Meeting of the Council of Europe Forum on the Future of Democracy - Warsaw, 3-4 of November 2005 

(To be checked against delivered speech)

Opening address by Ambassador Joaquim Duarte, Chair of the Ministers’ Deputies of the Council of Europe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On 16 and 17 May, the Third Summit of Council of Europe Heads of State and Government was held here in Warsaw Castle. At the close of that decisive meeting for our organisation, Poland handed over to Portugal the Chair of the Committee of Ministers, which I am honoured to represent here today.

As you are aware, my country has made the implementation of the Warsaw Summit decisions its priority, and we will be conducting an initial review of what has been achieved at the Ministerial Session on 16 and 17 November.

Against this background, I should like to pay tribute to the commitment and generosity of the Polish authorities. Not content with merely hosting the Summit in May, six months later they are now chairing the launch of one its key initiatives: the Forum on the Future of Democracy.

The venue is very symbolic in this respect: the idea of the forum was born here in this castle, which has both witnessed and suffered the price which Poland had to pay for human madness under the two totalitarian systems of the 20th century.

A few hundred kilometres from Auschwitz and very close to what was the Warsaw ghetto, the “never again” on which the Council of Europe is based takes on its full meaning. Here – perhaps more than anywhere else – the vital need for democracy is absolutely clear.

It was also in Poland 25 years ago that the future of democracy in this part of Europe was decided. In the shipyards of Gdansk, the flame of freedom lit up again behind the then Iron Curtain when a handful of brave members of Solidarnosc defied the regime. It was thanks to determined defenders of freedom like Mr Wałęsa – whom we have just heard – that Poland was able to free itself from the oppression of its totalitarian regime. It was from this long-suffering country that democracy spread right across Europe, while freedom triumphed over oppression and the law over force.
At a time when democracy no longer seems to be mobilising the public, it is particularly appropriate that we draw attention to the abuses to which totalitarianism can lead.

Europe is currently faced with a paradox: while democracy has never been so widespread – even to the extent of gaining ground in countries which never experienced it before – the democratic ideal no longer seems to be capturing people’s imagination in countries that have enjoyed democracy for half a century and more. As if people had become so familiar with democracy that they had forgotten the price…

This is now also true in the countries which were long called the “new democracies”, where the euphoria and the thirst for democracy of the 1990s have gradually – and, in some cases, even quickly – disappeared.

Of course, tremendous challenges like terrorism, corruption, human trafficking and organised crime are now destabilising democratic regimes. At the same time, lack of transparency in the political process, lack of dialogue and the gap between what is said and what is actually done is generating a divide between governments and the people they govern.

But the worst enemies of democracy are indifference, egoism and a lack of commitment among citizens. We need to ask ourselves why there is such disaffection and how its true meaning can be restored to democratic citizenship at every level. We must work out how to get Europeans involved again.

This was the objective set for the Council of Europe by its Heads of State and Government last May, when they decided to set up the Forum on the Future of Democracy, so no better theme could have been chosen for this launch meeting.

A desire was expressed at the Warsaw Summit for the Council of Europe to be refocused on what it does best and to work on the third pillar of the European project, "democracy", alongside "human rights" and the "rule of law". In this endeavour, the Council of Europe is not starting from scratch, and, in particular, has at its disposal an invaluable network of protagonists in democracy: government officials, members of parliaments, elected local representatives and representatives of civil society.

I shall not detail here all the initiatives taken over more than 50 years by the Council of Europe to strengthen democracy. With us here today are the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Mr van der Linden, and the President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Mr di Stasi, who will be able to tell you better than I can how the Council of Europe acts at parliamentary and local level to invigorate democracy. Where the intergovernmental side is concerned, I shall simply refer to a few of the most significant activities, such as the defence of freedom of expression and association, the elimination of discrimination and the promotion of parity.

The Council of Europe is continuing such activity today, working on what is commonly called electronic democracy. The aim is to ensure that, as modern information technologies make possible new means of communication and interaction between voters and their elected representatives, between those who govern and those who are governed, the resulting debate and democratic life are richer, more open and more transparent, steering clear of the dangers of populism and false pretences.

This Forum will certainly provide the opportunity to discuss these issues. But the Council of Europe, and the Committee of Ministers in particular, do not just want you to hold a theoretical debate about democracy.

We have set our hearts on something quite different. In our view, this Forum must be an opportunity to identify practical lines of action for breathing new life into the democratic debate and adapting it to the context and challenges of the modern world. And these lines of action will have to be a source of inspiration not only for all of its 46 member states, but also for the Council of Europe itself.

So the proposals, and even recommendations, made by the Forum will be presented to the next Session of the Committee of Ministers, in mid-November, and will, as early as 2006, be able to be translated into specific activities by the Council of Europe and its institutions.

I shall now therefore conclude by expressing my hope that the two days of the Forum will culminate in concrete conclusions.

Thank you for your attention.