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First Part Session of the Parliamentary Assembly

Strasbourg , 

Madam President,

Dear Parliamentarians,

Dear friends,

The Statute of the Council of Europe says that the Council shall contribute to a greater unity in Europe.

The best way we can do this is to change democratic practices and to improve the conformity of the legislation in our member countries with the European Convention on Human Rights. The aim must be to create a common legal space regarding human rights, rule of law and democracy, not only formally, but also in practice.

We should never lose sight of this. 

This is why a reform of the Organisation was necessary five years ago.

The convention system was threatened.

The Organisation was bogged down in economic problems. 

The staff costs were growing exponentially and twice as much as the budget.

The Court was flooded by more and more applications and its cumbersome procedures caused a growing backlog for its work.

The response to this was to transfer more and more money from the regular budget of the Council of Europe to the Court.  From 2003 to 2009 the Court's budget grew by 43 percent!

In other words: growing staff costs and increasing transfer of money to the Court were about to strangle the Organisation entirely.

Therefore; major savings and restructuring had to be undertaken. 

Transfer of funds to the Court also had to be stopped. Instead, the focus had to be put on implementing reforms in the Court's internal procedures so that it could cope with its workload more easily.

However, reforms within the Court were not enough. The problems of the Court came from the member States. Therefore, we had to focus on assisting member countries in reforming their legislation and bringing their judicial practice in line with the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In order to do this our presence in these member States had to be strengthened. Our most recent Programme Office was established in Moscow following President Putin's agreement during my meeting with him last summer.

We have now come to the next phase of the reform.  I launched it in this Assembly exactly a year ago, when I spoke of the need to better use, analyse and follow up the findings of our monitoring bodies.  They are our key added value and comparative advantage, yet dramatically underexploited.

The first immediate follow up to the announcement I made here a year ago has been that we have carefully analysed the reports of the monitoring bodies and identified three main challenges for each and every member State.

This has been the basis for dialogue with our member States on how they intend to remedy the shortcomings and how the Council of Europe can assist them in this endeavour.

I want to make one important point in this regard:  By launching a process that affects all member States, we will increase cohesion in the Organisation. 

In the years after the opening of the Council of Europe to newly emerged democracies, there was a need to focus on both monitoring and assistance. The procedures in the Assembly and in the Committee of Ministers reflect this logic. This was fully justified. But I believe it is now time to shift emphasis towards monitoring and co-operation applicable to all member States.

The overview which we are about to work out - which we also can call a matrix - containing shortcomings, remedies and assistance for all, will remain confidential, although it is based on reports which are public on our website.

We do not want to establish a ranking, or name and blame game.  The objective is to conduct a constructive dialogue with member States and agree on modalities of Council of Europe assistance. 

Another reason for confidentiality is to avoid the impression we are introducing a new layer of monitoring. This is of course not true. Quite the opposite – our aim is to reaffirm the importance of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms applicable to all member States. And to create a dynamic which will improve the follow up to their findings. In all our member States.

I believe that the Assembly is thinking along similar lines, and that the ongoing reflection on the future of your monitoring procedures will be an important contribution of the overall effort to improve the compliance with our standards across the entire Council of Europe.

The matrix provides me with the possibility to write a report for the ministerial meeting about the main trends in Europe, when it comes to human rights, rule of law and democracy.

And on this basis identify shortcomings in our own set-up and the way we organise our work. And answer two simple questions: do we need new standards, or do we need to modify the mandate and working methods of our existing monitoring bodies? And how can we better coordinate ourselves with other international organisations?

I intend to formulate ambitious and far-reaching recommendations on how to fill any voids and to reinforce our capacities in standard-setting, detecting problems, and in particular helping our member States to resolve their problems.

I appreciate the inputs that I have received from you, both before and during this session, and I look forward to discussing the report in due course with you.

Dear friends,

I believe the report can be a turning point for the Organisation.  It will enable us to play more forcefully the role as the Convention-based tool for protecting human rights and the rule of law. 

It is already evident that there are many country specific problems but, also many common problems - such as increasing intolerance, racism and extremism. Minorities like Roma are under increasing pressure. And financial constraints have led to new social problems and divisions that once again underline the importance of the Council of Europe's Social Charter.

Common to all countries are also growing transnational crime, money laundering, human trafficking, violence against women and child abuse.

At the next ministerial meeting in Vienna, we can mark the entry into force of the Istanbul Convention.  This Convention is ground-breaking and highly valued far beyond Europe.  In the UN it is referred to as a "gold standard" in combating violence against women.

I would like to thank PACE for its role in the shaping of the Convention and raising awareness to get member States to ratify.

What all member States have in common is also an underlying protest against privileged groups that seem to have formed their own parallel society. In some countries, they are referred to as oligarchs, elsewhere as "nouveau-riche" money makers. What is common to them is that they have taken too generous a slice of the social pie and they refuse to share it. Social frustration is growing.

Here, I associate myself with the Pope who has warned against a trend where the winner takes it all and that those at the bottom of the society are lagging more and more behind. I would like to add: we have a structural problem in our political system, namely that we very seldom find those at the bottom represented in the political parties and in the state bodies and parliaments. So the mega trends in today's market economy, which the Pope speaks about, are being reinforced by the political institutions. Rather than helping to reduce inequalities.

This is a real threat to the stability of our societies. We have to recall the old lesson, namely that greed may bring happiness to an individual, but is not sufficient to build a society.

It is a priority for me to revive and increase the attention to the European Social Charter. It has gained renewed relevance in light of the economic crisis.

I see three main challenges.

I have already mentioned the first, namely that there is a difference in standards between the EU social legislation and our Charter. Some of our standards are stronger, others are weaker. What we need is a process, with the EU, of the harmonisation of our standards.

The second concerns the fact that not all member States have ratified the Revised Charter, and only 13 member States have ratified its Protocol on the right to make collective complaints. We need to do something about this.

Third comes the fact that migrants are being exploited and this can also weaken the rights of the country's native workers.

I would also like to say some words about our co-operation with the European Union. I will continue to build a solid partnership with the EU based on full respect for the integrity of both Organisations.  This is indispensable for building a solid relationship within our own Organisation between EU-members and non-EU members.  

European Union accession to the European Convention on Human Rights is of utmost importance in that respect. We have made a breakthrough. An agreement between our 47 member States and the European Commission has been reached and will soon be submitted to the competent EU bodies and Council of Europe institutions.

What we have achieved in practical co-operation with the EU is important for bringing this process to a happy ending.  From a nearly non-existing relationship, I am now about to sign a long term financial agreement with EU and we are discussing amounts in the order of 100 million Euros over the next seven years in the Eastern partnership and 120 million Euros in South East Europe.  And for our work in our neighbouring region we will have available 6 million Euros over the next seven years.

Dear friends,

I would like to pay attention to one of the major challenges in the world which affects all our citizens; namely the governance of Internet and protection of personal data.

These are two separate questions that are closely interlinked.

First, the question of Internet governance. The Council of Europe must play an active role in the global process which has begun. I have been appointed member of a global panel which, among other tasks, will provide input to the conference initiated by the President of Brazil at the end of April.

The Internet has, until now, been managed from the United States, which is understandable, since this is where the technology originated and where the companies running the internet are based.

Of course this poses a challenge to us in a world where the Internet has become a global common good. But at the same time, we must also be aware that the internet cannot function without private players.  There is a need for a multi stakeholder approach.

With regard to data security, the Council of Europe must also play an active role. We have started the revision of Convention 108, which is unique in the world. The EU Commission participates in the process and has prompted the United States to consider joining the Convention.  Russia recently ratified Convention 108. Further accession to our Convention is probably an easier pathway to global rules than by elaborating a binding Convention under the auspices of the United Nations.

My view is that we need global rules - not rules which restrict freedom of expression - but rules which protect privacy. It is not enough to say that friends should not spy on friends.

All people, regardless of where they live, should be regarded as friends.  If an authority wants to look into private data, there should be clear procedures under the rule of law that applies to all.

Dear friends,

Trust is a decisive asset in today's globalised world, also in economic terms. Our member States gain a lot of credibility and trust because they are a member of a pan-European Rule of law system.  Therefore, they should pay back by honouring their commitments and contribute to upholding the convention system they are so dependent on. 

On our part we must do our utmost to help member countries to do away with problems that undermine trust.

By combating corruption.

By strengthening the judiciary.

By protecting free media.

By ensuring that people have confidence that their privacy is protected so that the internet can remain a source of innovation.

Dear friends, 

My aim was, and is, to make a Council of Europe more relevant and stronger.  I think we have made important progress.

But there is a new challenge.

Despite all our reform efforts, the Convention is under increasing pressure. For political reasons.

The European institutions have become the main target for radical political groups that have been growing as the social and economic crisis has deepened.

In some more moderate and mainstream circles it has become popular to say: bring decisions home.

In some of our member countries legislation is being introduced without due respect to commitments they have undertaken by signing up to the European Convention.

The crucial question is whether these worrying trends will lead to more and more frictions which can ultimately cause the break up of the whole convention system.

I am sure that nobody wants this.

But we cannot exclude that it will happen.

I call on all state parties to take collective responsibility.

As an Organisation we must represent a positive counter force to negative developments. We have no other choice but to carry on doing the necessary work in our member States.

We must consolidate what has been achieved and take the next step in the reform process which is to improve monitoring.

We have entered the final stage of the European Union accession to the ECHR, a process of historic importance to Europe.

Let us not forget – in year 2014 – that the Convention was adopted after two awful wars on our continent.  Peace had to be built on human rights and the rule of law. The logic was that a country that is not willing or able to guarantee human rights for its own people will not guarantee peace to its neighbours.

This is the historic legacy that we have to preserve.  By moving forward, not stopping halfway.

Finally, allow me at the end a few words on the current situation in Ukraine.

The building of genuine democracy takes time. And once it is done, it requires constant vigilance because there will always be challenges and setbacks. This is why much of the Council of Europe work is of a long-term nature. It is not only about changing laws; it is about introducing democratic practices, building institutions and changing mind-sets. And that cannot happen overnight.

But this patient, step-by-step approach must be combined with a capacity to react to emergencies when it comes to the functioning of institutions in our member States. The situation in Ukraine is a dramatic illustration of this imperative.

It is clear to everyone that any peaceful, democratic political solution to the current crisis will have to be based on the Council of Europe democratic, human rights and rule of law standards. It is also evident that we must be in position to deliver expertise and assistance on these standards virtually in real time. We do not always have time to wait until the European Court of Human Rights will deliver its judgment.

This is why we acted immediately when the crisis broke out and we stayed prominently involved, in contact with all parties and in close coordination with our international partners, notably the European Union and the OSCE.

At the end of last week, I met the Ukrainian Prime Minister and asked him to send us the controversial laws adopted on 16 January for expertise. A delegation came from Kyiv this weekend and met with our experts. Our analysis and recommendation was clear: the laws cannot be fixed, they must be cancelled. And today, the Ukrainian parliament has done exactly that.

Our rapid reaction response has credibility because it is based on legally binding standards and objective, non-politicized expertise. In this, or any other situation we are not taking any side, except the side of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This is the reason behind the Council of Europe's growing political relevance. This is why governments – and our international partners – are increasingly turning to us for assistance and advice. It is a reputation that was hard to win but is always easy to lose if we do not continue to improve – through internal reform and external performance. Including in Ukraine, as we speak.