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Opening speech by the President of the Assembly at the 3rd part of the 2009 Assembly’s Session

Opening speech by the President of the Assembly at the 3rd part of the 2009 Assembly's Session
Monday, 22 June 2009

Distinguished members, dear friends,

I am pleased to welcome you to Strasbourg for what will be a very busy part-session.

One of the greatest successes of the Council of Europe is having brought all the countries of Europe together under one roof. However, this reason for content is always overshadowed by the fact that the sentence never ends there, since the single, regrettable exception of Belarus always has to be added. There are good reasons for this situation, since we, as a community of values, cannot make an exception from the standards and ideals that unite us. So far, Belarus had not made sufficient efforts to bring itself into line with our Organisation. However, this week we will be asking ourselves whether our own efforts have been enough. Is it not the very raison d'être of our Organisation to seek to give a foothold to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in places where they are lacking? Does our greatest strength not lie in our ability to overcome reluctance and to open up new horizons?

Let us therefore hope that, tomorrow, this Assembly will adopt a resolution calling for the restoration of the Belarus parliament's special guest status. It is merely a first step and it will be accompanied by very strict conditions, even before a second step can be envisaged. However, it is a way of reaching out to the authorities and also to the opposition, both of which will have the opportunity to participate in our work. I dare to express my optimism that this opening up will bear fruit.

This Friday our Assembly should adopt a resolution creating a new status - "partner for democracy" - for some of the Council of Europe's neighbouring states. In addition to the parliaments granted observer status, we already have excellent relations with the parliaments of Algeria, Kazakhstan, Morocco and Tunisia and with the Palestinian Legislative Council. It was high time to place these relations on a formal footing so as to give them a clear framework and even greater substance. Moreover, in recent months I have made official visits to the three Maghreb countries - to Morocco in February, Algeria in May and Tunisia in early June - and I can assure you that there is a huge interest in this new status. I am therefore certain that many countries will become our "partners for democracy". With the members of the Presidential Committee, I have also just participated in the most recent session of the Venice Commission, at which I was able to see how much countries all around the world are interested in benefiting from our know-how in the fields of democracy and human rights.

Some people might ask whether the Council of Europe's long-term ambition is to continue its enlargement, even if that means a change of name. I would say not: in its structure and field of action our Organisation will remain focused on Europe. However, I believe that is not the real issue. I think we do not always sufficiently realise the extent to which the legal standards and the democratic culture our Organisation has developed are a benchmark for the rest of the international community. For the Council of Europe, the notion of Europe should not just be a geographical one but should correspond to a democratic quality label.

Paradoxically, where this democratic quality is lacking, there is a demand for more Europe, whereas where Europe is a political reality, endowed with its own institutions, there is a tendency to disregard it. Let us consider the examples of Armenia, a country with which we will be concerning ourselves during this part-session, or Moldova, whose post-electoral situation, which is simultaneously a pre-electoral one on account of the new early elections, is also causing us concern. In both cases these countries are suffering from a political situation which fails fully to satisfy our standards and values, and these shortcomings have given rise to elections marred by violence. The opponents who have taken to the streets, in some cases risking their lives, have called for these countries to move closer to Europe.

At the same time, the recent elections to the European Parliament were marked by record absenteeism, a sign of indifference and resignation. This is a fertile breeding ground for populist and far-right parties propounding nationalism and xenophobia.

This shows us how much more we still have to do - together - to make European reality correspond to the European ideal. I moreover intend to contact the new European Parliament and the new European Commission as soon as possible, and I will do everything I can to reinforce the good co-operation we enjoyed with the outgoing EU institutions.

Our precious assets are all the more valuable in a period of crisis, in a world where Holocaust deniers are seeking to build their own weapons of mass destruction, where global warming deniers are hastening the process with their pollution, where those who ruin ordinary people with absurd financial schemes pay themselves salaries sufficient to feed entire populations.

Dear friends,

So far I have spoken to you about Europe as a value and an ideal for others. However, the time has come to consider what this value and this ideal also mean for us, for we members of the Council of Europe. This should be done by looking back at and drawing strength from the sixty years of our Organisation's existence, but also and above all by looking ahead and striving to guarantee a dignified future for the Council of Europe and its 800 million citizens. In recent months it is in the context of the discussions on the election of the future Secretary General of the Council of Europe that this forward-looking element has come into focus. The post of Secretary General is a key position which we all believe should be held by a strong personality whose political vision is on a par with the challenges confronting our societies and our Organisation and who has the personal capabilities to act on that vision.

As you know, during the selection process some significant differences emerged between the two statutory organs of the Council of Europe - the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly. Some people perceived this as a partisan dispute in which each side defended its own collective interests. I deplore this view of the situation and above all the fact that some people may have taken this "self-interest" attitude.

The real question that concerns us is that of our own moral conscience - if we wish to be the moral conscience of Europe and of our own democratic functioning, if we wish to be a democratic reference for Europe.

The Council of Europe was set up along the lines of a real democratic society, with three branches of power - an executive, a legislature and a judiciary - each having its own powers and responsibilities and acting independently. It cannot be said that the Council of Europe is purely an intergovernmental organisation; it is also interparliamentary and has its own supranational court, which is unique world-wide.

The Parliamentary Assembly, although devoid of the legislative powers enjoyed by national parliaments, is the emanation of the will of a people. It is also unique in so far as it represents the national parliaments but at the same time gives expression to a form of collective consciousness going beyond national differences and ideological allegiances. What could better express this collective consciousness than the fact that the Resolution we issued in April on the election process for the Secretary General and the joint stance taken by the Standing Committee in Ljubljana were adopted virtually unanimously, with no distinction as to nationality or political group?

I will not go into details of the points of disagreement with the Committee of Ministers. I would prefer to bring to the fore that which unites us: the desire to choose the best candidate; the desire that he or she be elected with the greatest possible political support; the desire to safeguard and enhance dialogue within the Organisation, the desire to preserve and reinforce our own means of democratic functioning.

The Assembly's objection to the election procedure applied is therefore based on principles and values, not, as some people have implied, on preferences regarding candidates. The Assembly observes elections in many of its member states to ensure that they meet democratic standards. It was therefore very concerned to see the application, during the selection process within the Committee of Ministers, of a procedure which it regarded as irregular for non-compliance with essential standards. The elements to which the parliamentarians objected can be summed up as follows:

- the rules were changed during the election process, by adding new criteria;

- the so-called "Juncker" criteria were applied subjectively so as to exclude candidates;

- candidates were shortlisted before the mandatory consultation of the Assembly, provided for under the procedure;

- no explanations were given as to the reasons for selecting certain candidates and rejecting others;

- the parliamentarians were faced with a non-choice in political terms, since the two remaining candidates are of the same political tendency.

The Assembly accordingly regards this as a failure to follow procedure, which is as much a legal problem as an ethical and moral issue. Furthermore, all of the Assembly's requests that the procedure be revised - whether in the resolution passed in April or the statement adopted in Ljubljana - were rejected by the Committee of Ministers.

I assure you that no one in the Assembly wants an institutional crisis, quite the contrary. But we were faced with a very great dilemma: not immediately electing a new Secretary General or accepting an election procedure that is incompatible with our principles and values. Accordingly, from the outset the Assembly, and I myself as President, sought to solve the difficulties with a concern for dialogue and mutual respect. I think that this attitude has brought results. I wish to praise the action of two successive Chairmen of the Committee of Ministers, the Spanish Chairman - Miguel Angel Moratinos - and the current Slovenian Chairman, Samuel Zbogar, who have initiated a genuine dialogue with the Assembly. During the April part-session Mr Moratinos held a lengthy discussion with the Presidential Committee; then, on the occasion of the Standing Committee's meeting in Ljubljana, Mr Zbogar answered all the Assembly members' questions and listened carefully to everything we had to say during the current affairs debate on the process of electing the Secretary General. He then arranged a meeting between the Bureau of the Committee of Ministers and the Presidential Committee of the Assembly in Brussels on 18 June, at which the atmosphere was constructive. However, the differences subsist.

Dear friends,

It is now for us to decide how to solve the issue of the Secretary General's election. I am convinced that we will assume this duty with the sense of responsibility and concern for the future of the Council of Europe that have guided us so far. The Assembly's attitude will always be to seek dialogue, co-operation and agreement. Every problem has a solution: we have many constructive proposals to make and we hope that our offer will be taken up.

Thank you.