Parliamentary Assembly session : 26 – 30 April 2004 

(To be checked against delivered speech)

Address by Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister of the Netherlands


Ladies and gentlemen,

In 1517, Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch humanist philosopher, published The Complaint of Peace in which the allegorical figure Peace speaks to the world.

She is completely distraught and, in a heart-rending plea, laments her tragic fate. She is rejected by all the peoples of Europe, despite her efforts on their behalf. War and violence have plunged millions of Europeans into misery. “Why,” she asks, “do people use their reason to bring about their own ruin rather than to ensure their happiness?”

Erasmus wrote The Complaint of Peace for a planned European Summit. Its objective was to provide a forum for Europe’s greatest rulers to sign a peace treaty. But the Summit never took place and the peace treaty was not signed.

Ladies and gentlemen, since 1517 Europe has not given Peace the chance to stop weeping. Our history unites civilisation’s most beautiful creations with mankind’s worst expressions of repression, violence and horror.

For Erasmus, peace was the highest objective of European politics. And he was not alone in thinking so. Many European philosophers – Immanuel Kant for example – have thought the same.

History has taught us that peace has no chance so long as there are no shared moral values. So long as there is no common ideal on which to draw for fresh inspiration and the courage to move forward together – even in difficult times.

The Second World War made clear how essential it is to have a system of shared values.

When the United Nations General Assembly issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it had good reason to state that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. The Declaration also states that the antidote to the poison of tyranny and repression is “a common understanding” of these rights and freedoms.

In that spirit, the Council of Europe was established in 1949. The Council represents a community of values, set out above all in the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter. These have been consolidated in the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.

Europe’s essence as a community of values has since been reaffirmed again and again. I recall the milestone of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Another milestone is the European Union’s Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. Although the real milestone will be the day – hopefully in a not too distant future – when we can delete the word ‘draft’.

What are the values which bind us and are set out in our conventions? They can be seen on three levels.

First, the level of people, as individuals and members of social groups. Here the overarching value is respect for human rights and human dignity. Which means that everyone has the right to life, protection from inhuman treatment, a fair trial, respect for privacy and freedom of expression. Tolerance belongs to the same group of values.

Then comes the level of the state, with the values of democracy, the rule of law, equal treatment and social justice.

And third are the values which concern relations between states: the sovereign equality of states, international cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

After the horrors of the Second World War, do these values really guide us today? Anyone looking back at the past sixty years will see facts and developments that inspire courage and confidence.

More and more European countries have cast their lot with one another. The number of member states in the Council of Europe has grown from ten to forty-five. The European Union originally had six member states. Today the number is about to rise to twenty-five.
East and West were re-united after the breakthrough year of 1989. Two separate Europes became one – with one common ideal of civilisation.
Democracy continues to plant its roots across the entire European continent. Never before have so many Europeans lived under a form of government which guarantees liberty.
And for fifty years, most of Europe has been spared the catastrophe of large-scale armed conflict. Never before in our history have we witnessed this. Never before has there been such a long a period of relative calm in large parts of Europe.

But there is still much cause for worry. Terrorism is again rearing its head, but now as never before. Violent clashes between different ethnic groups have not been stamped out. There is still great human suffering in Europe. Rights and freedoms are still not universally guaranteed in equal measure. Social exclusion and injustice still exist – sometimes on a very large scale.

Still, optimism is prevailing. Our problems, concerns and conflicts are pits – sometimes gaping pits – on an uphill road.

Whether we will be able to move forward will depend on the extent to which we can draw on the springs from which our strength flows. Our true strength comes from ideals and ideas rather than money.

Research shows that this is true. Since the early 1980s, several European universities have been conducting a multi-year investigation into European values. Among other things, the results revealed that today’s citizens consider material well-being a necessity but seek to satisfy their deeper needs at a less material level with a happy home life, personal development and health. We would do well to keep this conclusion in mind.

Reflecting about values is not simple. Many people claim that values are abstractions. Not something you can hold on to.

But the power of these values really lies in the fact that they are abstract. Because they create space and freedom. Because they open the door to opportunity, to possibility. Because they are boundless. They inspire. They motivate.

This is what distinguishes them from norms. Norms make it clear what is not permitted. Norms set limits. Place restrictions on freedom.

Freedom is an essential feature of the European ideal of civilisation. But freedom is never boundless. Even Adam Smith – often said to be the champion of free market individualism – knew very well that there can be no freedom without a moral foundation and a solid legal system. We sometimes forget that he wrote not only The Wealth of Nations but also The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Absolute freedom stands in the way of the freedom of others. This is why it is important to speak of values and norms.

We all know the Enlightenment slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. At issue is the essential question of how freedom can strengthen fraternity (in the sense of ‘commitment to one another’) instead of limiting it.

Ladies and gentlemen, we etch our values into stone – on monuments, under statues and over entrances to public buildings. This does justice to their importance. But when we set our values in stone, we do not do justice to their true essence. Because they form a dynamic, living whole. They require care. They must be constantly vitalised. And they constantly need renewed inspiration.

Europeans have learned this lesson from the great changes of the past few decades. Prosperity has increased in many parts of our continent. Educational levels have risen sharply. More and more people have the chance to develop their talents. And yet, at the same time, we have witnessed the disappearance of many traditional tightly knit social structures. For many, the church is no longer the anchor it once was. Individuals attach increasing importance to their personal freedoms.

Greater prosperity and opportunities for personal development and personal freedom are extraordinary achievements. But they have a dark side too. Too often, the result of these achievements is that we throw money at problems without delving into their causes. That other people’s freedom is limited by the freedom we demand for ourselves. That egotism makes our society a less civil one. That society as a whole splits and splinters into groups which no longer have any common ground and no longer even wish to engage in dialogue.

In many countries, including the Netherlands, these developments have led to growing discomfort. And to the understanding that renewed reflection about our values and norms is now an urgent necessity. For a long time, politicians failed to take this as seriously as they should have. However, over the last few years, public discussions on the subject have exploded. What is the glue that really binds us? That is now the core question. And how do you strike a balance between personal freedom and personal responsibility?

Ladies and gentlemen, other developments are again compelling us to seek the right balance between freedom and responsibility.

The first of these is the increased threat of terrorism. At the beginning of the twenty–first century, the threats to security do not come from large-scale conflicts between states. They come from small groups of fanatics who spare nothing and nobody. Who pursue their private goals through terror. They are bent on destroying the rule of law, and with it the very foundation on which the European community of values has been constructed.

Religions do not set off bombs. Belief systems do not attack innocent people. Islam is not the problem. Islam – like Christianity – is a religion which preaches peace. The danger does not lie in religion but in the people who misuse it to achieve their goals by violence.

Every act of terror shocks us all. A terrorist act in one member state affects us all. The attacks of 11 March in Madrid showed that Europe is united in its determination to put an end to terrorism. The Protocol Amending the European Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism supports this aim. We must continue to act with one mind. Disunion in Europe creates a breeding ground for terrorism.

The fight against terrorism creates new dilemmas and conflicts of values and requires renewed reflection about our norms. An example of what I mean is the need to strike a new balance between collective security and individual privacy.

A second development which affects us all is the penetration of ICT into our societies. We can no longer conceive of daily life without the internet. But although our reality has become digital, our way of thinking has often remained analogue.

Freedom of expression and the right to privacy in the digital era must be protected with as much energy as in the age of paper. But this simple observation is not a solution. We must remember that the internet is also a lightning-fast medium for spreading hate, discrimination and slander. And also for unlawful practices like child pornography. The sources of this poison are often difficult to identify. This adds urgency to the need for values and fresh norms.

The third development is that large groups of migrants are entering many European countries. Europe is no longer a continent of mono-ethnic states.

Ethnic minorities in the Netherlands now make up about ten per cent of the population and one-third in the cities.

The newcomers have brought their own cultures with them. Cultural diversity must be treasured. But cultural diversity also leads to clashing values and behaviour patterns among people who form one society and frequently live around the corner from one another.

The founders of the Council of Europe had the appalling experiences of the Second World War fresh in their minds, which explains why special emphasis was placed on individual rights. We have developed a unique judicial process which makes it possible for any citizen to file an application against a member state if he feels it does not respect the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

We must be proud of this grand achievement. But we cannot rest on our laurels. A society that guarantees justice when individual rights are violated is not necessarily one that does justice to individual potential.

This is possible only with a foundation of common values which all members of the society experience and subscribe to. Values which create the common ground needed to prevent us from being torn apart by internal conflicts. If integration is to succeed, clarity about common values is an absolute precondition.

The nineteenth-century French historian and statesman François Guizot saw diversity as the hallmark of European civilisation. Differing beliefs in Europe have never succeeded in blotting one another out. One single doctrine has never remained dominant. Tyranny has never taken firm root. Guizot shows us the importance of the Enlightenment for Europe. But he also points to the positive influence of Christianity on European civilisation and to the precious freedom of conscience which the separation of church and state made possible.

Alexis de Tocqueville, another Frenchman from the nineteenth century, emphasised the importance of interpersonal ties in a pluralistic, democratic society when he wrote the following: “In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all others.”

Diversity forms the essence of European civilisation. Which is why the values that permit difference – freedom of religion and expression, equality before the law and the sanctity of life – apply to everyone in Europe. Without exception. If Europe does not resolutely protect this shared canon of values, it will put the essence of its civilisation at risk. Diversity without unity cannot exist.

For this reason, a crucial task for us as governments and you as representatives of the people is to continue to propagate and protect these values in a multicultural Europe.

We know how difficult this is. Values can be set out in declarations, conventions and laws. They can be etched into monuments and sung about in national anthems. But this does not mean that they are fixed in people’s hearts and minds.

This is why education, both at home and at school, and civic education in a broader sense, are so important. That is where concepts like tolerance, respect for others and a sense of responsibility are passed on, concepts without which it is almost impossible to honour our shared values.

It is precisely in a society where everything within the confines of the law is possible – where no government, church or organisation prescribes what people must do, think and say – that everyone must learn to take responsibility for their acts and words.

Problems arise when people want total freedom for themselves but reject responsibility for the consequences of their acts.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Council of Europe is a community of values in which these topics also must be discussed. Our challenge is not only to protect the values we have set out together but also to keep them alive in a time of tremendous movement and change. The day we stop living those values is the day Europe’s heart stops beating.

Your role as representatives of the people and as members of the Parliamentary Assembly is crucial. The Assembly is an extremely valuable arena for dialogue on values in Europe. The Committee of Ministers translates the values into norms and is the organ in which the member states can call on one another to respect the norms which we have all agreed to.

In particular, we must keep our eye focused on our core tasks: human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

We can be proud of what we have accomplished since 1949 and since 1989. Peace – rejected and scorned for so many centuries – has increasingly found a home here. In large parts of Europe, war and violence are no longer the rule but the exception.

However, peace is more than the absence of war and violence. It is also a peaceful and prosperous society of people within the European community of values. That is the task which lies ahead – in all its beauty and complexity.