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Opening speech on the occasion of the 2016 European Conference of Presidents of Parliament

Opening speech on the occasion of the 2016 European Conference of Presidents of Parliament
Strasbourg, Thursday 15 September 2016

Dear Presidents, Excellences, colleagues,

it is an honour for me to declare open the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament and to welcome you to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Today, 15 September, is the International Day of Democracy.

I cannot think of a more appropriate place to celebrate this day. In this Assembly for over six decades, the democratically elected representatives of European citizens have met, debated and developed a common conscience of the meaning of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and forged a common European identity.

Also, I cannot think of a more appropriate company to celebrate this day, with so many Presidents and Speakers of parliament present.

Colleagues,

Certain dates define our history and shape our collective memory, our perceptions and our responses.

Exactly two months ago, on 15 July, a coup d'Etat was attempted in Turkey. We all witnessed these dramatic events as they unfolded: violence, blood, tanks, shootings, the bombing of the Grand National Assembly, an attempt to murder the political leadership of the country and an attempt to kill democracy. We also witnessed the reaction of ordinary citizens, the determination of the Turkish people, who took to the streets giving an outstanding example of courage and ultimately sealing the failure of the coup.

What happened in Turkey is a reminder that we should never take democracy for granted and that the best defence against attacks on democracy is through more democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law, not less. This is a message I passed strongly when visiting Ankara two weeks ago.

Another defining moment was 13 November 2015. The Paris attacks, including on the Bataclan, jolted the conscience of ordinary people across Europe, making them realise that they were the primary target. It was however neither the first nor the last terrorist attack in Europe, but it changed our understanding of the danger.

Despite the pervasive sentiment of a threat, fear and hatred must not prevail.

As politicians and public figures, we should set the example. We must be firm in our condemnation of terrorism, be balanced in our reactions and respect human rights and the rule of law, which are non-negotiable. Shortly after taking up my duties as President of this Assembly, I launched a hashtag campaign Terrorism: No Hate No Fear. I invite all of you to join me in this initiative and to bear witness to our commitment to defeat terrorism while remaining true to our values.

Uncertainty and lack of confidence have become a common feature in Europe also due to the consequences of the economic crisis and the austerity measures that were introduced to counter it. This has led to a lack of trust in ‘traditional' political forces by the electorate, and created considerable support for new movements and parties. Some of these movements and parties are the expression of genuine civic engagement and the willingness to bring about a renewal in politics. However, at the same time,  extremism and populism have increased at the right and the left of the political spectrum. Furthermore, by the same token, euro-scepticism has grown while nationalistic attitudes have re-emerged and strengthened.

These tendencies, for me, are a matter of grave concern.

The challenges to which Europe is confronted are so manifold and sizeable that no country can tackle them alone. No country can erect a wall against terrorism or the economic crisis. No country can build a barrier to keep out the instability caused by frozen or active conflicts, which have brought about the occupation and annexation of territories belonging to member states. The only way to protect ourselves and to move forward is to be aware of our inter-dependence and to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, privileging dialogue over confrontation.

Colleagues,

During this Conference we will discuss how we can better co-operate to protect democracy, human rights and the rule of law. This issue will permeate all our discussions but will be specifically addressed as one of our themes this afternoon..

But I would like to spend a few words on another of our three themes:, the migration and refugee crisis.

None of us will forget Aylan, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while trying to reach Europe's shores. It was just over a year ago, 2 September 2015, when Aylan became the symbol of a human tragedy to which Europe cannot find an answer. Like the Bataclan tragedy it was not the first such tragedy, but it was the one that became a defining moment in the eye of the European public.

How to tackle migratory flows through the Mediterranean has proven to be a divisive issue between Council of Europe member States and other states, and has highlighted the tension between national interests and the need for solidarity and responsibility-sharing. All Council of Europe member States have to come to grips with the phenomenon of migration and the refugee crisis. Likewise, all of them have obligations, being bound by the principle of non-refoulement and the European Convention on Human Rights.

I hope that the debate on this theme will reflect our different views and sensitivities. But, I also hope that this debate will pave the way for realistic, viable and humane solutions, fully in line with our States' moral and legal commitments.

Europe's unity has splintered on the issue of migration, but this is not a new phenomenon for our continent. Unfortunately, our efforts to ensure that several generations of immigrants feel fully part of our societies have not always succeeded.

In our societies, minorities, immigrants and citizens with a migrant background have often been particularly vulnerable to stigmatisation, discrimination, and social exclusion.

And yet, the inclusiveness of society is the strongest shield against the power of extremist propaganda.

This leads me to the third theme of our Conference, which will be tackled tomorrow morning: mobilisation of parliaments against hate, for inclusive and non-racist societies. Societies are stronger and more cohesive when diversity is not only accepted but respected and valued as a richness.

In this area, parliaments and politicians have a role to play in taking clear and open positions to stamp out intolerance, racism and hate, in all their forms and manifestations.

Another date. We will not forget what happened in Utøya on 22 July 2011: the extremist hatred that murdered so many young people.

I am sure that the key-note speakers for this theme will inspire us to mobilise and take concrete actions.

Beyond the themes on the programme, this Conference offers us a platform for Pan-European dialogue, in which all the Council of Europe member States are taking part.

It also offers us a broader political and geographical perspective, thanks to the participation of political representatives from countries neighbouring Europe, and other international and inter-parliamentary assemblies.

Dear colleagues, dear friends,

Let us not forget one final date, the end of the Second World War - the 8 or 9 May, depending on the history of our countries.

The Council of Europe emerged from the ashes of the Second World War to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage.

The Council of Europe was established to ensure peace and stability in Europe. It is a continuous challenge.

But, if we keep going back to what history has taught us, we can move forward and find solutions together.

Thank you.