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Speech at the opening of the 2nd part of the 2019 Ordinary Session

Speech at the opening of the 2nd part of the 2019 Ordinary Session
Strasbourg, Monday 8 April 2019

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

I welcome you to Strasbourg for another part-session, one that will be very important in terms of its agenda and political dimension as the Council of Europe prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary - a key date for the future of the Organisation.

A week ago, while on an official visit to Armenia, I had the great honour of participating in the inauguration of Europe Square in the capital, Yerevan. As I was getting ready for the ceremony, I asked myself the following question: what does Europe mean for each and every one of us?

There are, of course, many ways to answer this question. Because, as well as being a geographical and historical concept, has many facets. When talking about the European architecture, we often refer to the notion of a Europe of concentric circles, with the largest circle being the Council of Europe, followed by the circles of the European Union, the Schengen area and the euro zone.

With its 47 member states, the Council of Europe forms the outer ring in this arrangement, and for that reason we often refer to it as "the Common European Home". This common home provides a place to live for 830 million people and is governed by a common legal framework that protects the individual against arbitrary decisions and authoritarianism and defines our rights and fundamental freedoms.

Our common home, our Europe, will soon be 70 years old.

I strongly believe, therefore, that our duty as representatives of our fellow citizens is to preserve this common home, and to ensure that it continues to wield influence and realises its full potential. This is what the millions of Europeans, who are now reaping the tangible benefits of "closer union" between the peoples and nations of Europe for which the Council of Europe has worked, expect of us.

What do our fellow citizens want?

A Europe of co-operation where disagreements and conflicts are resolved through dialogue and peaceful negotiations?

Or, a Europe of division where dialogue gives way to confrontation, a Europe torn apart once again by geopolitical tensions, where new borders and new walls would spring up.

For me, the answer is clear: the European acquis, the values that unite us and the common legal framework that we have succeeded in building are more important for our fellow citizens who - I firmly believe - want a Europe of peace, prosperity, co-operation and dialogue.

The need for dialogue does not mean that we should compromise our values – that would be a betrayal of the European project. All members of our common European home have the same duty to abide by the "house rules". They also have the same duty to help it run smoothly, including by honouring their financial obligations, just as they have equal rights - and an obligation - to participate in the co-operation mechanisms and forums for dialogue that exist within our common home.

When the rules that govern our common home are not respected, it is the duty of all of us to seek ways - in a coherent and co-ordinated fashion - to reach a common solution. In order to preserve unity within our common home, we must all work together - member states and statutory bodies – to better co-ordinate our action. We need a mechanism for frank political dialogue and enhanced co-operation to stop the abuses that threaten to destroy the very foundations of our Organisation. The Parliamentary Assembly is ready to play its full part in strengthening our response mechanisms, in particular through the work of its Political Affairs Committee report on the role and mission of the Parliamentary Assembly. We are also engaged in a constructive dialogue with the Committee of Ministers on this subject. And I believe we are on the right track.

Dear colleagues,

We must also ensure that Europe continues to play an important role on the world stage when it comes to tackling the challenges that extend far beyond Europe's borders, such as migration, sustainable development goals or the growing use of artificial intelligence, which raises real questions about respect for our fundamental rights. This was the message that clearly emerged from my recent meetings in New York, at the United Nations, during and on the sidelines of the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, where I met with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, along with many other senior UN officials.

It is clear that on the world stage, faced with major geopolitical players such as the United States or China, a Europe that is divided and riven by disagreements and conflict will not have any authority. A united Europe, on the other hand, a Europe of 47 member states that stretches all the way from Lisbon to Vladivostok and from Reykjavik to Lampedusa is a powerful and solid player, not only because of its economic clout and the size of its population but also, and above all, because of its normative framework, based on common values, values that are central to the Council of Europe's work.

Let's not forget that in many areas, Europe has legal and co-operation instruments of the most innovative kind, such as the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and domestic violence, the Budapest Convention on combating cybercrime, the recently revised Convention 108 on data protection and the Oviedo Convention on bioethics and human rights. And then, of course, there is the European Convention on Human Rights with its court in Strasbourg, a unique international mechanism for monitoring compliance with the convention.

The European Convention on Human Rights, and the other conventions I have just mentioned, are international legal instruments which our member states have voluntarily agreed to uphold - all are treated equally and are subject to the same control mechanisms, based on uniform standards. What makes our convention system so strong is its universality at European level. It has taken us 70 years to build this system and yet, if its universality is compromised and if member states do not respect the standards which they themselves have chosen to embrace, there is a risk that it will very quickly collapse. We must therefore defend and promote our achievements in order to preserve this place that 830 million of our fellow citizens call home.

It is also our responsibility to disseminate and share the Council of Europe's conventions with our international partners, so that the world in which we live can become a safer, freer place, more respectful of human rights. We will actively address this issue this week when we examine the reports on the Council of Europe's contribution to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I look forward to following these discussions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

I would like to end my speech by mentioning again the practical benefits that Europe has brought to the lives of our fellow citizens.

For those of us who are nationals of the founding states of the Council of Europe, the Organisation's common normative framework - in which the European Convention on Human Rights occupies a central place - is often seen as an irreversible achievement.

It is worth remembering, however, that some of our member states accepted this framework not that long ago - after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In exactly 30 years, therefore, a relatively short period of time in historical terms, these member states have accomplished dramatic changes, building strong and lasting democratic institutions out of the rubble of a totalitarian system where human rights were just rhetoric.

This week, we will welcome the Heads of Government of Georgia and Armenia, two of our member states that joined the Organisation only 20 years ago, yet have made remarkable progress along the path of democratic reform. Their speeches to the Parliamentary Assembly are not only an opportunity to forge closer co-operation. They are also an opportunity for all of us to remember our own obligations to support our democratic institutions and to stand up for our rights and fundamental freedoms in our countries. Because democracy and human rights are always a work in progress, requiring a common and sustained commitment from each and every one of us. In this way, we can - all of us together – help to expand the reach of our common European home, which, as I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, will celebrate its 70th anniversary in one month's time.

Thank you for your attention.