European Conference of Presidents of Parliament

Strasbourg , 

Dear President Mignon,
Dear Presidents,
Distinguished Guests,

It is a great pleasure to be with you today, here at the Palais de l'Europe in Strasbourg.

As President Mignon pointed out, the Parliamentary Assembly is the widest forum where the voice of the representatives of Europeans can be heard.

I, therefore, truly believe that the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament is the perfect platform – and this is the perfect time – for us to re-think several important issues.

Re-think the best ways to construct a genuine democratic culture.

Re-think how we can lead by example, cementing the fundamental values that we hold so dear.

But also re-think how best to refocus our efforts on the real needs – and rights – of Europeans, rather than succumb to snappy slogans peddled by populist politicians.

We have a busy two days ahead of us.

Together, we will consider the role of national parliaments in the future of the European Court of Human Rights. We will debate the challenges – and the opportunities – presented by the Arab revolutions.

We will also address a very important and timely question: "Is representative democracy in crisis?"

And it is on this issue that I would like to say a few words before the presentations begin.
These are tough times for Europe.
Is representative democracy in crisis? Well, there can be no doubt that we are witnessing a crisis of trust.

Public confidence in democratic institutions – in political parties, in national parliaments – is trickling away. According to a poll published by the European Commission earlier this year, many Europeans perceive politicians and political parties as dishonest, as corrupt.

In most European capitals, democracy remains the only game in town. But people are starting to have doubts whether it is still a game worth playing.

Electoral turnouts are low. Membership of mainstream political parties has fallen.

At the same time radical political movements, whose democratic credentials are more than questionable, are gaining ground.

What does this mean?

It means that people feel less and less as if their vote matters. They feel that, while they may be able to change who is in power, they are not able to affect what actions their leaders take.

It means Europe is faced with the possibility of an even more corrosive threat than that exposed by the financial crisis. A threat to our fundamental values and the moral foundations of our society.

There is, it seems, a growing gap between citizens and democratic institutions.

We need to bridge this gap. We need to regain trust.

How do we do this?

Part of the answer is to take a long, honest look in the mirror.

National parliaments are the cornerstone institutions of representative democracy.

But parliamentary democracy can only exist and operate properly if it enjoys the trust of its citizens. In the absence of such trust, its very foundations are at stake.

It is, therefore, vital that parliaments ensure that their own functioning does not give rise to suspicion.

Only then can trust be won back.

For this to happen, we need to lead by example.

Above all, there are three main areas which warrant our attention: first, parliamentary immunity, second, the financing of political parties and campaigns and third, lobbying.

Let me start with parliamentary immunity.

Sadly, there are too many cases of corrupt politicians hiding behind their immunity.

Corruption is one of the most widespread and sinister of social evils. When it involves elected representatives, it is detrimental to the administration of public affairs, undermining the trust and confidence which are necessary for sustainable economic and social relations.

Immunities from investigation and prosecution enjoyed by elected representatives often throw up major obstacles in the fight against corruption.

Let us not forget that the main purpose of parliamentary immunity is the protection of parliamentary independence – of democracy itself. It is not a personal privilege of individual members of parliament.

Therefore immunity must not be unlimited. Nor can it be allowed to obstruct the course of justice.

In short, a balance has to be found between the duty to shield the independence of parliament and the need to ensure due process.

I support the recommendations made by my colleagues at GRECO, the Council of Europe's Group of States against Corruption: it is high time that many of our member states cut back the list of parliamentarians covered by immunity.

Procedures for lifting immunity should be rendered more transparent.

More efficient, more simple and, above all, less politicised.

We must not lose our moral compass.

Some of you might recall a famous letter that Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Creighton over one-hundred-and-twenty years ago, arguing that the same moral standards should be applied to all men. To politicians just as much as ordinary citizens.

He wrote:
"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority."

I do not share Lord Acton's dark view of the fickleness of our leaders.

Corrupt parliamentarians are a small minority. That is why it is crucial we take action against the corrupt few. So that our institutions do not suffer the consequences.

Bringing corrupt parliamentarians to justice will help eradicate a climate of impunity.

Bringing parliamentarians to justice for corrupt dealings will strengthen citizens' trust in democratic institutions. It will strengthen citizens' trust in the rule of law.

Dear colleagues,

The second issue I wanted to touch on is the financing of political parties and campaigns.

Corrupt – sometimes camouflaged – political financing threatens our democratic principles, it threatens the spirit of our parliamentary democracy.

As with parliamentary immunity, transparency is vital.

The Council of Europe has repeatedly called on member states to set up transparent systems for party and election campaign financing.

It is encouraging to see that some states are taking this seriously.

But there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Many states still do not have a truly independent supervisory body. In some states such a body does not exist or has limited functions.

Information is scarce. Too often, books and accounts are not published in an accessible and timely manner. Anonymous donations are still common.

Incumbent candidates and parties use loopholes in legislation to use state funds and resources to their own advantage.

The list goes on.

The third and final issue I briefly wanted to raise is lobbying.

Lobbying is part of our political reality.

When it is limited to providing politicians with information about complex issues, it is also a constructive element of our political processes.

But if it becomes too influential, or indeed corrupt, or if only the voices of the powerful and wealthy are heard, lobbying presents a real danger to these processes.

Faced with the dangers of the financing of political parties and lobbying, sanctions and restrictions are often weak. Not flexible. Limited in scope, or not applied.

This needs to change.

It is not just about preventing the scourge of corruption; it is about protecting the rights of voters.

It is up to you, up to us together, to commit the necessary political will – and adequate resources – so that corruption can be fought effectively.

So that we can win back public trust.

As presidents of parliament you have a particular responsibility in this respect.

You can help ensure that proper standards of conduct for parliamentary members are in place.

The effectiveness and, most importantly, the credibility of these standards will depend on the tools at your disposal. But also on the awareness of the parliamentarians themselves, and on their willingness to comply.

If, and when, misconduct comes to light, it must be met by the appropriate sanctions.

Dear friends,

I strongly believe that these difficult times present us with a chance to better ourselves.

In this spirit, the European Conference of Presidents of Parliaments presents us with a unique opportunity.

An opportunity to iron out inconsistencies within our institutional framework. Inconsistencies that have fueled anger and distrust among the wider public.

But also an opportunity to look to the future and take bold decisions that will benefit our entire continent, as well as our neighbours.

I hope you find these two days productive and inspiring.

Thank you.