity and mutual trust, based on a respect for human rights and European migration policy. It believes too that local and regional authorities are in the front line when it comes to migration policy, both with regard to the problems of illegal migration and to the services that local authorities supply to their residents.
Local and regional authorities have an important role in promoting cooperation and twinning programmes with their counterparts in the countries of origin. They also have an important acquis in the field of decentralised cooperation, which should be taken account of in the development of European migration policy. The Committee of the Regions calls on the European Commission to contribute to finding practical solutions to the questions of the management of Europe’s southern border and encourages local and regional actors to make full use of the funds available to them in this respect.
Just a few years ago, there was much talk of “Fortress Europe” and the need to defend Europeans from waves of migration. Then we woke up to the fact that our declining birth rates and growing life expectancy were leading to a dramatic shrinking of our working age populations and creating a heavy burden on our social welfare systems.
Suddenly we felt the need for a steady influx of migrants. We have also realised that our fellow Europeans will benefit best if, instead of closing in, Europe will stretch a helping hand and share its values and democratic experience with its neighbours in Asia and the southern Mediterranean.
The Council of Europe has been involved in the Euromed project since its inception and has launched other campaigns against intolerance, xenophobia and racism. All these aimed to dismantle borders which up to a few decades ago divided the two shores.
And this is where our cities come into play. Our cities have always been a tapestry of cultures, embroidered with cultural and commercial exchanges, examples of the co-existence of different ethnic and religious communities, enriching each other through shared experiences, discovering and getting to know each other as they rub shoulders within the city boundaries.
We would like to share our acquis in the field of local governance with our neighbours in the Arab world, and we invite you to become familiar with them and involved in applying them, and promoting values which they represent, on Arab soil. What we need today is to find a capacity for exchanges between European and Arab territorial communities living together in peace, a capacity for increasing their cooperation for development.
In this regard, and speaking also as a Maltese politician, I was pleased to hear the proposal of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to create a “Mediterranean Union” – a proposal which should inspire us to join our efforts to find a way of putting this idea into practice.
Some of the detail still needs to be worked out and discussed within the European institutions, but this idea has already kindled considerable interest throughout the Mediterranean area. It illustrates the growing conviction in Europe that European construction cannot be achieved without the Mediterranean, and the Arab world in a larger sense. The fact that my country is a stepping stone between two shores of the same sea only strengthens my conviction that this Union is possible and that it is something worth striving for.
I believe that we have a good opportunity today to express our support for this proposal and convey it to the French Presidency of the European Union.
For its part, the Euro-Med Parliamentary Assembly should react, in my view, by setting up a permanent structure for local authorities, an assembly which could be modelled on the Council of Europe Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and in which the Congress could represent the European part. I offer these ideas as food for thought, which could be further discussed at this forum, to which I wish every success.