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I should like to start by offering my warmest congratulations to the newly elected President of the Assembly, Jean-Claude MIGNON.
At the same time, I should like to thank the outgoing President, Mevlüt ÇAVUŞOĞLU. Dear Mevlüt, you have endless energy, you always try to be helpful, you are down to earth, we can trust your word. You have been a great President.
And now, with your permission, I should like to return to the subject matter of my speech, key achievements and challenges ahead of us.
What have been the main achievements of the past year?
In 2011 the Council of Europe added two important new treaties to its arsenal of international legally-binding instruments, namely the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence and the Medicrime convention. We have consolidated our leading role in setting international standards not only in Europe but also beyond.
In the past year we have also demonstrated our capacity to deliver on our commitments. Following the High-Level Meeting on Roma in October 2010, we have so far trained over 500 Roma mediators in
15 member states. With a Partnership Agreement signed in July 2011, this ROMED programme is now a joint action of the Council of Europe and the European Commission. It is being extended to additional countries and should result in a total of at least 1000 mediators trained by the end of this year. The objective of these mediators is to help Roma people gain access to public services where they live. It is now up to the local authorities to make use of their services. Europe can no longer accept that a minority of 12 million people are being discriminated against in such an appalling way across the continent. This situation is unacceptable and we must take strong action. The Council of Europe has so far done its part of the job. Others have to follow up.
Let me give you some examples that show that we can be flexible and reactive, offering assistance where it is needed and when it is needed.
One example is the broad programme we have embarked upon together with the Turkish government to enhance freedom of expression, including media freedom. You will recall that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan in his speech to this Assembly last April invited me to send my special envoy to Turkey to look into this. In November, Prime Minister Erdoğan and Minister of Justice Ergin convened prosecutors and judges from all over Turkey to launch the reform process which we established with the government. I know that there are many obstacles given Turkey's past and ongoing experience of terrorism. But the Council of Europe's convention-based and non-politicised approach is the only way to help the Turkish government to move forward.
I believe this approach is also the only way forward in Hungary. There are many criticisms but what can be done concretely? The EU has only limited competence to intervene. The European Convention on Human rights, however, covers most of the controversial issues. Last Friday I received a positive reply from Foreign Minister Martonyi to my offer of dialogue with the Council of Europe. Here we also have a good illustration of the close partnership we have built with the EU. When President Barroso spoke at the European Parliament he referred to Hungary's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and to the Council of Europe in areas in which the EU does not have competence to interfere in lawmaking in Hungary.
One of the crown achievements of the past year is the launching of the Council of Europe's policy towards countries in the neighbouring regions. Just over a year after the beginning of the historic developments in our Southern neighbourhood, we not only have a policy but also bilaterally agreed co-operation priorities which are about to be implemented in the weeks and months to come, first in Morocco and Tunisia. We have also started consultations with Jordan. I see a potential for us to use our instruments to build confidence between Israel and Palestine.
The beneficiary countries are not only in the South but also in our neighbourhood to the East, in Central Asia and we have started to work with Kazakhstan.
Mr President, members of the Assembly,
I could mention more examples but I believe these are enough to illustrate the trend – a new, more reactive, more operational, more political organisation.
How did we get there? The answer is, through far‑reaching, sometimes difficult, internal reform. But even more importantly, a reform of our mindset. The Council of Europe was called the sleeping beauty at the river Rhine. We had to be more outward-looking and forward-looking. In order to be relevant at the right time we had to look for partners rather than competitors, we had to ask ourselves how we could assist our member states, not only reporting about them. Therefore we had to reorganize ourselves and refocus our resources.
The fact is that today, our member states are convinced that the Council of Europe is providing value for money.
We have maintained a zero-real growth budget. In the times we live in, and with all the budgetary constraints and severe cuts in public spending, all our member states are obliged to carry through – this is a remarkable achievement.
The voluntary contributions from the member states in 2011 are 35% higher than the year before.
The total receipts from the EU increased by 18%.
These are clear figures which are demonstrating a growing trust in our capacity to deliver.
And this brings me to 2012.
I am sure you will agree that the general outlook is not particularly rosy.
In the year ahead, the European integration project will continue to be sorely tested.
Many speak about bringing decisions home.
"Renationalisation" of European politics is still a tangible threat.
The old ghost, nationalism is again visiting Europe. We know from the past that nationalism always comes from something bad and always leads to something even worse.
What can we do? What is our answer?
One answer is to meet criticism with reform. There is a need for reform of the European institutions. They are not designed for the world of Steve Jobs. New communication technologies in particular are transforming our economies and societies every day. But there has been no such innovative force in the world of politics. The driving forces on the market are computers, when a button is pushed on one computer, the same button is pushed on computers all over the world. Market forces are very often on autopilot and out of human control.
We cannot meet this challenge by making decisions at home. We have to reinforce international and European institutions.
The way we do politics at the national level in Steve Job's world must also be different from the way that we did politics in the past. The challenge is to involve, in particular, young people who are on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, in policymaking. Twitter and Facebook do mobilise people, but they do not make politics. Mobilising young people into shaping and forming politics represents a potential for all our democracies. If we fail, the gap between those who govern and those who are directly concerned will continue to grow.
I will not elaborate more on this here, but these things will be important topics at the Strasbourg World Forum for Democracy which we will launch later this year.
Another consequence of the technological revolution is globalisation, which has given the world new opportunities. However, new threats have also emerged. More and more people seem to define their own identity against other people's identity. They want to protect their own religion or culture by keeping foreigners out or expelling them.
Xenophobic attitudes are growing. Together with the wish "to bring decisions home", it becomes dangerous.
Against this background, it is indispensable that we continue to follow up the Group of Eminent Persons' ‘Living Together' Report, but also that we step up our efforts in the work on migration. As issues of discrimination and the relations between majorities and minorities intensify, there will be a corresponding need for education policies to address intercultural issues and promote living with cultural diversity.
I would like to add and underline that: the European political mainstream has to join forces and find a way to combat hate speech and agree on a common language to speak to the public about our common reality, which is diversity.
We must not let the language of extremist forces slowly become mainstream in Europe.
Because democracies are under stress from new technological and economic forces and growing populist tendencies, it is even more important that we insist upon the compliance with democratic norms and values. The reality is that, in many parts of Europe, these are under serious threat.
We must preserve and reinforce the system of checks and balances which is indispensable to the normal functioning of democracy. While problems and threats differ from country to country, I see three groups of issues on which we should focus in 2012 and the years to come. These are:
- free and fair elections,
- freedom of media, and
- an independent and effective judicial system.
We know from history that if such independent institutions are not in place, corruption will flourish, misuse of power will develop and mismanagement will spread. At the end of the day there will be no stability left. Instability will be misused by extremist forces.
When it comes to elections, there will be a number of extremely important ones, starting with the Presidential vote in the Russian Federation in just over a month. A number of other elections, presidential and parliamentary ones, will follow in countries such as Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine.
In the past, some of these countries have done better than the others, but it is of vital importance that this time, they all get it right.
The second set of issues is related to the freedom of expression. Here, the problems are as diverse as they are many. Across Europe, media freedom is under stress, from "softer" attempts of governmental control over media, to more brutal methods where journalists are persecuted, prosecuted and jailed for the simple reason of exercising their profession. Some are physically attacked; others have lost their lives.
We are also facing some new challenges which show that the freedom of media and independent politics are under pressure in well-established democracies. This is illustrated with the discussion on media and journalist ethics in the United Kingdom. A recent affair between media and the Federal President in Germany has triggered a similar debate. A professor of media studies at the Free University in Berlin has said that a sort of incestuous relationship exists between German media and politicians. In France, a renowned prosecutor is facing charges for illegal investigation of journalists' sources.
Dear friends, I am concerned. Deeply concerned. Freedom of expression is being threatened by national authorities, by the media themselves, by market forces and concentration of ownership and commercialisation of individuals and opinions.
In this area the Council of Europe has to do much more and much better than before.
The third set of issues concerns the functioning of the judiciary and its independence and effectiveness. This is a widespread problem which undermines the rule of law and the normal functioning of democratic institutions in many parts of Europe. Look at the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Italy for example is one of the main contributors to the backlog because of the excessive length of court proceedings in the country.
The collateral damage of the backlog is the blocking of the normal functioning of the European Court of Human Rights which was never meant to serve as the court of last instance for judicial systems unable to protect domestic human rights.
Our work in Ukraine, which was reinforced in view of the highly controversial and politicised trial against former Prime Minister Tymoshenko, is an example of what we can, and should be doing in this area. The first concrete result is a new Criminal Procedure Code in which a vast majority of our experts' suggestions have been taken on board. I consider that the willingness of the Ukrainian authorities to engage and expand such co-operation should be welcomed. I believe it is clearly in Ukraine's interest that these activities continue and that they produce a concrete and measurable impact as soon as possible – also with regard to specific cases which are causing concern such as the one of Yulia Tymoshenko.
But while we talk about the system of checks and balances at national level, we should also bear in mind its European dimension that is the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. This Court is the ultimate guarantor of the system of rule of law on the entire continent.
We must safeguard the individual right to complaint when we come to the end of the historic and necessary reform process of the court.
And we must safeguard the principle that all member states are equal before the Convention. Yes, it is true that some member states have gone further than others in implementing the Conventions' standards in their legislation. They can claim that the court is not necessary for them any longer. But new political winds can also start blowing there. Somebody has to have the right to intervene.
The role of the Court is twofold: to help member countries, which have not yet done so, to adapt legislation to the Convention, and to prevent any return to authoritarian rule.
This was the real objective of the Court when Winston Churchill took the initiative to establish it. It is our role to defend it. We must stand up against the campaign smearing the reputation of the Court on the basis of distorted facts and prejudiced exaggerations.
I believe it is very fortunate that, during this critically important period, we can benefit from a very determined and ambitious Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers by the United Kingdom.
On Wednesday, we shall have the opportunity to listen to the speech of Prime Minister David Cameron, and I am personally very much looking forward to it. I have no doubts in the commitment of the Prime Minister and the UK Government to the rights and freedoms protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The reform of the Court runs in parallel to another historically important process, namely the EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. When this is accomplished – and the Court is reformed - the Europe-wide mechanism for democratic checks and balances will finally be fully functioning and complete. There are still obstacles on the road, but – if the political will is there – they can be quickly resolved.
And to those who hesitate on also bringing the EU under the same obligations and the same court as all others, I would like to say the following: do not expect that you will have much leverage when you criticise member states for not living up to the standards.
The logic of the human rights and the comprehensive system which we have created to uphold them, is that they are for all or for none.
This, in short, is my blueprint for 2012. It is a work plan more than a vision. But if we are successful and deliver concrete and measurable results on these priorities – the vision of an ambitious, peaceful, prosperous and forward looking Europe, united within and open to its neighbours – will have a chance of becoming a reality.