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Opening speech of the 1st part of the Ordinary Session of 2019

Opening speech of the 1st part of the Ordinary Session of 2019
Strasbourg, Monday 21 January 2019

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

I thank you sincerely for renewing your confidence in me and re-electing me President of our Assembly. I appreciate your support all the more since this time you were able to choose in full knowledge of the facts and, if I may say so, on the basis of the evidence, having seen me at work over the last seven months. For my part, I have also been able over the last half year to better grasp the importance of the task which you assigned me and the need for me to devote all my energy to it. I will keep up my commitment here – with an unbroken desire to champion the values of the Council of Europe against a difficult background, without compromising but while always promoting dialogue.

As you know, the Council of Europe is turning 70 this year. Created out of the ashes of the Second World War, it is today the largest Pan-European organisation. This "success story" would not have been possible without a vital prerequisite: peace and reconciliation.

Promoting reconciliation and building democratic security in Europe has been, in my opinion, one of the greatest achievements of the Council of Europe in the past seventy years.

But, peace can never be taken for granted. Building peace is always "work in progress". This requires a constant effort by every single one of us.

"It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it". These words of Eleonore Roosevelt should guide our action.

Maintaining peace is one our key responsibilities and this is shared by all member states and Council of Europe bodies and institutions, including the Parliamentary Assembly. We all have a role here, both individually and collectively.

On an individual level, we all undertake as members of the Assembly to subscribe to the fundamental principles and objectives of the Council of Europe. These include the aim of the Council of Europe, as set out in the Statute, namely to achieve "a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress."

We therefore share a responsibility – with every word we say and every action we take as parliamentarians, as national delegations and as the Assembly or as members of the Committee of Ministers – to contribute to the success of the project that the Council of Europe champions.

A project that consists in building a Europe, united around the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Dear colleagues,

I will focus, respectively, on our ethical, institutional and political responsibilities.

First of all, I will look at the issue of our ethical responsibility. The unprecedented allegations of corruption among members of the Assembly have tarnished the Assembly's image and undermined our credibility. However, we took this issue extremely seriously and addressed the problem in a straightforward and transparent manner.

We have considerably strengthened our Rules to create safeguards against unethical behaviour. The Rules give authority to the Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs to investigate cases and take appropriate action, including sanctioning violations of our ethical framework.

It is in this context that the Rules Committee examined the cases of acting and former members of the Assembly whose names were mentioned in the report on the Independent External Investigation Body into the allegations of corruption in the Parliamentary Assembly. After careful examination, which included hearings with the persons concerned, the Committee took decisions on all cases and enacted sanctions where appropriate. The Rules Committee's decisions demonstrate the Assembly's determination to shoulder its ethical responsibilities.

That being said, we should not forget that although the allegations of corruption concerned the Parliamentary Assembly directly, the causes – and, possibly, motives – behind these practices are found at domestic level. Therefore, the responsibility to prevent corruptive practices and unethical behaviour is ultimately shared between the Assembly and the national authorities, in particular parliaments.

That is why, after the adoption of Resolution 2216(2018), we asked the Speakers of national parliaments to examine the report of the Independent External Investigation Body and to take appropriate actions at national level. I am glad that a number of parliaments – 20 to date – have replied and some have informed me of the actions taken. I look forward most eagerly to receiving more replies soon, which should help us to assess whether everything has been done to resolve the matter. Together we should continue to combat unethical behaviour and the cancer of corruption which destroys our institutions and our societies from within. I count on your support.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let us now turn to institutional responsibility. It is our duty to ensure that the Parliamentary Assembly continues to be a Pan-European parliamentary platform that fulfils its statutory responsibilities as an organ of the Council of Europe. A situation where one member State – the Russian Federation – is not represented in the Assembly but participates in other bodies of the Organisation is "counterproductive" – to use the words of one of our Resolutions – and "adversely affects [our] overall impact as a guardian of human rights and democracy throughout the continent". The future of the Organisation is at stake and it is therefore our responsibility to find a solution.

But let me first highlight two important points. Firstly, we should not forget about the origins of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves and the position the Assembly took in response to major political developments which went beyond what is permissible under international law. Secondly, we should not forget that all member states must honour their obligations, including financial ones. The Council of Europe cannot be held to ransom.

That being said, we must find a way forward. Rather than crystallising disagreements, our responsibility is to openly address them, in order to seek solutions together.

Firstly, we must continue political dialogue. The members of the Assembly as well as the members of the Russian Parliament who – regrettably, are not participating in our work for a fifth consecutive year – must fully contribute to this process. We should address the issue in a frank and open discussion, concentrating on practical solutions rather than emphasising disagreements. Above all, our dialogue should pursue the objective of safeguarding our Human Rights Convention System, in the interests of 830 million Europeans.

As you are aware, since my election, I have maintained political dialogue with the representatives of the Russian Parliament, including at the highest political level. In my view, this dialogue was useful for me as well as for my colleagues, the leaders of political groups. I believe that now we understand each other's positions better. Therefore, it is high time to shoulder our responsibilities and to put on the table concrete proposals leading to a solution. I count on everyone's constructive approach.

We must also address the institutional issues that emerged, in particular the need to strengthen relations between the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers. Here, too, we must continue a frank and open dialogue, respecting each other's prerogatives and roles and also respecting our specific features, but focusing on what unites us – the objectives of the Council of Europe defined by the Statute. It is our shared responsibility to strengthen our own institutional mechanisms, so as to be able to speak with one voice when the future of the Organisation is at stake.

I believe that we are on the right track and, in this context, let me commend the efforts of the Finnish Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. As you are aware, since the October 2018 part-session, we have held two meetings between the Presidential Committee and the Bureau of the Ministers' Deputies, with the participation of the Secretary General and of the Deputy Secretary General. This afternoon we will hold another meeting in this format, with the participation of the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, Mr Timo Soini. I look forward to continuing this fruitful dialogue.

Another institutional issue arose following the consultations launched by my predecessor – Mr Michele Nicoletti – within the framework of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Bureau, which emphasised the need to review the Assembly's own rules, in particular as regards the procedure for challenging the credentials of national delegations, and the extent to which the exercise of rights of representation and participation can be restricted.

We have taken some steps in this direction recently, notably by clarifying the issue of the right of participation of Assembly members in the elections of Council of Europe high officials. However, we must continue the process of revision of the Rules, in the interests of the good functioning of the Assembly. All Assembly members need to shoulder their responsibilities in this matter and participate constructively in this process.

Of course, I do not – and I cannot – predict the conclusions here: the Assembly is sovereign to decide on its own rules and procedures, within its statutory competence. But, we must clarify the situation as swiftly as possible, in order to move forward, as we have now devoted enough time to these issues without coming up with answers. I count, in particular, on the support of the Committee on the Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs in this respect.

Dear colleagues,

Let me now also address the issue of our political responsibility for safeguarding our system of values and standards, based on the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention system is facing many challenges, including major attacks against freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom of assembly, undemocratic and illiberal trends and the rise of nationalist and populist rhetoric, threats to the rule of law and challenges to the authority of the Strasbourg Court, to give but a few examples.

Unfortunately, these trends are likely to grow further during 2019. This is especially alarming because of important elections in several of our member states as well as the forthcoming European elections. As committed democrats, we must stand firmly to defend the values we share against populist and undemocratic temptations.

Equally – and this is also very important in the forthcoming electoral context – we should continue to champion the principle of equality between women and men. I often say that women are like oxygen: the higher you go, the less you find. This is especially true in politics.

As the champion of pluralism and non-discrimination, the Council of Europe must continue to promote gender equality with full resolve. Our Assembly is leading this process by ensuring a fair representation of women and men among the members of national delegations, at least in the same proportion as in national parliaments. Actually, statistics in the Assembly's progress report show that in many national delegations the proportion of women is higher than in national parliaments – a very positive development!

Therefore, although there is still a way to go towards ensuring a 50/50 representation, we are on the right track. Yet, we should do more to foster gender equality: we must ensure full gender balance in the appointment of rapporteurs, Committee chairpersons and vice-chairpersons as well as all Assembly officials. Here, too, statistics – which I invite you study – show that there is room for improvement.

At the same time, we must denounce sexist stereotypes which result in open and subtle discrimination, as well as harassment, intimidation and violence. There should be no place for such disgraceful and shameful behaviour in Parliaments, including in our Assembly, whether towards female parliamentarians or female staff members working for our Assembly.

I am proud and happy that our Assembly launched a hashtag initiative #NotInMyParliament to denounce sexism, harassment and violence against women in Parliaments. I am grateful to the many of you who participated in the launch of this initiative at the Standing Committee in Helsinki. Today, I invite you all to participate in the #NotInMyParliament event which will be held in this Chamber at 12.45 sharp. Moreover, I invite you to have your picture taken at the #NotInMyParliament lightbox installed in the lobby of the Chamber.

I hope that soon the #NotInMyParliament initiative will spread to other sectors – possible examples include hashtags like #NotInMyCity, #NotInMyUniversity, #NotInMyOffice. Together, we can launch a real social movement against sexist stereotypes and violence so as to raise awareness of this unacceptable phenomenon and to combat it with resolve and determination. There again, I count on your support!

Dear colleagues,

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I said, we have a challenging year ahead of us. But the difficulties we face should not discourage us. We should recall the courage and determination of the founders of the Council of Europe who – in the aftermath of the most devastating conflict in human history – committed themselves to promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the continent by adhering to the fundamental values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

It is also to pay tribute to their courage and efforts that we are determined to continue championing these values today. Together, we must stand up for our rights, our freedoms and OUR Europe.

Thank you very much for your attention.