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Inaugural address

Inaugural address
Strasbourg, Monday 25 January 2016

Mr Secretary General, Ambassadors, dear colleagues, friends,

Today is the first day of my term of office as President of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, and it is an honour to address you all for the first time on this very special official occasion.

I would first like to thank my predecessor, Anne Brasseur, for the energy and dedication she has shown in the last two years at the helm of the Assembly. 

Anne, I know these two years have not been easy because of all the events that have taken place in Europe in that time, but you had the vision needed to address these challenges and to lead the debates in this house of democracy.   

I would also like to thank all those who backed my candidacy to be the new President of the Assembly for their support. I wish to thank my fellow members of the European People's Party and also my colleagues in other groups.

My thanks go also to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjørn Jagland, the Deputy Secretary General, Gabriella Battaini, and the Secretary General of the Assembly, Wojciech Sawicki.

I would also like to mention the staff of this Assembly, whose work ensures the success of every session and every period between parliamentary sessions.

A word, too, for my children, who have come here today to support me on this special occasion.

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is our first meeting for four months and during this period many member states, such as France, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina have been the victims of jihadist terrorism.  Other countries, and their nationals, - United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and Russia - have also been targeted on foreign soil.

Lastly, many other states outside Europe have also suffered jihadist terrorism, including our closest neighbours, such as Tunisia, Syria and Egypt.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

I am Spanish and will always be Spanish, but I am, and feel, European. I am European because I am Spanish.

Common interests are the soundest and most lasting basis for good political relations between peoples, and that should always be the case.

When the process of European integration is called into question because of financial or political problems, we need to adopt a historical perspective to appreciate the actions of such figures as the founding fathers of the Council of Europe, who, in a dramatic period of European history, overcame adversity to initiate a process of reconstruction and unity across national differences. 

Adenauer, Monnet, De Gasperi and Spaak were the driving forces behind the new Europe who fought, alongside other figures of their generation, for the classic Europeanist ideals of peace between nations, good democratic governance and socio-economic well-being and laid the foundations for the greatest period of peace and prosperity the continent has known.

When the Council of Europe set up its Parliamentary Assembly, its first President, Paul-Henri Spaak, referred to it as a "Grand Assembly".

His objective was that the parliamentarians meeting here should have a dual mandate, European and national. Their role is to take to the European level the plurality of views and opinions of millions of European citizens, while bringing back home with them a European vision and a plethora of national perspectives to share with their citizens, thus enriching the political and social debate.

Spaak believed that achieving a unified and united Europe would be a protracted and difficult process.

And so it has been.

Twenty-seven years after the end of the Cold War, the process is clearly still on-going and the values of democracy, pluralism, human rights and the rule of law have yet to be fully respected in all European states.

Euphoria has given way to anxiety. The world is not necessarily a more dangerous place than it was during the Cold War, but it has certainly become more chaotic, unclear and complex.

The level of global unrest is astounding.

In the Middle East we are seeing the threat posed by Islamic State, the bloody war in Syria and the breakdown of states such as Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Here in Europe, we are faced with four interrelated challenges which create a state of constant upheaval.

First, international terrorism constitutes a fundamental, multi-faceted danger.

Second, the refugee crisis, which has triggered much debate about European identity and values.

Third, the conflicts still unresolved in Europe. The situation in Ukraine remains very delicate. The conflict has already taken over 9 000 lives, Russian-backed separatists still control part of the country and peace remains elusive.

Threats to security and frozen conflicts still exist in the regions of Transnistria, Republic of Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan.

Moreover, the recent crisis between Turkey and Russia cannot but raise concerns. 

Lastly, I would like to mention the wave of left and right-wing populism, rising nationalism and the erosion of democratic principles and human rights in some places, which affect our cohesion and our capacity for joint action.

These challenges interact, fuelling and exacerbating each other.

These are the questions which dominate our agenda at the beginning of the year, which have grown more urgent and which threaten to undo decades of progress towards greater union, more open borders and closer integration. 

We have to change this now because Europe is lost if it remains divided.

We are democratic and open societies and we have to be aware of the threats to our security, stability and institutions. Therefore, we have to find means to protect ourselves.

We must not forget that we have to be militant democracies and we have the legal basis for that.

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Islamic terrorism seeks to destroy the West, to destroy our principles, rights, traditions and civilisation.

Nothing motivates the terrorists more than the erosion of the values attributed to the West and the eradication of individual freedoms and safeguards.

So-called "Islamic State" is not an illustration of Islam.

These criminals and murderers, who revere a cult of death, represent only a small fraction of individuals compared with the billions of Muslims in the world, including the millions of European Muslims who reject their ideology of hatred.

If we wish to defeat terrorism, we need to co-operate and recognise the Muslim communities as one of our strongest allies, instead of pushing them towards suspicion and hatred.

We should not forget that the majority of the victims of terrorism in the world are also Muslims.

But similarly, it is the responsibility of the world's Muslims to put an end to erroneous perceptions which lead to radicalisation.  It is the responsibility of all of us, whatever our religion, to reject discrimination.

We have a duty to defend ourselves against terrorism, but within this Assembly we also have a teaching and educational role which must prevail over demagoguery.

We must engage in a battle to protect our way of life, instead of descending into racism, Islamophobic hysteria and a new "war on terrorism".

The citizens who have suffered the terrorist attacks in their countries have been wounded in their hearts by the assault on one of our principle values – freedom.

The freedom to go out, to travel, to enjoy themselves, to listen to music or just to go about their daily lives.

It is for this reason that I would like "the freedom to live without fear" to become one of the main focuses of our work during my Presidency.

Individual freedom is and always will be the greatest asset we all have.

All Europeans should be able to live their daily lives to the full, without having their freedoms restricted by terrorist threats or conflicts.

Europe cannot be subjected to this fear imposed by the so-called "Islamic State".

Repression tends to generate greater radicalisation which results in the training and emergence of new jihadists.  It is a vicious circle.

If we get to that point, then the attacks by the so-called "Islamic State" will have achieved their objective: to show the Muslims living in our societies and who are opposed to Islamist fundamentalism that they will never be accepted as equal citizens and that, ultimately, it is the Western states, in other words us, that are their enemies.

The Parliamentary Assembly has recently adopted a series of recommendations to combat terrorism and fanaticism in the Council of Europe member states.  We must attach particular attention to this problem and ensure that it is monitored by an institutional body which could keep a close watch, if appropriate, on questions relating to the fight against terrorism affecting the whole of Europe.

This will be a major challenge for the months and years ahead if we wish to live in peace in Europe and with our neighbours.

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Ladies and gentlemen,

We hold a mandate from the founding fathers: to be united in values, in a union of rights and responsibilities. 

Millions of people are heading towards Europe, on the road to salvation. People fleeing horrific civil wars like the one raging in Syria, which has claimed 250 000 victims. 

Last year, one million refugees arrived in the member states of the European Union, but also we must not forget the two million refugees in one of the member states of the Council of Europe, in Turkey.

The refugee crisis therefore poses a challenge, including to our values.

For the women and men of the Middle East and Africa, today's Europe represents a beacon of hope and a haven of stability.

I draw two conclusions from the refugee crisis.

The first is that to dismantle state institutions without acting quickly and effectively to set up new political, administrative and security structures has always been a high-risk operation.

The second is that the difficulties involved in integrating these new communities in European societies has led to political radicalisation, playing into the hands of the nationalist parties, and a consequent fragmentation of the continent.

The refugee crisis is therefore a test of Europe's ability to reach a consensus.

If demagogic and intolerant discourse is allowed to prevail, the concept of Europe as a community of states committed to human rights and the rule of law will begin to crack.

Solidarity must be a two-way process.

The member states cannot accept solidarity in the form of funds, for example, from the European Union and then withhold solidarity when it comes to sharing the burden of the refugee crisis.

Solidarity must apply in all spheres.

As you can see, we are increasingly faced with the same recurrent challenges.

We have the same problems to resolve. It is for this reason that foreign policy is increasingly turning into domestic policy, and vice versa.

The Council of Europe has existed for nearly 70 years.

The hallmarks of that period have been democracy, human rights and the rule of law, including liberty and peace, diversity and tolerance, justice and solidarity. 

Upholding our values is not an abstract subject for fine speeches. The challenge of living our values lies in our everyday political activities.

Despite all its achievements, the Council of Europe will have to continue to act as the guardian of these European values.

A disunited Europe will never be a major global player, whereas a united Europe will always be in a better position to compete peacefully with other states.

Dear colleagues,

The development of our continent would not have been possible without Franco-German reconciliation and, today, stability in Europe has still not been finally achieved. The process of reconciliation started in 1989, but cracks have appeared in the last few years with the war in Georgia, the illegal invasion of Crimea and Russian support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The situation in Ukraine remains highly inflammable.

In the areas controlled by the separatists, there are many reported human rights violations of a serious nature, and the Council of Europe should be given access to these areas to investigate further.

Two years ago, Ukraine wished to embark on a more democratic and pro-European path and rid itself of a kleptocratic regime which had committed human rights abuses and imprisoned opposition leaders.

For that reason, we must never forget that what started the crisis in Ukraine was the population's profound disillusionment with its political institutions.

Russia must facilitate the return to Ukraine of control over its territory, and the Ukrainian President must show a readiness to engage in dialogue with the east of the country, apply European standards for the protection and promotion of national minorities and foster the region's economic recovery.

For our part, we must continue to debate the frozen conflicts in certain regions of Europe, such as in the regions of Transnistria, Republic of Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, which constitute threats to Europe's security.

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One of the objectives of my presidency is to defend the rights of the assembly's parliamentarians, in order that they can carry out their mandate as elected representatives in the Council of Europe and in their own countries.

Thus, the liberation of figures such as the Ukrainian Nadiya Savchenko and other political prisoners, including Giorgi Ugulava from Georgia, and the defence of their liberty, their freedom of movement and freedom of speech, must be one of the priorities to take up with the authorities of the countries concerned.

Dear friends,

We are not assembled here today in the belief that Europe is perfect. We are here because we believe that in Europe we must solve our problems together.

The Council of Europe has been, since its origin, a central driving force of reconciliation. The success of the reconciliation between Germany and France in the 50s and 60s of the past century, in the aftermarth of the Second World War, was crucial for building a strong, prosperous and united Europe.

It is with this example in mind that we opened up our doors towards the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ensuring successful transition from authoritarian rule to a system of democratic governance, respecting pluralism of opinions, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, was one of the greatest achievements of the Council of Europe and of our Assembly which – historically - has been the motor and the driving force of this proceess.

Yet, the process of transition is still far from over and we continue to see, especially on our eastern borders, tensions and conflicts – "frozen" and "burning".

The conflict in Ukraine has wide and far-reaching implications for Ukraine and Russia – two of our member states – but also for Europe as a whole. This conflict – which has already taken more than 9,000 human lives and ruined hundreds of thousands of families – must stop and it is our responsibility as Europeans to solve it. Europe needs genuine and sincere reconciliation because confrontation is against our common European interests.

Russia has a crucial role to play in this process and must show respect for the values and standards we share.

At the same time, all of us must shoulder our responsibilities too, be ready for dialogue, and seek solutions together.

It is important to keep dialogue with Russia and the Council of Europe is an appropriate forum for such dialogue.

I believe that broad reconciliaton in Europe is not only necessary, but also possible. Thus, it is the Assembly's responsibility to invest all necessary efforts so that this process is possible. We must listen to the parliamentarians and representatives of civil society, propose recommendations and put forward proposals that contribute to the reconciliation.

Europe is living a tumultuous period, confronted with the problems of national selfishness, lack of agreement on which policies to apply to refugees, as well as the cooling of relationships among some countries. In this context, it is necessary to acknowledge good practices among states to improve their mutual relations, promote cooperation, foster reconciliation and work towards common goals.

I would like to suggest establishing a special award to be given to politicians, civil society figures and individuals who are making outstanding contributions to fostering good neighbourly relations between our member states as well as at a global level.

The Assembly is a relevant institution to grant such an award given its historic role in promoting cooperation among European states. I am looking forward to discussing this idea with all of you.

Another issue that requires our attention is Belarus.

Our strategic objective is the integration of Belarus into the Council of Europe on the basis of the organisation's values and principles, pursuant to the declaration of the May 2005 Warsaw summit.

Therefore, we should make new efforts to normalise relations with Belarus in the same way the EU has done so by lifting the sanctions on that country.

Belarus has released political prisoners and it is up to us to reestablish contacts with their parliamentarians and civil society, especially in the run up to the parliamentary elections that will be held later this year.

Our aim should be to unfreeze the "special guest status" but not at any price. For this to happen, essential conditions must be met by Belarus. These have been clearly spelled out in assembly resolutions: a moratorium on the use of the death penalty must be introduced and progress must be made in terms of respect for the democratic values and principles upheld by the Council of Europe.

Dear colleagues,

When addressing to the Parliamentary Assembly in 1988, Pope John Paul II described the European identity as something "not easy to define".

Today recognising the European identity is perhaps a less arduous task than it was 25 years ago. The first signs of a common European identity which has developed, is adherance to  the European Convention on Human Rights.

There, however, remains  much left to do.

In Europe, the nationalists, the warmongers, the eurosceptics, and the populist movements all have in common a hate towards any form of cooperation between european countries and they try to weaken traditional democracy.

It is necessary to work together against the aggression of ultranationalism.

Our values were built over hundreds of years.  We cannot sit idly by and see them destroyed in a day.

We should all be united around the  Council of Europe's ideals of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as a means of ensuring peace on our continent. We have a common political destiny and the perspective of a common future, which can stop a minority that seeks to obstruct the will of the majority and challenge our ideals.

In Europe the citizens of one nation should look towards those of another nation as being  "one of us". 

If we focus on the "otherness" of others, common policies will be hard to sustain.

My intention is to reinforce the concept of European identity so that  Europe's youth become  familiar with the cultural identity of all the people of Europe and share common problems as problems that affects all of us. 

We must not forget that for the younger generation, World War II is like the Napoleonic wars or the thirty years war, which happened long ago. Fortunately, such wars have not repeated themselves in recent history, but we have not been spared serious conflicts such as in the Caucasus, in Former Yugoslavia and more recently in Ukraine. This shows that we cannot take peace for granted. We have to work on peace, time and time again, generation after generation.

Dear friends,

Democracy needs to be sustained every day. To sustain it you have to love it. To love it, you must know what democracy is.

This week the Assembly will welcome the Jordanian Parliament as one of its partners for democracy, but there remain other countries of the Mediterranean and Central Asia, which the Assembly would like to welcome, and we should keep working to attract a wider number of them.

However, we should not seek to impose a Western style democracy and we should not be arrogant. We cannot exclude societies which might not have our long history and  experience of political openness. This  may end in a rejection of western values, and be as dangerous, or more dangerous than the original situations that we wanted to encourage reform of.

It is clear that the creation of the Parliamentary Assembly was essential for the success of the Council of Europe and to ensure that European principles were embodied in international legal standards. 

The Assembly may have relatively few formal powers but it has considerable moral authority.

Pierre Pflimlin summed up the situation succinctly in 1963 when he described the Assembly  as having "hardly any powers, but real authority".

I extend my hand to cooperate with all of you, to work together with the Chairs of all political groups, committees and national delegations.

Our predecessors made a historic contribution to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe and this is something which every generation must do, anew, with Parliamentary diplomacy as an irreplaceable tool.

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CUENTO CON USTEDES.

I AM COUNTING ON YOU

JE COMPTE SUR VOUS.

ICH ZÄHLE AUF SIE.

CONTO SU DI VOI

VASÍZOMAI PÁNO SAS

CONTO COM VOCÊS

YA NA TEBYA RASCHITYVAYU

Thank you very much. I wish you every success in your work.