(To be checked against delivered speech)
at the opening of the Forum on the Future of Democracy
Warsaw, 3-4 November 2005
“The people should fight for their law as for their city wall”, said Heraclites some five centuries BC. The problem is that, two-and-a-half thousand years later, many of them do not seem to be really willing to do so. Electoral fatigue, which is on the increase in many of our member states, disillusionment with politics and politicians, and the growing lack of trust in democratic institutions, are certainly not the only challenge of the Forum we are launching today, but it may well be the one that must be most urgently tackled with.
Our societies are faced with a widening gap between, on the one hand, individualist and consumerist attitudes, which are on the increase, and on the other hand the diminishing interest in the exercise of civic responsibilities. Moreover, political parties, parliaments, local authorities, and governments are, on the whole, perceived as too distant and even disengaged from their social basis.
We are legitimately concerned that such trends may eventually undermine the legitimacy of democratic governments. Indeed – as I pointed out in my speech at the Barcelona Conference on the Future of Democracy a year ago - over the long term, the very foundation of democracy - the permanent control of democratic institutions by citizens and these institutions’ responsiveness to citizens’ needs and concerns – may be eroding. A failure to react could lead to a gradual sliding of democracy towards oligarchy composed of institutions such as public administration, the legal system, the police, the army, and a multitude of regulatory agencies operating without democratic control and accountability.
This is the situation today. Problems abound, but they are not yet dramatic. The current state of democracy in Europe should not be a cause for panic, but for concern and action.
The Heads of State and Government who met here in Warsaw six months ago gave the Council of Europe a clear mandate to protect and promote democracy in Europe. If the Third Summit told us what to do, this Forum should help us to define how we should do what is expected from us.
Our starting point must be the considerable Council of Europe acquis and the activities which are already in place. It is no exaggeration to say that the promotion of democracy is a priority for virtually all Council of Europe bodies and affects virtually all Council of Europe activities.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has been dealing with challenges to democracy in Europe for years if not decades. In its 2003 report on the future of democracy, prepared by Mr Wielowieyski from Poland, the Assembly called for greater openness; the introduction of more direct elements of democratic decision-making; and the development of civil society based on an increasing role for citizen participation in social activities and democratic decision-making. It also stressed the need for citizens to be adequately informed about matters to be decided upon, as well as about the democratic decision-making process in general. The Assembly clearly expressed its belief that the Council of Europe should reinforce its activities on education for democratic citizenship.
The work of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe makes an important contribution, as the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs is most directly exercised at the local level. The Convention on Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level also opens the exercise of this right to non-nationals.
The Preamble of the European Convention on Human Rights emphasises the interdependence of effective democracy and human rights. The Council of Europe notion of “democratic society” has also been validated by the European Court of Human Rights.
The Venice Commission is providing intelligent constitutional advice to member and non-member states alike, and its highly successful work is based on the simple, yet often overlooked, fact that law without democracy is a dictatorship and democracy without law is a farce.
The Council of Europe intergovernmental co-operation has resulted in over 190 Council of Europe conventions, many of them directly aimed at promoting democratic practices and good governance. They form the body of the Council of Europe standards in democracy. Besides the continuing standard-setting activity, a substantial effort went, especially since the enlargement of the Organisation, into assisting applicant and newer member States to adopt and implement the Council of Europe acquis. Now that the bigger part of the Council of Europe standards forms part of our member States national legislation, we inevitably focus more on tackling what I can describe as the cancer of democracy – corruption and organized forms of crime. And, more and more, intergovernmental co-operation is dealing with the elusive goal of creating a genuine democratic culture.
Social cohesion is the objective of our action in the social field - a concept inspired by our values, but its implications are tangible and measurable in social, political and economic terms. A socially cohesive society is not only fairer, it is also more stable, more secure, more efficient, more prosperous and more democratic.
Education is of key importance in developing democratic culture which, in return, is essential for the normal functioning of democratic institutions. Democracy cannot function if people are unable to make informed choices and do not have the necessary skills to participate in the public life. This is becoming increasingly important with the rapid development and use of new information technologies, which are as the same time a challenge and a huge potential for positive change, but may also carry some risks for the future of democracy.
To exploit this positive potential, and find responses for possible risks, the Council of Europe is working on an integrated project on good governance in the information society, and will be making a contribution to the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society, in Tunis.
Youth is another sector which can make a meaningful contribution to the preservation and promotion of society. Young people are among those who are among the most sceptical with regards to traditional forms of democracy but they are also the quickest in finding answers to new questions. One of the principal aims of our activities in the youth field is to encourage young people to take an active part in public life. The key element of all our youth-related action is that we are not conducting activities for young people but with them. This is a critical distinction which is also reflected in our work concerning children and the three-year Action Programme endorsed by the Warsaw Summit has a telling name “Europe for and with children”.
Culture is another of the Council of Europe priorities which has a value in itself - but it is also a means to promote mutual understanding and tolerance. Intercultural dialogue, together with legal co-operation and the protection of human rights, is one of the three pillars of the Council of Europe contribution to the international combat against terrorism.
This is where we are today, even if the list of relevant Council of Europe activities is far from exhaustive.
Democracy will never be perfect, because it will always remain embedded in an imperfect, contradictory and changing environment. But democracy should always strive to become better while preserving its fundamental purpose, its principles and its safeguards.
If we want to ensure a long and flourishing future for democracy in Europe, we do not really need to reinvent the wheel, just adapt it to the highways of the 21st century. Democracy itself is not in a crisis, and people are probably readier than ever to “fight for their laws”. What they do not want to do is simply go through the motions without having any real impact on the decisions which are taken. It is not really important if this feeling of alienation and powerlessness is based on reality or false perceptions – either way, we must do something about it. People want democracy - they just do not always trust its institutions - and our task should be to find ways of restoring this trust.
Panta Rhei, said Heraclites, to express his belief that everything flows - nothing stands still. Democracy is certainly no exception to the rule that change is real and stability is an illusion.
But what we need to do is to make sure that this inevitable change of democracy will be a change for the better.