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Opening speech of the 1st part of the Ordinary Session of 2018

Opening speech of the 1st part of the Ordinary Session of 2018
Strasbourg, Monday 22 January 2018

Original version in Italian

Dear colleagues,


Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Deputy Secretary General, Secretary General of the Assembly,

It is a very great honour for me to take on the Presidency of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at this time and I would like first and foremost to thank the political groups – including in particular my own group – which, based on the agreement on the rotation of the Presidency, have placed their trust in me. I would also like to thank all members of the Assembly who have endorsed this agreement and whose consent has made my appointment possible.

It is very clear to me that, in a democracy, all power flows from the free consent of the members of a community: they may grant or withdraw such power and anyone exercising democratic power knows that it has been assigned only temporarily. This power is not owned, but is derived from others, and the person exercising it remains accountable to others. Democracy defines not only a model for granting power, but also a model for exercising power, which is characterised by accountability and responsiveness.

These values of accountability and responsiveness were embodied by my predecessor, Stella Kyriakides, whom I would like to thank for the discretion, wisdom and balance she brought to the Presidency. She exercised her role with a great sense of the dignity of the institution, creating an atmosphere of calm and sincere co-operation during challenging times within the life of this institution.

Finally, I must thank my own country, Italy, and my fellow citizens who, in electing me to Parliament, have enabled me to work intensely within the Italian Chamber of Deputies and our own Assembly. I would like to think that the Council of Europe is here not only because of the wishes of the governments that concluded the Treaty, but it also exists as a result of the wishes of citizens, their resources and the mandate granted by them. Within a democracy, everything can be traced back to the concept of the sovereignty of its citizens and to the fact that representatives are their "trustees and servants", in the words of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

This is the second time that an Italian has held this important position. The first was President Giuseppe Vedovato, who served from 1972 to 1975. Both a scholar of international law and an adept politician, he chaired the Assembly during the highly delicate period marked by the dictatorship and subsequent fall of the Greek colonels' regime.  However, alongside Giuseppe Vedovato, in taking up this appointment I cannot overlook two other great advocates of Europe: Alcide De Gasperi, from my own region of Trentino Alto-Adige, and Altiero Spinelli. Both developed their ideal of a united Europe in fascist prison cells. Having experienced the loss of their own personal freedom, they understood that respect for the dignity of each individual, fundamental freedoms and justice are put at risk when nationalism prevails and will best be guaranteed in a European context, where fundamental rights are backed up by the supreme guarantee of a supranational court.

Dear colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In times of difficulty it must always be remembered that the great conquests of European civilisation represent the fruits of past struggle and sacrifice. There is not one single article in our Convention, or indeed in our democratic constitutions, that is not the result of struggles by men, women, workers and minorities of all persuasions, who by their efforts, their commitment, and their very lives have fought for their rights and defended their ideals. Nothing has been given away for free, and everything that has been achieved has been hard-fought. Spinelli said that "Europe does not fall from the sky", and the same is true for freedom, democracy and human rights. And so if we think of the extraordinary hopes and energy that emerged during much more difficult times and how on the ruins of an era of slavery we were able to build an era of freedom, when confronted with the difficulties of today we must not lose heart and give in to pessimism.

Our European anthem is the Ode to Joy. Not everybody knows it, but the European anthem, the Ode to Joy from the fourth movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony, was proposed as "an anthem for the Europe we are building" by our Assembly in 1971. The same is true for the twelve-star European flag, which symbolises European unity worldwide and is also used as the European Union's emblem: this was designed at the Council of Europe, upon the Assembly's proposal, and introduced following a vote by the Assembly and a decision by the Committee of Ministers in 1955.  We can be proud of how much we have created that has met with success!

And yet the Ode to Joy starts with the words "Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" – "O friends, no more of these sounds!" – or in other words: let's cast aside the sounds of lamentation and rediscover the will to build.

Over the course of 2017, the Assembly forcefully stressed in the resolution on the 4th Summit the need to reinforce the unity of the Council of Europe as the only European institution that brings together 47 countries around the values of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and acceptance of its European Court, placing at the heart of our continent's life the principles laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter.

At a time of great and dramatic challenges – from terrorism to migration, from poverty old and new to mistrust in representative institutions, from the re-emergence of racism and xenophobia to the desperate solitude of so many people – we must offer a response to nationalist and chauvinistic temptations to close ranks, to centrifugal pressures and to conflicts by reasserting the need for peace and justice on our continent.

As a Pan-European political forum and a Statutory Body of our Organisation, our Assembly should play fully its role in addressing these challenges. This requires an active involvement of all members and delegations from all 47 member states. In this context, I regret that the Russian Parliament did not put forward a delegation for the 2018 ordinary session. Nevertheless, dialogue with Russian Parliamentarians – as well as with all other delegations – continues, with due respect to our rules and obligations.

Dear colleagues,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Last year, our Assembly made a clear political call for a 4th Summit of Heads of State and Government in order to reassert on the highest level the member states' commitment to ensuring that the Council of Europe can be the "shared home" of all, respecting the equal dignity, integrity and freedom of each member, along with the undertaking by all to remain true to the European Convention on Human Rights along with all the other conventions and to contribute faithfully to the life of the institution.

Let me quote Assembly Resolution 2186 (2017):

"As part of the preparatory work for the Summit, the Assembly resolves to continue its own reflection on its identity, role and mission as a statutory organ of the Council of Europe and a pan-European forum for inter-parliamentary dialogue which aims at having an impact in all Council of Europe member states. This reflection would also enable the Assembly to provide its own vision of the future of the Organisation".

This reflection on our identity, which the Assembly will decide how to develop, appears to me to represent an extraordinary opportunity for our institution to reassert forcefully its own role as the guardian of European unity. I strongly believe all member states of the Council of Europe must participate in this process.

In performing this task, we must not cease openly denouncing any violation of human rights committed in any part of our continent and by any authority. There cannot and must not be any free zones. However, this defence of human rights will be even stronger if we are able to combine it with an ever increasing unity between our peoples.

We must tirelessly seek to emphasise what unites us.

And in so doing, we can draw support from the cultural and social dimension of our lives.

Respect for human dignity forms the heart of the Convention and lies at the root of our European identity. This principle – which is certainly a legal and political principle – has been asserted through a profound understanding of human existence, which is typical of European civilisation. The centrality of human rights flows from an understanding of what it means to be human, which has grown out of a variety of traditions. The Convention stands on the shoulders not only of legal documents such as the Magna Carta and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen but also the poetry of Dante, the plays of Shakespeare, the music of Beethoven and the novels of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. No wall has been able to divide European humanism, which cannot thrive without all of these different strands. And today – now that we have torn down the walls – we must be able to bring to bloom as never before the pluralist wealth of this humanism.

As guardians of European unity we must enhance the role of European culture. In performing this task we must form an alliance with the world of culture, schools and universities. The university is a typical European creation, and has made a massive contribution to the creation of this shared culture. For this reason, it would be wonderful if our Assembly and the entire Council of Europe could be able to mobilise all European universities around the values of this European humanism and the defence of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We already have a positive example of this: the academic network of the European Social Charter. This is a network of teachers, researchers and students from throughout Europe, which is united by its efforts to defend and promote the values embodied in the Social Charter. It would be a wonderful thing if we could encourage the creation of a European academic network for each of our Conventions, taking the Council of Europe as its point of reference. I am thinking here of the Istanbul Convention or the Convention against Corruption. These are issues in relation to which academic networks could be used to promote research, the exchange of information and best practices as well as the organisation of training pathways – in other words to mobilise efforts and to reinforce the connective tissue of European civil society.

We therefore need to reaffirm the value of parliamentarianism at a time when the true meaning of democracy has become somewhat blurred.  On the one hand, the various expressions of populism call into question the value of parliamentary democracy, and the values of discussion and deliberation.  On the other, the intrusiveness of the executive and, at times, authoritarian regimes constrains the power of parliaments.

Our Assembly, as a European assembly can help all national parliaments recover the strength and dignity of parliamentary work, by finding common standards to guarantee their independence and integrity, their competence and effectiveness, and defending freedom of speech and dissent, and the legal protection they enjoy, such as parliamentary immunity.

Our battle against political corruption must be relentless.  And this battle must be waged in our national parliaments, governments, societies and our international institutions.  Especially in those institutions which deal with human rights.  How much credibility can our reports and resolutions have if there is any suspicion that they have been influenced by private interests and undue interference?  How can all those people whose rights have been violated or undermined, or who have been unjustly imprisoned or marginalised by society for their opinions or orientation, have any trust or hope in our institution, if we are suspected of being in the service of this or that power rather than in the service of human dignity?  This is why it is essential that our institution can show impartiality and transparency.  In this regard we have taken significant steps, by improving our Rules of Procedure and our Code of Conduct and setting up an external investigation body.  The Assembly has made abundantly clear its intention to make every effort to dispel any misgivings about the way it works and to defend its reputation.  We now need to put this into practice through the commitment of each and every one of us.  Corruption is a cancer in democracy and a state governed by the rule of law, and consequently must be combated with all the energy we can muster.

In our parliaments and in our own Parliamentary Assembly, we must reaffirm the responsibility that each Member of Parliament has to represent not only what is important to him or her, but also what is important to everyone.  This is something we need to ensure happens here.

Dear colleagues,

Here we sit in alphabetical order.  Our Assembly Chamber is not divided into political groups or national delegations.  And this means that each and every one of us must accept responsibility for the whole.  With just a few minor adjustments, we can embrace the famous words of Edmund Burke: "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly [of one nation,] with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole." 

If we adopt this transparency and this sense of responsibility for the whole, we can reclaim not only for ourselves but also for our national parliaments that sense of pride that comes from the best parliamentary tradition and which is expressed in the beautiful oath of allegiance to the King sworn by the Cortes of Aragon: "Nos, que somos tanto como vos y todos juntos más que vos, os hacemos rey de Aragón, si jurais los fueros y si no, no". (We, who are as good as you and together better than you, make you King of Aragon, if you swear to observe our laws and customs, and if not, then we do not").  In these words, the republican tradition has always recognised the pride of those who consider themselves equals to the monarch and together greater than the monarch to whom they swear allegiance only if the sovereign abides by the laws.

It is this pride and courage that we must find once more.

Many of our citizens are disillusioned with politics because they feel it is far removed from their problems and hardships.  They are gravely concerned about the future because of the increasing number of environmental challenges and conflicts, and they regard politics as powerless.

Rebuilding trust in democratic institutions is a huge task but one we must take on courageously.  We must once again have the courage to say what sort of society we wish for ourselves and for those dear to us.  We do not want a society dominated by fear, the fear of women being attacked, children being abandoned and trafficked, minorities being discriminated, raped, the fear of not having work, of having no prospects, of not being able to express one's thoughts, of being alone, the fear of war and terrorism.

We cannot remain indifferent to these fears and we must ensure that our institutions – beginning with our national parliaments and our Parliamentary Assembly – can regain the ability to address these fears head on, to listen to them and provide comfort, to instil courage and hope.

If there is one wish I have for us at this time it is this: to be able to hear those fears and turn them into hope.

At the end of the tragedy of totalitarianism, the dream of a united Europe was able to do this.  And it built a continent out of the incredible spiritual and material resources that existed.

Together, once again we will be able to live up to this task.  It is our duty to do our best to achieve this.

75 years ago saw the execution in Munich of the Weisse Rose students who, unarmed, opposed the Hitler regime distributing leaflets in their university in which they denounced the criminal actions of the regime.  Sophie Scholl, one of those students, had chosen as a motto the words of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain: "Il faut avoir un esprit dur et le coeur tendre".  One must have a determined spirit and a tender heart.  A tender heart to feel the suffering of the world.  A determined spirit to combat violence and fight to secure the freedom of everyone.

Thank you very much for your attention.