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Opening speech of the 2nd part of the Ordinary Session of 2017

Opening speech of the 2nd part of the Ordinary Session of 2017
Strasbourg, 24 April 2017

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear Colleagues,

Let me start my statement by a few words about my recent visit to Syria in which I participated, along with two other members of this Parliamentary Assembly as a Spanish Senator. Many of you have raised questions and expressed concerns about this visit. I must say that I acknowledge these concerns because this visit, - as well as the way in which it was covered in the media, has put our Assembly and the Organisation in a complicated situation.

This morning, in the Bureau's meeting, I provided explanations about this visit, both orally and writing. A document with written answers was prepared for the Bureau members and, this afternoon, I will ask the Bureau to declassify it, so that all of you could have access to these explanations.

In the meantime, let me say the following: this visit was a mistake and I realise this after having seen the consequences. My first mistake was to underestimate the reaction to this visit from within the Assembly. Since the beginning of my mandate I have made 50 official visits and no questions were raised about these. As a result, I did not think questions would be raised about my visit to Syria.

I am a staunch defender of dialogue and I thought that the more calls for an end to violence and the respect for human rights and democracy to Al-Assad, the better it would be for the future of Syria and the Syrian people.

I am highly concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Syria and I am also looking for solutions to this war in order to avoid a new refugee crisis. Therefore, I thought that this visit would have been a good opportunity for me to contribute and do my part.

My second mistake was not to inform the Chairpersons of the political groups of my visit in advance. This, however, does not mean I did not inform other people. As I made this trip as a Member of Parliament of the Senate of Spain, I informed my government in advance.

My third mistake, even if it was not within my power, was that the visit was manipulated by some Russian media. My only statements in Syria were to emphasise that it was a trip as a Spanish MP and that I was not there to support the al-Assad regime. In this context, I would like to make it clear that Bashar al-Assad's current policy deserves condemnation and that greater respect for human rights and freedoms in Syria is needed.

Our Assembly has expressed this condemnation in several Assembly resolutions and I fully subscribe to these.

And I want to make this clear, because this visit, as well as the way it was reported in the media, should not be used to undermine the Council of Europe and the values our organisation defends.

Dear colleagues,

Let me now move to my opening statement.

We are living in extremely challenging times during which European and world democracies have to face numerous threats. Externally, there is violent radicalisation and terrorism, wars, conflicts and confrontational rhetoric on the international scene. At home, there is the erosion of democratic values and the shrinking space for human rights as well as the rise of populist, nationalist and xenophobic movements at both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

The latter threat – populism – is, in my opinion, one of the most serious dangers, because it destroys our values and institutions from within. In this difficult moment, we must remind ourselves of the origins of the Council of Europe and of our raison d'être: peace, dialogue, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Populism threatens directly these values and it is our common responsibility to defend them.

I firmly believe that we are moving in the right direction and the recent victory of mainstream democratic political forces over populist movements in the Netherlands, in Austria, in Germany and in Spain reinforces my conviction.

The populists are losing ground because, behind the rise of populism, there is a protest vote of citizens who – quite naturally – seek quick and easy fixes to the every-day problems they are facing. But, by oversimplifying complex issues, populists offer only words and promises – they cannot bring about real solutions. This is when the mainstream political forces with experience, responsibility and a sense of state should regain their footing on the political scene.

Yesterday, democracy won another battle in France but we should not lower our guard. The second round of the Presidential election in France, as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections in France, in the United Kingdom and in Germany will be important tests for democratic political forces.

As responsible politicians adhering to democratic values, we should confront populists in an open, realistic and democratic political debate. We must address the questions, concerns and expectations of our citizens. But, at the same time we have to denounce the acts and manifestations that contradict the very foundations of the European project: nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

The Bureau this morning supported the proposal to hold a current affairs debate on this topic and I urge you to do the same when we come to the adoption of the agenda of our part-session.

Dear colleagues,

Each terrorist attack is a new test of the foundations of our societies and the values of openness and tolerance which are essential for a vibrant democracy.

In recent months Germany, United Kingdom, Turkey, Sweden and Russia have become the scenes of atrocious attacks.

These events are adding grist to the arguments of those - such as populists - who equate terrorism and terrorists with immigrants and refugees.

What is even more worrying is that the profile of terrorist attacks is changing. Organised terrorist groups are no longer the main danger. More and more often the threat comes from individuals or small networks of people who become radicalised on the Internet or through social networks.

This only reinforces the feeling of fear and anxiety among our citizens because anyone could become a victim of an attack anywhere. We must provide them with our full support.

Therefore, this Assembly – as well as all democratic political forces across the board – must send a clear message to the terrorists: You will never win because the common values that bind our societies together - democracy, human rights and freedom and the rule of law - will not be undermined by the fear and the hatred.

I call on all of you stand firm against the hate and the fear that terrorist seek to instil by supporting the #NoHateNoFear initiative.

I urge you to take the #NoHateNoFear message back home and become our ‘ambassadors' in your parliaments and in your constituencies. The NoHateNoFear light box, with a professional photographer present all day Tuesday, is available to you outside the hemicycle, and the media box stand alongside is also available to you during the whole week to record interviews or messages.

I count on your support.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am now coming to a crucially important debate we are going to hold during this session. It concerns one of our member states – Turkey.

Turkey is a key actor within the Council of Europe and a member of our family united by the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

We greatly value Turkey's commitment to the Council of Europe which, since 2016, is also one of the major contributors to the budget of the Organisation.

We greatly appreciate Turkey's role in the management of the refugee crisis and the mixed migratory flows as well as the generous support Turkey is providing to more than 3 million refugees.

We acknowledge Turkey's legitimate right and obligation to defend the State and the population against terrorism, while respecting human rights and democratic standards.

We are fully aware that the failed coup d'Etat attempt of 15 July 2016 has left profound wounds within the institutions and the society. We fully understand the need for the democratic State of Turkey to investigate the events of last summer, bring to justice those responsible and safeguard the institutions and the society against the repetition of such events.

Yet, while showing full understanding and support, we cannot remain silent when democratic standards and fundamental rights and freedoms are restricted beyond the threshold of what would be a normal, necessary and proportionate response in a democratic society.

We cannot remain silent when we hear statements putting in question the fundamental principles of the Council of Europe, such as the abolition of the death penalty.

We cannot remain silent when fundamental reforms – implying a profound change of the system of governance and checks and balances – are rushed through Parliament and when there are serious concerns raised by both the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly monitors of the recent popular vote.

Tomorrow's debate will be an opportunity to discuss – together with our Turkish colleagues and friends – the challenges the country's democratic institutions are facing. We need a frank and respectful debate based on objective facts and legal standards that exist within our Organisation. Let us put emotions aside and focus on practical steps – a roadmap for co-operation to address the problematic issues, so that together, with the help of the Council of Europe standards and expertise, we can provide the best of our support to Turkey.

I look forward to this debate.

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

I take allegations of corruption very seriously, both inside and outside of this Assembly.

This morning, the Bureau of the Assembly adopted a series of initiatives aimed at preventing cases and behaviour that are ethically questionable.

We are an Assembly that should be a model when we talk about democracy, human rights and the respect of the rule of law.

Now more than ever, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a unique platform to keep the dialogue open between parliamentarians of member states.

Now more than ever, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is a unique space for debate to maintain the Continent's unity in times of turmoil.

Now more than ever, the members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe must be consistent with the messages and recommendations we send to our member states to improve their democratic performance.

We cannot ask for respect for the separation of powers,

We cannot ask for the presumption of innocence to be honoured,

We cannot ask for respect of the independence of the judiciary,

And we cannot call for the respect for the autonomy of parliamentarians,

if afterwards those principles are not complied with by each and every one of us.

As President of this Assembly, I will always defend the rights and obligations that each of us has, as representatives of the citizens of our respective countries.

We have an agenda and deadlines. Therefore, I will not accept unacceptable intrusions or imperative mandates from the outside that imply a violation of the autonomy of each and every one of us.

The Assembly is more than ever a vital interlocutor in dealing with the significant challenges Europe has to face. Proof of this came two weeks ago when Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated me on the job the Assembly is doing on the refugee crisis.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me conclude my introductory remarks by saying that once again our Assembly will be welcoming high-level guests this week – the President of the Hellenic Republic, Mr Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus, Mr Ioannis Kasoulides, as well as His Majesty the King of Spain. Their views and opinions are highly important for us.

As you can imagine, I am personally greatly honoured that the visit to Strasbourg of His Majesty the King of Spain takes place during my mandate as President of the Assembly. This will be his first visit to the Council of Europe since his royal proclamation almost three years ago. Moreover, it bears a special symbolic value, because this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Spain's accession to the Council of Europe.

The speech of His Majesty will take place thirty seven years after the address of his father, His Majesty Juan Carlos, in October 1979, on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Council of Europe.

I have said it on several occasions, but I will say it once again.

Spain is clearly committed to the values and principles of the Council of Europe. Spain wants to show that after almost 70 years of existence of the Organization, the values defended by all of us continue to be as relevant as in 1949.

We live in a period of uncertainty and anxiety in our societies. We need to heed the call in Europe for unity and solidarity put forward by many Heads of State, Prime ministers and Ministers, and who together are a power for those who believe in the unity of Europe.

Thank you very much for your attention.