The Council of Europe - 800 million Europeans

A short history of the Council of Europe: Introduction

Europe after the World War II

The Europe that awoke in the days following the Liberation was in a sorry state, torn apart by five years of war. States were determined to build up their shattered economies, recover their influence and, above all, ensure that such a tragedy could never happen again.

Winston Churchill1 was the first to point to the solution, in his speech of 19 September 1946 in Zurich. According to him, what was needed was “a remedy which, as if by miracle, would transform the whole scene and in a few years make all Europe as free and happy as Switzerland is today. We must build a kind of United States of Europe”. Movements of various persuasions, but all dedicated to European unity, were springing up everywhere at the time. All these organisations were to combine to form the International Committee of the Movements for European Unity. Its first act was to organise the Hague Congress, on 7 May 1948, remembered as “The Congress of Europe”.

Founded in 1949 the Council of Europe is one of the oldest and the biggest European organisations, which unifies 46 member states and promotes the main principles of the Human Rights. During its 50 years’ activity the organisation has deepened and spread its field of action throughout the whole continent. The global changes in the European History – collapse of the Soviet Union, fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war – have defined an increased number of applications for the Council’s membership and called for establishing new priorities and an appropriate strategy.

The Hague Congress

More than a thousand delegates from some twenty countries, together with a large number of observers, among them political and religious figures, academics, writers and journalists, attended the Congress.

Its purpose was to demonstrate the breadth of the movements in favour of European unification and to determine the objectives which must be met in order to achieve such a union. A series of resolutions was adopted at the end of the Congress, calling, amongst other things, for the creation of an economic and political union to guarantee security, economic independence and social progress, the establishment of a consultative assembly elected by national parliaments, the drafting of a European charter of human rights and the setting up of a court to enforce its decisions. All the themes around which Europe was to be built were already sketched out in this initial project. The Congress also revealed the divergences, which were soon to divide unconditional supporters of a European federation (France and Belgium) from those who favoured simple inter-governmental co-operation, such as Great Britain, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries.

A European Parliamentary Assembly

On the international scene, the sharp East-West tensions marked by the Prague coup2 and the Berlin blockade3 were to impart a sense of urgency to the need to take action and devote serious thought to a genuine inter-state association. 

Two months after the Congress of Europe, Georges Bidault4, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, issued an invitation to his Brussels Treaty5 partners, the United Kingdom and the Benelux countries, and to all those who wished to give substance to The Hague proposals. Robert Schuman6, who replaced him a few days later, confirmed the invitation. France, supported by Belgium, in the person of its Prime Minister Paul Henri Spaak7, called for the creation of a European Assembly, with wide-ranging powers, composed of members of parliament from the various states and deciding by a majority vote. This plan, assigning a fundamental role to the Assembly seemed quite revolutionary in an international order hitherto the exclusive preserve of governments. But Great Britain, which favoured a form of intergovernmental co-operation in which the Assembly would have a purely consultative function, rejected this approach.

It only softened its stance after lengthy negotiations. Finally, on 27 and 28 January 1949 the five ministers for foreign affairs of the Brussels Treaty8 countries, meeting in the Belgian capital, reached a compromise: a Council of Europe consisting of a ministerial committee, to meet in private; and a consultative body, to meet in public. In order to satisfy the supporters of co-operation the Assembly was purely consultative in nature, with decision-making powers vested in the Committee of Ministers. In order to meet the demands of those partisans of a Europe-wide federation, members of the Assembly were independent of their governments, with full voting freedom. The United Kingdom demanded that they be appointed by their governments. This important aspect of the compromise was soon to be reviewed and, from 1951 onwards, parliaments alone were to choose their representatives.

“Greater” and “Smaller” Europe

On 5 May 1949, in St James’s Palace, London, the treaty constituting the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed by ten countries: Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, accompanied by Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Council of Europe was now able to start work. Its first sessions were held in Strasbourg, which was to become its permanent seat. In the initial flush of enthusiasm, the first major convention was drawn up: the European Convention on Human Rights signed in Rome on 4 November 1950 and coming into force on 3 September 1953.

The new organisation satisfied a very wide range of public opinion, which saw in it an instrument through which the various political tendencies, and the essential aspirations of the peoples of Europe, could be expressed. This was indeed the purpose for which it was founded, as clearly stated in Chapter I of its Statute: “The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its Members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage, and facilitating their economic and social progress.”

In order to achieve its objectives, certain means were made available to the Council and were listed in the Statute, which specified that: “This aim shall be pursued through the organs of the Council by discussion of questions of common concern and by agreements and common action in economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal and administrative matters and in the maintenance and further realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In accordance with the compromise reached, the Statute made no mention of drawing up a constitution, or of pooling national sovereignty, in order to achieve the “economic and political union” called for by The Hague delegates.

Consequently, the need was soon felt to set up separate bodies to address the urgent questions arising on the political and economic fronts. Shortly after the accession of the Federal Republic of Germany, Robert Schuman approached all the Council of Europe countries with a proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community, to be provided with very different political and budgetary means.

The six countries most attached to the ideal of integration - Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany - joined, and on 9 May 1951 signed the very first Community treaty. Strengthened by the experience and commitment which had brought the “Greater Europe” into exis-tence, the “Smaller Europe” was now making its own “leap into the unknown” of European construction.

Early developments

In the years between 1949 and 1970, eight new countries joined the founder members: in order of accession Greece, Iceland, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Switzerland and Malta. In this period, the organisation gradually developed its structure and its major institutions. Thus, the first public hearing of the European Court of Human Rights took place in 1960. These years also saw the introduction of the first specialized ministerial conferences; by the early 1970s they had been extended to cover a wide range of areas. The first, in 1959, brought together European ministers responsible for social and family affairs. On 18 October 1961, the European Social Charter was signed in Rome: a text which the Council sees as the counterpart of the European Convention on Human Rights in the social domain.

The Charter came into force on 26 February 1965. It sets out 19 rights, including the right to strike and the right to social protection, but does not have such effective machinery as the Human Rights Convention. Nevertheless, it is gradually developing into a common body of social rights that apply right across Europe.

The same era saw the institution of the Council for Cultural Co-operation in 1961, which non-Council of Europe member states were allowed to join from the outset. One example was Finland, which only joined the Council itself 28 years later. Similarly, the European Pharmacopoeia was founded in 1964 and the European Youth Centre in 1967.


The Council of Europe’s first major political crisis came in 1967 when the Greek colonels overthrew the legally elected government and installed an authoritarian regime which openly contravened the democratic principles defended by the organisation. On 12 December 1969, just a few hours before a decision would have been taken to exclude Greece, the colonels’ regime anticipated matters by denouncing the European Convention on Human Rights and withdrawing from the Council of Europe. It did not return until five years later, on 28 November 1974 after the fall of the dictatorship and the restoration of democracy. In the meantime, the Cypriot crisis, which broke out in the summer of 1974 and culminated in the partitioning of the island after Turkish military intervention, represented a fairly negative experience for the Council of Europe, whose discreet efforts to broker a solution, alongside those of the United Nations’ Secretary General, were not crowned with success.

A new crisis arose in 1981 when the Parliamentary Assembly withdrew the Tur-kish parliamentary delegation’s right to their seats in response to the military coup d’état a few weeks earlier. The Turkish delegation only resumed its place in 1984 after the holding of free elections.

Greece’s return marked the disappearance of the last authoritarian regime in Western Europe. Portugal had made its Council of Europe debut on 22 September 1976, two years after its peaceful revolution of April 1974, bringing an end to 48 years of Salazarist9 dictatorship, while the death of General Franco10 in 1975 eventually led to Spain’s accession on 24 November 1977.

A rapprochement with East

A further, critical stage in the Council of Europe’s life started in 1985 with the first movements to introduce democracy to central and Eastern Europe. In January of that year Hans-Dietrich Genscher11, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, invited his colleagues to take part in an extraordinary session devoted entirely to East-West relations. This process of reflection, that took account of the trend emerging in Eastern Europe - in Romania and Poland, and in the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev12 had just come to power - gave rise to the notion of a European cultural identity, which became the subject of a resolution in April 1985. Convinced that unity in diversity was the basis of the wealth of Europe’s heritage, the Council of Europe noted that their common tradition and European identity did not stop at the boundaries between the various political systems; it stressed, in the light of the CSCE Final Act, the advantage of consolidating cultural co-operation as a means of promoting a lasting understanding between peoples and between governments. The Eastern European countries grasped this outstretched hand with enthusiasm.

Rapprochement had at last become not only possible but necessary. The Council of Europe was naturally delighted by the process of democratisation set in motion in the East, together with the economic and social reforms introduced in the name of perestroika13. It was the Council’s role and purpose to support this trend, to help make it irreversible, and to fulfill the expectations of the countries calling upon it for assistance. Not of course by renouncing its principles but, on the contrary, by making them a precondition for any form of co-operation.

This became the Council of Europe’s guiding principle, as reflected in the Committee of Ministers’ change of course set out in its declaration of 5 May 1989. The new direction represented both an achievement and a first step, and was the outcome of a number of exchanges (the Secretary General’s visit to Hungary, then Poland; the visits by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly to Budapest and Warsaw, and the visits to Strasbourg of delegations and experts from the USSR and other East European countries). This new departure gave momentum to a process that was to continue to accelerate, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations.

Eastern European countries were now knocking impatiently at the door of the Council of Europe, that guardian of human rights; the organisation became a kind of antechamber for negotiating the transition from dictatorship and democracy, as had previously been the case with Portugal and Spain.

A common European Home

It is no coincidence that the first address by a Soviet leader to an assembly of Western European parliamentarians should have taken place at the Council of Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev chose this particular chamber - on 6 July 1989 - to put forward a new disarmament proposal (unilateral reduction of short-range nuclear missiles), to promote the idea of a Common European Home (non-use of force, renunciation of the Brezhnev doctrine and maintenance of socialism), and to discuss human rights (albeit without referring to the European Convention!).

The Council of Europe started to open its gates very carefully. In 1989, the Parliamentary Assembly established the very selective special guest status for the national assemblies of countries willing to apply the Helsinki final act and the United Nations Covenant on Human Rights. The status was immediately granted to the assemblies of Hungary, Poland, USSR and Yugoslavia and opened the way to the full accession of the former Soviet bloc14 countries.

Four months after Mikhail Gorbachev’s address the Berlin wall15 fell on 9 November 1989. This provided the opportunity for the Council of Europe’s Secretary General to state, on 23 November, that the Council was the only organisation capable of encompassing all the countries of Europe, once they had adopted democratic rules.

The historical changes of 80s’ last decade, especially the dismantling of an “Iron Curtain16 marked the start of the organisation’s new political role.

Hungary’s accession

Referring to his country’s accession to the Council of Europe on 6 November 1990, the Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs said that the event marked the first step in the re-establishment of the unity of the continent.

Special programmes were rapidly introduced to meet the most pressing needs and allow the new European partners, both before and after their accession, to draw on a shared fund of knowledge and experience to enable them to complete their democratic transition. These programmes were dubbed Demosthenes, Themis and Lode17 and focused on the key areas of reform: how to design new constitutions, bring domestic legislation into line with the European Convention on Human Rights, reorganise the civil service, establish an independent judiciary and an independent media, encourage local democracy. In other words, how to become a full member of the European democratic and legal community.

Summit in Vienna

On 4 May 1992, François Mitterrand18 addressed the Parliamentary Assembly in a session largely devoted to integrating the countries of central and eastern Europe in the building of a new Europe. Why, he asked, should all the heads of state and government of the Council of Europe’s member countries not meet every two years, alternating with meetings of the CSCE? The proposal was adopted at least in part and Austria, which chaired the Committee of Ministers between May and November 1993, offered to organise and host the summit.

The summit was held in Vienna on 8 and 9 October 1993 and confirmed and extended the policy of opening up and enlargement. It also identified three priorities, starting with the reform of the European Convention on Human Rights machinery to make it more expeditious and effective. This is the subject of the Convention’s Protocol no 11. The Vienna summit also laid great emphasis on the protection of national minorities, which was to lead to the adoption of a framework convention less than two years later, and combating intolerance.

Thus with its new-found role of offering a home to all the countries of Europe willing to opt for democracy, thereby establishing a continent-wide democratic security area, the Council of Europe has used the years since Vienna to develop and refine the undertakings which any applicant country for membership must be willing to accept.

The Council of Europe in an enlarged Europe

The arrival of the Russian Federation in February 1996 meant that the institution had finally become fully pan-European. Henceforth, 800 million citizens would be concerned in building the new Europe. The Council’s activities are now having to adapt to an environment that is not only wider and more diverse but also more complex and less stable. This is changing the nature of its co-operation programmes.

Support and monitoring activities are being strengthened. More attention is being paid to what happens on the ground, for example via confidence measures or campaigns to combat intolerance. New priorities are emerging such as migration, corruption, the right to be granted nationality, social exclusion and minorities. The dual machinery for protecting human rights was replaced on 1 November 1998 by a single Court, housed in the Human Rights Building designed by the British architect Richard Rogers and inaugurated in June 1995.

At the same time several other European19 or North Atlantic20 institutions have been increasing their co-operation with the countries of central and eastern Europe, offering the prospect of closer integration. The work under the auspices of the intergovernmental conference of the European Union and NATO summit held in Madrid, show that European co-operation will continue to develop.

  1. Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill /1874-1965/; The British Prime Minister (1940-1945 and 1951-1955).
  2. After the Prague coup in February 1948 the Czechoslovakian communist party has came into force.
  3. By the end of the World War II the allies divided Berlin into 4 parts: eastern part was under the control of USSR, the south-western by US, western by UK and the North-western by French forces. A Soviet-backed Berlin blockade started on 1948 became the reason of US-Soviet confrontation.
  4. Georges-Augustin Bidault /1899-1983/. French Foreign Minister (1944-1946 1947-1948 and 1953-54), lately Minister of defense (1951-52).
  5. Treaty of Economic, Social, and Cultural Collaboration and Collective Self-Defense (“The Brussels Treaty”), March 17, 1948.
  6. Robert Schuman /1886-1963/ French Foreign Minister (1948-1952).
  7. Paul Henri Spaak /1899-1972/. Belgian Prime Minister (1938-39, 1946, 1947-49).
  8. Five signatory states of the Brussels Treaty: Belgium, France, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
  9. After the revolution of April 1974 /”Revolução dos Cravos” – “Revolution of Flovers” / the dictatorship of António Oliveira Salazar /1889-1970/ (1932-68) and his successor Marcello Caetano /1906-1980/ (1968-74) was overthrown;
  10. Francisco Franco Bahamonde /1892-1975/. Spanish dictator (1936-1975);
  11. Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany (1974-1992);
  12. Mikhail Gorbachev. Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party (1985-1991).
  13. The programme presented by Mikhail Gorbachev in 80s was aiming at the radical social-political reform in USSR.
  14. Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance (Warsaw Pact) Between the People’s Republic of Albania, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the Hungarian People’s Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Rumanian People’s Republic, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the Czechoslovak Republic (i.e. Eastern Bloc States) (May 1, 1955 – July 1,1991).
  15. In order to reduce the massive immigration flows from the Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR) and therefore avoid the weakening of the socialist regime, in 13 August 1961 was constructed the Berlin Wall, which has totally isolated the city. In November 1989 the wall felt down.
  16. This expression proceeds from the Iron Curtain Speech. On March 5, 1946, at the request of Westminster College in the small Missouri town of Fulton, Winston Churchill gave his now famous “Iron Curtain” speech.
  17. The co-operation programmes like Demosthenes, Themis and Lode were initiated by the Council of Europe in the beginning of 90s. The aim of those programs is to support the developing democracies in strengthening the political, legislative and constitutional reforms, provide them with assistance in the fields of local governance, justice, management of penitentiary institutions etc.
  18. François Mitterrand /1916-1996/. President of the Republic of France (1981-1988 and 1988-1995).
  19. EU, OSCE etc.
  20. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (On 4 April 1949, in Washington (USA) an agreement was signed establishing NATO).


A political organisation set up in 1949, the Council of Europe works to promote democracy and human rights continent-wide. It also develops common responses to social, cultural and legal challenges in its 47 member states.
2002 - The Council of Europe Information Office - Tbilisi.