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20th anniversary of the Venice Commission

Venice , 

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Your Excellencies,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Being a European citizen is to be member of a community based on the full enjoyment of individual rights – guaranteed by democratically elected governments and protected by an impartial and independent judicial system.

This is the European project. And this is what we are here to celebrate today.

Today 47 states in Europe adhere to this project. 20 years ago when Europe took a new turn we were 24 states. The Cold War ended, totalitarian rule was rejected and democracy prevailed. Western Europe reached out to nations trying to establish a peaceful, democratic and prosperous foundation for their future. To that end a body of the Council of Europe was established with a name reflecting its mission; the European Commission for Democracy through Law.

Democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe have made much progress over the past twenty years, also thanks to the work of the Venice Commission. But all these achievements are fragile and in no way irreversible.

The very purpose of the Venice Commission is to assist the Council of Europe member States and beyond in the adoption of democratic constitutions and laws which will pave the way for lasting peace on our continent.

We all know that without democracy, no country can prosper. We all know that sustainable social and economic development depends on democracy. And we all know that democracy cannot be an abstract notion. It cannot exist in a vacuum.

Democracy requires a balance between stability and change. Genuine democracy cannot be built around stability as the prime goal, it requires change - change of political power, change of people in power and change of ideas.

Our understanding of democracy and human rights cannot be an "eternal now". Democracy must change modestly, gradually and in a balanced way. This is as valid for the ‘old' as well as the ‘new' democracies.

Constitutional law concerns power, including the distribution of power. But in drafting constitutions, the idea of change has to be made part of the normal functioning of a democratic country. The very basis of Europe is exactly this: the combination of values and of the law.

A constitution is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - not an instrument for the government to restrain the people.

Therefore, dear friends, the last 20 years of work by the Venice Commission have been a crucial contribution to Europe's development.

The uniqueness of the Council of Europe is its concept of political forums and non-political expertise. It makes it possible to find political solutions based on reasoning we all can accept as valid. The Venice Commission is in the forefront of such expertise.

Today's anniversary gives us an occasion to take stock, but it also allows us to look ahead. The Commission's work was not "achieved" by helping former communist countries to adopt new constitutions. The "constitutional season" - as the founding President La Pergola called it - is not over.

The work of the Venice Commission continues all over Europe. I see our role not only in Eastern Europe; the recent opinions you provided for Luxembourg and Finland show that older member States of the Council of Europe increasingly come to regard the Commission as a important tool for themselves.

And we have seen that the heritage of European constitutionalism attracts the world. Therefore other nations look at Europe, the Council of Europe and its Venice Commission.

In a globalised world, the situation in Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa is directly relevant for us. And the situation in Asia, Southern Africa and Latin America also has a severe impact on Europe.

By supporting our neighbours in their path towards democracy, we help these countries, we help the people in these countries, and we help Europe.

Dear friends,

The Council of Europe is a magnificent organisation. Our work is among the finest art of humanity: to develop democratic societies which recognise us all as individuals with certain rights and responsibilities. In every such society a constitution will be the point of departure. Not only in granting fundamental rights, but in recognising them.

The Venice Commission is our finest tool of constitutional expertise, recognised world wide. The creation of this commission was a unique action, made possible thanks to the human rights visionaries who gave birth to our organisation and brought new hope to Europe. The Venice Commission has renewed that hope.

What we celebrate today is our European heritage of Enlightenment and the way we carry it on. Every time the Venice Commission gives advice to countries we see this heritage in action, and we understand why there is hope ahead of us.

And let me add, there is no way to better celebrate this than through the beautiful combination of the art of music with the art of democracy which we experience here today. It is a salute to the art of life.

Thank you for your attention and congratulations again on your anniversary.