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Parliamentary assembly session

Strasbourg , 

Intervention by Mr Thorbjørn Jagland,
Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Debate on the report
"Living together in 21st-century Europe:
follow-up to the report of the Group of Eminent Persons
of the Council of Europe"
PACE Session, Strasbourg, 22 June 2011

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Thank you, Mr President,

I have listened carefully to all the Rapporteurs and the speeches from representatives of the party groups. I am very thankful for the constructive approach which you have all taken to this report. I will now explain why I think that living together in 21st-century Europe is probably the most important issue that both this Organisation and Europe as a whole are facing.

Firstly, however, I would like to say that I agree with Lord Tomlinson. That said, the wording should state that this is a report from the Group of Eminent Persons to the Council of Europe. Not only that, it is intended for many other institutions in Europe as well – the European Union, the Organization for Security and
Co-operation in Europe, NGOs and the whole European family – because we want to engage with all actors in Europe today. The Council of Europe should play a leading role here. If we are not able to play such a role, we will be irrelevant.

I will say a few words about that later. This report goes directly to the core of the Council of Europe's mandate. We need to protect human rights and live together on the basis of values and standards enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. If we cannot play a role in this respect, we ultimately cannot play a role in any issue.

How did this group come into being? It was created during the preparations of the Turkish Chairmanship. We saw that the debate on integration and immigration was becoming increasingly polarised in Europe. This debate has been going on for many years, but the debate is now even more polarised. We also heard important leaders, who have been referred to, say that multiculturalism has failed. They warned against the development of parallel societies. Therefore, the Turkish Chairmanship and myself, as Secretary General, decided that we needed to take this seriously. We needed a response to this. We could have said that we agreed or disagreed, or accuse somebody, but we needed a debate on this important issue. The Council of Europe must continue to play a leading role in this debate.

We therefore agreed that we needed an independent group to report to us on how we could start the process, and how we could best interact with other players in Europe. It was important that it should be an independent group. The Council of Europe is an organisation bringing together some 800 million people. All these people belong to the Council of Europe because they are citizens of Europe. If the Council of Europe is perceived as something internal, to which nobody from outside can come to speak, it is failing all Europeans.

I must state clearly how important it was to have an independent group. It was equally important to use this opportunity to involve people who are listened to as friends of the Council of Europe. I listened to Joschka Fischer when he addressed some 400 people in Berlin. I had never heard such a good explanation of the role of the Council of Europe in Europe today from anybody else. A week later,
I listened to Timothy Garton Ash, a leading intellectual in Europe and a member of this group, whose articles are published in all the main newspapers. His explanation of what the Council of Europe represents was even better.

The Council of Europe has very good friends in Europe. This is important because we must take the Council of Europe outside of this house. This Organisation needs good ambassadors. It was not by accident that, on Monday, I was invited to speak to some 1,500 delegates at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn as a key speaker.

The report is only the starting point in a process. This was pointed out by all the rapporteurs. We cannot expect everybody to say that the report is very good.
It is just a starting point. The aim of this process should be to find common ground on how to master the increasing diversity on the European continent. If we continue as we are today, by having a more polarised political debate, it will be dangerous, as we know from the past, and as was pointed out by the European Democrat Group. We know from the past how dangerous it is when Europe cannot deal with the fact that it is a continent of diversity. If we do not find common ground, we will head for more dangerous problems that are related to this.

That is why it is so important, as Rapporteur Toshev said, to understand that this can be achieved only through an inclusive dialogue. We cannot just make a decision and say that everything is fine; we need a dialogue in which everyone can have a say. This is the starting point. All governments need to sit down to discuss this and take a position. I hope they will interact with the national parliaments and the national parliaments will in turn interact with broader civil society. I am very glad that we have taken this seriously. It must also be a starting point for the Council of Europe.

There is a major point in this report: diversity is a fact of life in Europe today. Trying to do away with it will lead to disaster. If we do not accept diversity, the conclusion will be that somebody has to leave. We have tried that before. We must not only live with diversity but see that we can benefit from it. Another important point raised in the report is that when you come to the European continent and settle here you are not obliged to do away with your identity, whether it be cultural or religious. On the contrary, you have the right to keep your identity, but you are also obliged to respect and live in accordance with the culture, standards and values that are accepted in Europe.

That is why I see this as an opportunity for the Council of Europe. What is this group saying? We must strengthen our common values and the instruments that uphold them, namely the European Convention on Human Rights and all the instruments of the Council of Europe. As I said, diversity means the right to keep your own identity, but we also need something that holds us together. What is common in Europe today if not the values and standards enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights?

So we must use this debate to underline the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights and our Organisation in the opportunity to strengthen our entire continent. You cannot warn against parallel societies without the European Convention on Human Rights. Such an approach does not make sense. If you are afraid of the development of parallel societies, you must strengthen what holds people together to avoid the development of such parallel societies. We are held together by our common values as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. So the Council of Europe has an extraordinary opportunity to play an increased role in Europe through our interaction with other important European players.

My final point is that if one examines European history after the Second World War, one finds that two important historical processes have shaped this continent. The first is European economic integration, which has paved the way for political integration. There is no doubt that the European Union has been in the driving seat in that process. However, the other equally important historical process on the European continent has been the quest for human rights, which has shaped and reshaped the whole continent. When people scaled the Berlin Wall in 1989, they did so in the quest for human rights; this started a revolution and reshaped the whole continent, and now the same thing is happening in many other places. This tells us something about the important force that the quest for human rights has been in history, particularly after the Second World War.

The quest for universal human rights is the reason underpinning the existence of our European institutions, and this is why I firmly believe that the Council of Europe still has a very important role to play in Europe. We represent the most important transformative force in Europe and in the world today – the quest for human rights. This is the basis for handling the diversity which we have on the European continent. The main message from the Group of Eminent Persons is that we have to live with diversity and to benefit from it, and we have to find a common way to do so.

It is clear that Europe has developed through common action. The main political forces and political ideologies on the European continent that have competed in every nation state came together to shape Europe. The Socialists, Conservatives and Christian Democrats – all these main political forces – had one common goal: to create the Europe that we have today. So we should now try to unite the main political forces and ideologies on the European continent to find common ground on how to live together in the 21st century and how to cope with this increasing diversity. This is equally as important as building the European institutions was in the first place. So I call on all the main political forces to come together to find common ground so that we can avoid increasing the polarisation of this debate, as that can be very dangerous.

I thank you very much again for the constructive approach which you have taken. As I said earlier, this is a starting point for a process, one in which you have a key role to play, together with guidance from the Committee of Ministers. I welcome your participation in this important stage for the Council of Europe. If we are not able to play a leading role in promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, nobody else will be able to do so, because we are the only
pan-European organisation. If we are not able to do this, we will not be relevant. This is the core mandate of the Council of Europe.