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Opening statement, January 2017 Part-Session

Opening statement, January 2017 Part-Session
Strasbourg, Monday 23 January 2017

Dear colleagues,

Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, allow me to thank you for your confidence in re-electing me as your President. I shall do my utmost to lead this Assembly, in the best way possible, through challenging times, not just for Europe.

Allow me to thank as well the Committee of Ministers and the Ambassadors for their excellent co-operation and for the frank and open exchange of views we have been able to have over the last year. I am sure these will continue. My gratitude also goes to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and the Deputy Secretary General, for their input and support of the Assembly's work, not just in the Hemicycle and the Bureau, but also in the activities of the Committees. Furthermore I would like to thank the President of the Congress, the Human Rights Commissioner, the President of the Venice Commission, as well as the many Council of Europe officials with whom I had the privilege to work.

Last but not least, allow me to thank Mr Sawicki, the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly, and his staff. Without their competence and devotion we could not achieve our political aims and objectives.

* * *

Dear colleagues,

Before I start my speech, let me mention a tragic event that happened over the week-end: a coach carrying Hungarian students crashed in Italy. I was profoundly touched by this tragedy and I would like to express my deepest condolences to the families of the victims and to the Hungarian people.

Dear colleagues,

A year ago, I shared with you some profound concerns about the state of our Continent, highlighting four issues:

– international terrorism, the refugee crisis,  conflicts in Europe, and the dangerous rise of populism.

Little did we know at that time about the additional challenges we would face to our values, institutions and standards, including the failed coup d'Etat attempt in Turkey and its consequences.

Allow me to recall some of our responses to these challenges.

* * *

"Vous n'aurez pas ma haine – you will not have my hate!"

These words of Antoine Leiris, a French journalist who lost his wife in the Bataclan terrorist attack, marked me profoundly.

As we mourn the victims of terrorism – and I would like to express once again my condolences to Turkey, Germany and Russia which recently were targeted by terrible terrorist attacks - we must defend ourselves and our way of life against terrorism that seeks to destroy our societies. But we must not fall into paranoia and security extremes. We should say a resounding NO to the atmosphere of fear and hatred – the breeding ground for terrorism.

The #NoHateNoFear initiative that we launched in June last year is an important tool to achieve this. It has gained the support of many parliamentarians, Heads of State, Ministers, high officials, including the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

I am proud and humbled by what we have achieved over 6 months, especially because among the supporters of the #NoHateNoFear initiative we count those who have a personal experience of terrorism - Antoine Leiris, Luciana Milani, mother of an Italian victim of the Bataclan attack, Bjorn Ihler, one of the survivors of the Utøya attack, to give some examples.

They overcame their trauma with reinforced conviction of the values of humanity and democracy. Their experience is a strong motivation for us to continue. Together, we can transform the #NoHateNoFear initiative into a genuine grass-roots social movement and I count on your support.

* * *

Dear colleagues,

To illustrate the gravity of the refugee drama, I would recall our visit to Greece. It completely changed my vision of the migration challenge.

Seeing children in improvised schools installed in tents was an extremely moving experience.

This experience reinforced my conviction that migration management and the refugee crisis is everyone's problem – no country can cope with it alone.

Europe needs a comprehensive approach to migration management and the refugee crisis, based on the principles of solidarity, responsibility-sharing and respect for human rights standards and international commitments. As Europe's largest Parliamentary Assembly, we must have an all-inclusive reflection process about how to achieve this, relying, in particular, on the deliberations of the European Conference of Speakers of Parliament, held in September last year.

Therefore, during the June 2017 part-session, I would like to organise a major debate on the refugee crisis and the migration problematic. I count on you and our Committees' support to prepare this important event.

* * *

Ladies and gentlemen,

Unfortunately, we have not been successful in addressing conflict situations among our member states.

In April 2016, we saw a dangerous escalation of hostilities on the contact line in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The situation there still remains highly flammable.

The conflict in Ukraine – and the violations of the cease-fire in Donbass – continue.

Tensions in the Balkans are on the rise again.

From Europe's long and turbulent history, we have learned that conflicts cannot be resolved by military means.

Our role as parliamentarians is crucial to achieve this. Parliamentary diplomacy is an important tool for dialogue and our Assembly must use its potential to the full.

It is regrettable that for a second consecutive year one of our member states – Russia – is not submitting a delegation to the Assembly. Since my election, I held numerous consultations with the Speakers of the Russian Parliament as well as with Russian parliamentarians. In my discussions, I always stressed that the delegations of all member states must participate in the Assembly's work, because we are an Assembly of 47, not 46.

The absence of one delegation from our work benefits no one. 

 I will not give up, because I see that the Russian Parliament and its parliamentarians are open to dialogue and co-operation in order to break the current impasse.

I hope we can use inter-parliamentary platforms to maintain contacts with Russian parliamentarians. In this context, I would like to organise a hearing on parliamentary diplomacy possibly in my hometown, Valencia. I am looking forward to working with the Assembly's competent committees to develop further the concept of this event.

* * *

Dear colleagues,

The fourth challenge I mentioned was the challenges to our values and standards, and here I must start with the attempted coup d'Etat in Turkey.

Thanks to the wide mobilisation of Turkish citizens, democracy won and the coup attempt failed. Today, Turkey needs our solidarity and support and this we have given through clear public statements, visits and the provision of appropriate expertise.

At the same time, it is our duty to remind our Turkish colleagues and friends that the best defense against attacks on democracy is to make our democratic institutions more pluralist, more inclusive and to uphold the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Turkey is facing enormous challenges, not just because of terrorist attacks from different quarters but also because of the refugee situation. But, as responsible politicians, we must adhere strictly to international standards and commitments. I hope that our discussions this week will help us move forward along this path.

Another major challenge to our values and standards is the existence of political prisoners.

Upon my election as President, I decided to concentrate specifically on this issue. I pushed for the release of Nadiya Savchenko and Giorgi Ugulava and engaged in talks with the Azerbaijani authorities about the liberation of political prisoners. These initiatives, which I was not alone in undertaking, brought results. In Russia and in Georgia, Ms Savchenko and Mr Ugulava were released and in Azerbaijan a considerable number of civil society activists and journalists were also released and I welcomed this development.

Some however still remain in detention – in particular our colleague and friend Ilgar Mammadov. His continued detention, in breach of a final ruling of the European Court on Human Rights, is particularly disappointing and I call once again on the Azerbaijani authorities to release him. I shall continue to raise this matter with the authorities, in close co-ordination with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.

Equally, I am following – with great concern – the situation of parliamentarians detained in Turkey. Detention of parliamentarians is an exceptional measure. Not only does it restrict their rights and freedoms to participate in the political process, but it also has a chilling effect on democracy and pluralism in general. I hope that our Turkish colleagues will follow the Assembly's recommendations and release the HDP parliamentarians.  I shall continue to press for this.

* * *

Dear colleagues,

In this Assembly we are in the house of democracy, bringing together parliamentarians from across Europe and beyond.  We have representatives from the entire political spectrum with a plurality of views. There may be fundamental disagreements between countries, political groups or even individuals, but this should not stop us talking and listening, but we must respect one another and show this respect in this house of democracy. We have to respect Assembly's votes and decisions, even when we disagree with them – this is the basic principle of democracy.

In recent times, I have noticed that some MPs of this house of democracy have used their status to pursue a campaign to discredit political opponents by means of slurs, intimidation and coercion.

I cannot allow the honor of the Assembly or any of its members to be defamed.

I cannot allow this Assembly to be misused to fight battles against states that some see as rivals or enemies.

I cannot allow campaigns of hatred, verbal aggression, blackmail or pressure, orchestrated by who are not satisfied with the results of a vote.

In democracy, when a vote is lost, it must be accepted. We must accept victory and defeat because that is exactly one of the necessary requirements of living in a democracy. Therefore, the Assembly needs to set an example in this respect, by promoting respect and tolerance in and outside these walls.

Everyone is responsible for their own words and actions. It is important to understand that unlawful attacks on someone's honour and reputation may require defending through the courts.

Dear Colleagues,

As I draw my statement to a close, allow me to mention one more event which is particularly dear to me. This year, my country – Spain – is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its accession to the Council of Europe.

My country fully embraced democracy and good governance 40 years ago and this brought prosperity, freedom and respect for human rights to all my fellow citizens.

Therefore, we want to pay tribute to this Organisation for having united 47 European states under one roof, using the European Convention on Human Rights as a solid foundation.

As part of our celebrations, it will be my pleasure to host the Bureau and Standing Committee of the Assembly in Madrid, in March. I look forward to seeing many of you in Spain!

I thank you for your attention. And now, let us move to the Agenda of the part-session.