Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)
European section of United Cities and Local Governments

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Governance and citizenship

CEMR's 70th anniversary - 14.01.2021

70 years blazing trails for local Europe
For individuals, 70 is an age of wisdom at the eve of life. For organisations, whose life expectancy is undetermined, it is also a moment to take stock of what has been achieved and draw the lessons of decades of work. This year, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) celebrates with its 70th anniversary seven decades of advocacy and partnership to empower local and regional Europe.

The founding: working for peace and democracy

The challenges of 1951, when our organisation was founded, were in many respects very different than those we face today. Europe had just experienced two world wars which countries had waged against one another with great ferocity. Fascism had been crushed in Italy and Germany, but dictatorships of left and right continued to rule with an iron fist in southern, central and eastern Europe.

The founders of the Council of European Municipalities (CEM) were then painfully aware that peace and democracy were precious but fragile goods in Europe. Unity among Europeans would not be achieved simply top-down through the actions of national governments. Rather, Europeans should collaborate across borders from the bottom-up, making their unity a day-to-day social reality. What’s more, municipal rights had to be established and protected, local civic life being the surest way of creating and promoting a culture of democracy as the bedrock of the rule of law.

That is why 56 mayors and local representatives from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland and the Netherlands came together in Geneva in 28 January 1951 to found the CEM. These pioneers had a wide range of backgrounds and experiences which informed their activism. They included the Swiss historian and expert on local government Adolf Gasser, the German-Jewish trade-unionist Alida De Jäger, the Italian federalist Umberto Serafini, the mayor of Lyon, Edouard Herriot, a senior politician who had also been a founder of the International Union of Local Authorities back in 1913 and the young mayor of Bordeaux, Jacques Chaban Delmas, also a hero of the French Resistance.

In fact, the principles which the founders of CEM affirmed in January 1951 have a surprising resonance even today. They declared that “mayors and elected members of local authorities, united across national frontiers by their responsibilities as administrators in direct contact with the people and with day-to-day realities, are the builders of a Europe that is free, united and respectful of diversity.” This message rings just as true in 2021 as it did in 1951.

We can see how the problems of 1951 continue to have relevance for us today. Serious political conflicts and even war are by no means banished from the European continent, as one can sadly see in Ukraine or in the Caucasus. Recently, some national governments appear to be tempted by “illiberal” democracy that smothers local autonomy, the influence of civil society and basic human freedoms. The local and regional movement in favour of peace, democracy and European cooperation remains as needed as ever.

The first steps: twinning and local autonomy

In the immediate, CEM’s most practical work was in the promotion of town twinning. National associations would relay municipalities’ requests and help them find a suitable partner. CEM also spread pedagogical materials on how to make twinning a political and social success. Twinned cities typically organise activities such as student exchanges, joint cultural and sporting events and the promotion of business ties, as well as more technical cooperation between municipal officials.

In the aftermath of the war, Édouard Herriot observed “everything pits States against each other, while everything unites municipalities.” And indeed, the twinnings of cities like Montbelliard, Ludwisgburg, Liège, Lille, Cologne and Turin – uniting citizens in nations that had just been enemies – were symbolically powerful and made for a sharp break. The number of twinning links in Europe began small but would experience exponential growth over the decades: two in 1951 to 100 in 1958, 2,000 in 1971 to 4,000 in 1979.[1] Today, it is estimated that there are over 20,000 twinnings in Europe.

A strong pillar of CEM’s activity has been constant advocacy in the defence of local democracy. Even in the early days of modern democracy in the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville had remarked: “The strength of free nations lies in the municipality.” This was because participation in local government enabled citizens to develop the practice and experience of civic life. Such a widely-shared and deeply-rooted civic culture provides a sound foundation for democracy.

The newly-founded CEM immediately set to work on the task of promoting local democracy, notably with the adoption of the European Charter of Municipal Liberties in Versailles in October 1953.[2] The document outlined the conditions for municipalities’ genuine administrative and financial self-government, and as a statement of shared values among CEM members.

As so often in European political life, steady advocacy over the years eventually brought tangible results. CEM’s 1953 Charter notably served as a basis for the Council of Europe’s 1985 European Charter of Local Self-Government.[3] The latter has since been ratified by 47 European states, committing them to respecting municipal rights, with regular oversight by international observers.

Putting the “R” in CEMR: advocacy and support for regions

Over the years, CEM broadened its membership beyond municipalities to also include regions and counties. In fact, the “R” in CEMR’s name was only added in 1984. This wider territorial focus would rapidly yield fruit. Indeed, CEMR has consistently advocated not only for political decentralisation but also a decentralised territorial approach to economic development. Europe’s economic prosperity and human capital should not be overly concentrated in a handful of territories.

Local and regional governments have also gained in political recognition over the years, notably in the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht and the creation of the Committee of the Regions as a consultative body to the European institutions on topics affecting local or regional interests. Furthermore, in many countries, regions have gained significant powers since the 1950s, notably in Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and Spain. There is a constant back and forth however between central, regional and local governments, and in some countries the economic crisis of the 2010s saw a recentralisation of powers. CEMR monitors developments in its publication Structures and Competences, updated every few of years.

The further development of the European Community had an increasing impact on local and regional governments. In 1975, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) was created to reduce economic disparities between territories, which had increased since the accession of Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. With the succession of new treaties, the European Union’s competencies have steadily extended to new areas, many of them affecting municipalities and regions. Local and regional government associations increasingly realised that they had to advocate their interests not only vis-à-vis their central government, but also towards the EU institutions.

During all these years, CEMR engaged in the discussions and shared the local perspective through face-to-face advocacy, publications and debates. At the celebration of CEMR’s 60th anniversary in 2011, then President Wolfgang Schuster presented his concept of ‘governing in partnership’ to Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who agreed that “we will succeed only if we all share a common vision and also a common direction. We need for that a real partnership.” CEMR also developed strong ties with  high-level members of the European Commission, such as Viviane Reding, Federica Mogherini, Günther Oettinger, Maroš Šefčovič or Frans Timmermans and the European Parliament, such as Vice President Rainer Wieland, President of the Urban Intergroup Jan Olbrycht and Vice President Sylvie Guillaume, to name a few.

In our position on the future of Europe, CEMR advocates the recognition of local and regional governments’ contribution to the European project, and requests that the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government shall be upheld and enforced in all European countries. Good and close collaboration with the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is therefore crucial.

Broadening our action: gender equality, climate and global action

Almost 40 years ago, CEMR began promoting equality between women and men in local life: in 1983, a first conference at the initiative of pioneer women politicians was organised in Pisa and the Standing Committee for Equality was created to tackle this issue. Together with our member associations and financial support from the European Commission, CEMR drafted the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life, which was launched in 2006 at our Congress in Innsbruck. Today, there are over 1,850 signatories in 36 countries, committing their municipalities to undertake concrete measures.

Thanks to financing provided by the Swedish government through the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR), we were able to establish an online European Observatory to monitor implementation of the Charter and provide useful information and resources. What's more, with the backing of the European Parliament, we also received EU funding to create a toolkit to support cities' efforts.Our study on Women in Politics, published in 2019, is the only one providing facts and figures about women’s representation at all levels of government in 41 European countries.

In 2013, CEMR’s Policy Committee approved a rule requiring at least 40% of seats for the under-represented sex in the Policy Committee and 30% in the Executive Bureau and the Financial Management Committee. The Rules of Procedure adopted in 2015 stipulate that CEMR must aim to ensure a balanced representation of women and men on its statutory bodies and all national delegations. Currently 65 women sit on CEMR’s Policy Committee, making up 47% of members, making de facto CEMR the only international organisation with parity of both genders in its leadership.

European cohesion policy is a major issue for many CEMR members as their territories may receive substantial funding, depending on their level of economic development. Therefore, the negotiations over the design and financing of the EU’s seven-year budget programmes are important for our advocacy work. To bolster our efforts, CEMR joined with other supporters of a strong regional policy to form the Cohesion Alliance, launched by the Committee of the Regions in 2018.

We are now putting pressure to ensure EU’s post-COVID recovery plan, “Next GenerationEU”, to support the local and regional governments and sectors most affected.  CEMR strongly supports the EU’s intention to invest in the green, digital and social transitions, aligned with common objectives such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate.

Another major area of activity is the climate change and energy transition. Already global temperatures have increased by around 2 degree centigrade since 1900 and the United Nations predicts a grim future for our planet if greenhouse gas emissions are not radically reduced. CEMR is one of the founding members of the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, launched by a coalition of networks of local and regional governments with the support of the European Commission in 2008, which aims to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 40% by 2030 and increase the use of renewable energy. In collaboration with our member associations, we promote the exchange of good practices, support the implementation of signatories’ commitments and coordinate contacts between different parties involved. As of today, the Covenant of Mayors has been endorsed by 10,000 municipalities across Europe and many of CEMR member associations.

As the saying goes, “think global, act local!” We have long known that the world’s common challenges also require local answers and for this municipalities and regions need representation at the global level. CEMR is the European section of our world organisation United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), contributing to strengthening local governments at global level and in particular at the United Nations.
We scored a major success back in 2008 when the European Commission recognised local governments as key actors in decentralised development cooperation, following the adoption of a Parliamentary report prepared by Pierre Schapira, Member of the European Parliament and Vice-Mayor of Paris. That same year PLATFORMA was launched, a coalition of towns, regions and their associations active in city-to-city and region-to-region development cooperation.

Together with the partners of the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments, CEMR brings the local perspective to international policy processes, particularly the climate agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and UN-Habitat (which deals with housing and sustainable urban development). Last but not least, CEMR is also collaborating with the OECD, notably on territorial, urban and rural development, and local finances.

CEMR: a growing and modern organisation

CEMR as an organisation has constantly changed with the times. Indeed, membership grew steadily and so did the Secretariat. Major physical changes of the office took place in 2007, when CEMR, together with many member associations with an office in Brussels, moved into the House of Cities, Municipalities and Regions at Square de Meeûs, just next the European Parliament. At the end of 2013, CEMR’s Paris office was closed and the official seat was transferred to Brussels. This happened during the mandate of Annemarie Jorritsma, the Mayor of Almere in the Netherlands, CEMR’s first and so far only woman President (2013-2015). In the following years, Frédéric Vallier, CEMR’s Secretary General since 2010, invested in CEMR’s capacity and the number of staff has almost doubled over the last ten years, also thanks to external funding, mainly from the EU. 

The past year has been dominated by the impact of COVID-19 on local and regional governments, but also on CEMR and the organisation of our work. The COVID Task Force that we established was joined with colleagues from 34 member associations – a record demonstrating the interest and willingness of members to share information and experience. In general, the fact that physical meetings were replaced by virtual ones increased the number of participants in meetings and events. CEMR will continue this practice, which also allows us to reduce the carbon footprint, time and expenses of travel.
Aiming to always stay at the forefront of local needs and expectations for the next decade, CEMR has drafted a multi-annual Strategy for the years 2020-2030, outlining how our organisation will be a driver of change, contributing to the paradigm shift for European governance and calling for local and regional governments to play a crucial role in public policies at national, European and international level. The thematic priorities are presented around four ‘Ps’: People, Partnership, Places, Planet, and are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Strategy also plans for a greater focus on communication and improved management and sharing of knowledge. An internal restructuring of the Secretariat is also coming into effect as of January 2021, notably with a reorganisation of multidisciplinary teams around thematic areas.

Paving the way for the future

The celebration of our 70th anniversary 28 January and throughout the year 2021, is an ideal opportunity to reflect together on our past achievements and on the future world of dizzyingly-fast social and technological changes. In the EU, the Conference on the Future of Europe will soon be launched and be an opportunity for citizens to share their views on the shape of the Union. CEMR as a pan-European organisation will make sure that all our members will be served in their needs and interests, be it through advocacy or knowledge sharing.

While European and global politics today are often marked by political polarisation and division, we should also consider the progress made since 1951, when the situation was grim indeed. Do we dare to be hopeful for 2051? There certainly seem to be profound opportunities for civic activism and social change. Beyond institutions, this will depend on the young. A parting word from the recently departed Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who also served as President of CEMR between 1997 and 2003, seems appropriate. In his last message to CEMR, the late President exhorted young people to take action: “Today, power is there for the taking! This is to be understood in the noble sense of the word, not to infringe on the freedom of others. It is the power to act, to bring on the future and to organise it.

[1] Axelle Bergeret-Cassagne, Pour une Europe fédérale des collectivités locales: Un demi-siècle de militantisme du Conseil des Communes et des Région d’Europe, 1950-1999 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2009), pp. 91, 99.
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