The Parliamentary Assembly is one of the Council of Europe’s two main statutory bodies and represents the main political tendencies in its member states. The Assembly sees itself as the driving force in extending European co-operation to all democratic states throughout Europe.
Europe’s democratic conscience
The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly was the first European assembly to be created in the continent’s history. It is also the most comprehensive, with delegations from 46 national parliaments.
It is free to choose its own agenda and deals with topics of current or potential importance, including current social problems and aspects of international politics.
Its deliberations provide significant guidelines for the Council’s Committee of Ministers and intergovernmental sectors, and they influence governments when members relay them to their national parliaments.
The historic events in central and eastern European nations at the beginning of the 1990s set the Assembly the unique challenge of bringing them into the fold of European democracies and encouraging parliamentary co-operation between all European nations. In this way it has contributed to building a greater Europe without dividing lines.
The Parliamentary Assembly created its special guest statusin 1989. This allowed parliamentary delegations from the emerging pluralist democracies of central and eastern Europe, as yet non-members, to attend the Assembly’s plenary sessions and committee meetings. These contacts and exchanges encouraged democratisation in these countries and facilitated their accession to the Council of Europe.
Structure and organisation: mirroring the European democracies
The Parliamentary Assembly’s 315 members and their substitutes are elected or appointed by national parliaments from among their own members. Each country has between 2 and 18 representatives, depending on its population. National delegations are constituted to ensure a fair representation of their parliamentary political parties or groups.
The Assembly has five political groups: the Socialists Group (SOC), the Group of the European People’s Party (EPP/CD), the Liberal, Democratic and Reformers’ Group (LDR), the European Democratic Group (EDG) and the Group of the Unified European Left (UEL). Some members choose not to belong to any political group.
The Assembly meets quarterly for a week in plenary session in the Chamber of the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg. Sittings are public. It also holds a spring meeting in one of the member states.
It elects its president from among its members, traditionally for three consecutive one-year terms. The President, Vice-Presidents (19 at present), the Chairs of the five political groups and the Chairs of the ten committees form the Bureau of the Assembly.
It also elects the Council of Europe’s Secretary General and Deputy Secretary General, the Secretary General of the Assembly, the judges of the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.
Its work is prepared by specialist committees dealing with: political affairs, legal affairs and human rights, social, health and family affairs, culture, science and education, the environment and agriculture, local and regional affairs, economic affairs and development, migration, refugees and population; equal opportunities for women and men,rules of procedure and immunities, and the honouring of obligations and commitments by member states.
Debates on European and world events
The agenda for each session features debates on European and world events. In particular, the Assembly focuses on matters requiring action at a European level. Prominent dignitaries and heads of state from all over the world have contributed to these debates (John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Václav Havel, Viktor Yushchenko and many others).
The Assembly also provides a forum for other international organisations such as the OECD, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and several of the United Nations’ specialised agencies.
Non-governmental organisations attend some committees as observers and make a valuable contribution to important events organised by the Assembly.
Initiatives and results
The Assembly has played an active role in crisis management throughout Europe since 1989 and debates are often based on findings from on-the-spot visits and dialogue with the states concerned; it has therefore strengthened the Council’s political role.
The texts it adopts provide important guidelines for the Committee of Ministers, national governments, parliaments, political parties and other important areas of society; it has also initiated many international treaties (European Conventions) and other legal instruments, forming the basis of a truly European system of legislation.
The best known is the European Convention on Human Rights, which was opened for signature in 1950 (see section on “Human rights: protection, promotion and prevention”). The Committee of Ministers consults the Assembly on all draft conventions before they are adopted.
It also holds regular conferences, symposia and public parliamentary hearings on major topical issues such as violence, intolerance, the environment, immigration, drugs, bioethics and the media. This establishes dialogue between parliamentarians and specialists.
Building parliamentary partnerships
The Assembly has external relations with the national parliaments of member- and non-member states, international parliamentary assemblies and intergovernmental organisations and are governed by the decisions of the Assembly’s Bureau.
Relations with national parliaments are covered by the provisions of membership, special guest or observer status; the Assembly also has contacts with other international parliamentary assemblies such as the European Parliament, the Western European Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Benelux, the Nordic Council, the PABSEC and the CIS.
Since it was founded over fifty years ago, the Parliamentary Assembly has been flexible. In particular, it has adapted to the dramatic changes of recent years. No other international parliamentary forum was so well equipped to integrate the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe into the family of European nations. The fact that its members are also members of their national parliaments is advantageous; it keeps the Assembly in close contact with national politics.
The Parliamentary Assembly also had a major role in preparing candidate countries for membership. It supports developing democracies and monitors observance of their commitments when they are admitted.
What’s the difference?
- The Parliamentary Assembly comprises members of the national parliaments of all 46 of the Council’s member states.
- The European Parliament comprises directly elected representatives from the European Union’s 25 member states.
Member states and their representation
Albania (4), Andorra (2), Armenia (4), Austria (6), Azerbaijan (6), Belgium (7), Bosnia and Herzegovina (5), Bulgaria (6), Croatia (5), Cyprus (3), Czech Republic (7), Denmark (5), Estonia (3), Finland (5), France (18), Georgia (5), Germany (18), Greece (7), Hungary (7), Iceland (3), Ireland (4), Italy (18), Latvia (3), Liechtenstein (2), Lithuania (4), Luxembourg (3), Malta (3), Moldova (5), Monaco (2), Montenegro (3), Netherlands (7), Norway (5), Poland (12), Portugal (7), Romania (10), San Marino (2), Serbia (7), Slovak Republic (5), Slovenia (3), Spain (12), Sweden (6), Switzerland (6), “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia“ (3), Turkey (12), Ukraine (12), United Kingdom (18).
The parliaments of Canada, Israel, Mexico and the United States enjoy observer status with the Parliamentary Assembly.
Special guest status
The special guest status of the Parliament of Belarus was suspended on 13 January 1997.