I had several meetings at the margin of the session and of the Forum:
I attended the EPP Congress in Bucharest. This Congress was marked by the presence of many Heads of State and Government, as well as by the President of the European Commission. On this occasion, I had the opportunity to meet with the President of the National Assembly of Romania. We agreed that after the next legislative elections, I be invited to address the Romanian Parliament. He also informed me of his wish to send young parliamentarians to various European Union parliaments in order to perfect their knowledge of the functioning of a Parliament.
I also met with the President of the Republic of Georgia. We discussed, in particular, the political situation in the wake of the elections and the possibility that Mr Saakashvili would come to Strasbourg in January 2013 to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
In my statement to the EPP Congress, I stressed that Europe was not limited to the European Union, especially at a time when we need a Europe of values and to get back to basics. I emphasised that it was necessary to defend the will to live together on the basis of an unshakable belief in a common destiny and shared values, and in order to promote these values we have at our disposal useful instruments such as the Assembly Monitoring Committee, the Venice Commission, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Moneyval or the European Court of Human Rights, to limit myself to but a few examples. The reputation of the Court, sole Council of Europe body known to the general public, proves if confirmation were needed, that human rights are a key issue in today's Europe. To do this, the Council of Europe and the European Union must cooperate closely.
Finally, I had in-depth talks with European parliamentarians who are also members of the French delegation. I noted a real interest in a rapprochement with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
At the invitation of the President of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) of Tunisia, Mr Mustapha Ben Jaafar, I paid an official visit to Tunisia on 29 and 30 October 2012, together with Mr Edmond Panariti, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Albania. I was most pleased that the President of the Committee of Ministers had responded positively to my proposal for a joint visit, because it sent our hosts an important political sign showing our strengthened co-operation with the aim of assisting democratic transition in the southern neighbourhood of the Council of Europe.
Furthermore, our visit coincided with the visit to Tunisia of the President of the Venice Commission, Mr Gianni Buquicchio, who also participated in some of our meetings, thus allowing us to better convey and reinforce our message.
We were able to speak with the highest authorities in the country, and in particular with the President of the Republic, the President of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), the Head of Government and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. We also met with representatives of political parties in the ANC and we had a highly rewarding meeting with representatives from Tunisian civil society.
The ongoing constitutional reform was at the centre of our discussions and we called on the Tunisian authorities to lead the way forward to firmly establish the foundations of a democratic and pluralistic society, respectful of the rights and freedoms of all individuals.
We encouraged the implementation, through the independent constitutional authorities, of such essential issues as the independence of justice and of the media.
We welcomed the fact that a wide consultation of the civil society would be undertaken soon on the draft Constitution, and expressed the hope that it would allow all voices to be heard, in particular that of human rights defenders.
We ensured our hosts that the Council of Europe was ready to continue providing its expertise, through its different tools, to perfect the draft Constitution, but also during the important stages following its adoption. In this respect, we hope that the agreement on the establishment of a Council of Europe Office in Tunisia will soon be concluded.
Referring to the elections which will follow the adoption of the Constitution, we pointed out that it was important that the measures required for the holding of free and democratic elections be taken in time, in particular with regard to the electoral law and the establishment of the independent body in charge of the elections. We emphasised the need for an open process, based on dialogue between all political forces. I pointed out the availability of the Parliamentary Assembly to observe future elections, as it had already done for the elections of 23 October 2011. The Head of Government and other senior officials were in favour of such an approach. We also expressed the availability of the Council of Europe in general, and in particular through its Venice Commission, to share its know-how with the country on this issue.
In our meetings, we stressed that it was important that Tunisia continue on the path of democratic change through dialogue and the search for as wide a consensus as possible between all political forces and beyond, in Tunisian society in all its diversity.
I reiterated the readiness of the Parliamentary Assembly to establish even further co-operation with Tunisian parliamentarians through the obtention of Partner for Democracy status. This wish was shared by our hosts. Mr Ben Jaafar assured us that this issue would be examined as soon as a Parliament had been elected following the elections to be held after the adoption of the new Constitution.
I also invited the President of the Republic of Tunisia to address the Parliamentary Assembly.
Finally, I wish to thank the Council of Europe National Coordinator for Tunisia and his team for their valuable contribution to the organisation and the smooth running of the visit.
Continuing the tradition of annual meetings between the Assembly Presidential Committee and the European Parliament Conference of Presidents, a joint meeting was held in Brussels on 7 November 2012 on the theme "Coordination between the Council of Europe and the European Union in respect of fundamental rights".
During this meeting, the members of the Presidential Committee advocated closer cooperation between the Assembly and the European Parliament, particularly to tackle the specific problems faced by some States in respect of fundamental rights and democratic principles, both within and beyond the European Union. We also expressed the wish that the European Union accede rapidly to the European Convention on human rights and called for duplication of work between the two bodies to be avoided in the name of enhanced complementarity. We noticed that there was very good mutual cooperation in the framework of joint observation of elections and we discussed, in particular, the presidential election in Ukraine of 28 October last.
I would like to point out that our discussions were very constructive and took place in an excellent atmosphere. In response to my invitation, the President of the European Parliament, Mr Martin Schulz, expressed his will to come to Strasbourg to address the Assembly.
It was also agreed that our Secretaries General should meet as soon as possible to identify the areas of our cooperation and to define the practical modalities, in accordance with the agreement of 28 November 2007 on the strengthening of cooperation between our two assemblies.
In this context, they could also examine ways of strengthening relations between the Chairpersons of our respective committees, including the holding of regular meetings between the Committee Chairpersons of the European Parliament Conference of Presidents and the Parliamentary Assembly Committee Chairpersons.
Afterwards, I met with Mr Eduard Kukan, Chairman of the Delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo,Note as well as Mr Knut Fleckenstein, Chairman of the Delegation to the EU-Russia parliamentary co-operation Committee.
The discussions I had with Mr Kukan and with Mr Fleckenstein prompted me to think that it would be useful to we could usefully develop relations with some interparliamentary delegations of the European Parliament, depending on their geographic jurisdiction.
On 8 November 2012, I met with the European Union Commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, Mr. Štefan Füle, to discuss measures to develop cooperation and to improve the coordination between the Assembly and the European Commission.
First of all, we decided to meet more regularly - every two months, beginning in December - to discuss topical issues. Mr Füle has also agreed to address the Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, as soon as possible.
At this meeting, I put emphasis on the fact that the countries concerned by the enlargement and the European Union neighbourhood policy are also members of the Council of Europe or are working with different bodies of the Council, such as the Venice Commission, the GRECO, the GRETA and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). As a result, the activities of the Assembly, including its monitoring reports, and those of other Council of Europe monitoring mechanisms, have proved to be very useful for the work of the European Union on these issues in these areas.
We also discussed cooperation on issues of specific current interest, such as the situation in Ukraine, the situation in the Balkans and in Kosovo* and frozen conflicts, including the settlement of the conflict in Transnistria.
On the occasion of this visit, I gave two interviews, one to “Agence Europe” and one to the newspaper "New Europe".
Finally, I wish to thank Ambassador Torbjørn Frøysnes, Head of Council of Europe office in Brussels, as well as the members of his team, for their most efficient assistance in the organisation of this highly successful visit.
At the invitation of the President of the Bundestag, Mr Norbert Lammert, I undertook an official visit to Germany from 19 to 22 November 2012. While in Berlin I met the Federal President, Mr Joachim Gauck, the President of the Bundestag, Mr Lammert, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Guido Westerwelle, the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Michael Link, and the Federal Minister for Justice, Ms Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. I exchanged views with members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the European Affairs Committee, the Legal Affairs Committee and the Sub-Committee on Human Rights, whose Chairs I also met. Lastly I had talks with the leaders of the political groups represented in the Bundestag. During my stay in Berlin I also made a speech at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Our discussions concentrated on the question of the need to refocus the Council of Europe’s work on themes related to the fields which are the Organisation’s “preserve”, namely democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The German authorities support us fully in this approach and we stressed in the course of our talks that we must respond firmly to all cases of non-compliance by our member states with their commitments and obligations. That is essential if our work is to be effective and credible.
When faced with cases of non-compliance with our standards, our role is to offer support and to engage in dialogue that is constructive and respectful of each party’s opinions, but at the same time critical, and I emphasised that we had to be uncompromising on our principles and values not only in our actions but also in our words.
I also focused on the question of complementarity between the work of the Council of Europe and the European Union, in order to enhance synergies and avoid duplication. In our discussions we stressed the different spheres of competence of the European Union and the Council of Europe and the need to ensure that the two organisations work well together while making the most of the expertise specific to each. National parliaments, particularly the relevant committees, and Ministries of Foreign Affairs play a key role in this process.
Another point that emerged clearly from our discussions was the need to return today to a Europe of values that is closer to the citizens. In this connection I called not only on member states but also on EU institutions to make full use of the work of our monitoring mechanisms, which are already doing an excellent job at pan-European level, in the fields of human rights, the rule of law and democratic institutions.
While talking about the challenges facing the Council of Europe, I emphasised the importance of seeking solutions to the problem of frozen conflicts and stressed the role of the Assembly and parliamentary diplomacy in fostering dialogue between elected representatives and rebuilding trust between citizens and civil society. I laid particular emphasis on the complementarity between the work of the Assembly and that of professional diplomats. The German diplomacy attaches a special attention to this topic and our discussion highlighted new opportunities for co-operation in this field.
Lastly, at my meeting with the Federal President, Mr Joachim Gauck, I was delighted to receive a positive response to my invitation to him to visit the Assembly during one of the 2013 part-sessions. The exact date of the visit will be determined at a later stage, depending on his preferences and availability, but some possible dates have already been mentioned, particularly during the April 2013 part-session.
At the invitation of the Presidents of the two Houses of the Parliament, I paid an official visit to Morocco from 5 to 7 December 2012.
During the visit, throughout which I was accompanied by Ms Fatiha Saïdi (Belgium, SOC), member of the Parliamentary Assembly and Rapporteur on "Equality between women and men: a condition for the success of the Arab Spring", I met with the Presidents of the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors, the Head of Government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and co-operation, the Minister for Solidarity, women, family and social development, the Minister-Delegate for the Interior and the President of the National Human Rights Council .
During the meetings with the Presidents of the two Houses, I paid tribute to the exemplary co-operation which exists between the Moroccan Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly. I encouraged co-operation on an equal footing, mutually beneficial to both parties. We discussed ways to enhance the partnership for democracy. Namely, we reviewed the commitments that the Moroccan Parliament undertook at the time of obtaining the Partner for democracy status. I pointed out that the progress which Morocco would make in fulfilling its commitments would confirm its ambition to serve as an example among the countries of the region.
With my interlocutors, we spoke in detail of the reforms undertaken following the entry into force of the new constitution in July 2011 and we discussed the extensive work in progress, in which the Council of Europe offers its expertise while learning from the Moroccan experience. I offered the assistance of the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe in the adoption of basic laws and the establishment of institutions resulting from the adoption of the new Constitution.
With regard to c-ooperation in the framework of the joint agreement on priorities between the Council of Europe and the Union European, discussions focused on the reform of justice, human rights, the status of women, the fight against violence against women, the fight against corruption, trafficking in human beings and child labour.
Recently, the Ministers’ Deputies suggested to Morocco to it adhere to certain Council of Europe Conventions; I strongly encouraged the country to do this.
The topics covered during the visit also included discussions on the challenges Morocco faces with the Sub-Saharan migration and the situation in the countries in the region of which Morocco is part. We also discussed the possible contribution of the Parliamentary Assembly vis-à-vis the situation in Western Sahara.
On 12 December 2012 in Strasbourg, I met Mr Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, in continuation of our regular meetings, which we agreed to hold every two months.
We re-confirmed that the Council of Europe and the European Union were natural partners in providing the countries aspiring to join the European Union as well as those in the European Southern neighbourhood incentives and assistance for carrying out the necessary democratic reforms.
Our talks focused on my forthcoming visit to Moldova, the conflict in Transnistria and perspectives for settling it, the situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan in the context of the forthcoming chairmanships of these countries in the Council of Europe, as well as activities in our southern neighbourhood, with particular reference to the countries enjoying Partner for Democracy status with the Assembly in the aftermath of my visit to Morocco.
I was glad that Mr Füle could confirm his participation at the Assembly’s next plenary session on 24 January 2013.
On 13 December 2012, I participated in the Conference “Human Rights and Foreign Policy” in Turin, organised by the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Assembly at the invitation of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. I delivered an opening address emphasising the need to find practical ways to integrate "human rights" issues into States’ foreign policy, in order to promote our standards, anticipate crises and respond quickly and efficiently to the consequences of serious human rights violations and humanitarian crises. I also stressed the close co-ordination between Council of Europe institutions and the European Union in the field of human rights, in order to promote complementarity and seek synergies.
In the margins of the conference, I met with Mr Stavros Lambrinidis, European Union Special Representative for human rights. During our meeting we discussed ways to coordinate our actions on human rights issues in Europe and in our close neighbourhood.
On 15 December 2012, I participated in the joint meeting between the Presidential Committee and the enlarged Bureau of the Venice Commission, a meeting organised on a regular basis as part of our co-operation agreement with the Venice Commission. We were able to take stock of our cooperation and identify ways for new synergies.
I also addressed the plenary session of the Venice Commission, highlighting the excellent cooperation that exists between the Assembly and the Venice Commission.
During my Visit to the Republic of Moldova from 17 to 20 December 2012, I met the Speaker of the Moldovan Parliament, representatives of the parliamentary factions of the Alliance for European Integration and representatives of the opposition, as well as the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for resettlement. On 18 December I visited Tiraspol and on 20 December I addressed the Parliament of the Republic of Moldova and answered the questions put to me by the members of parliament.
In my address, and during my meetings in Chisinau, I encouraged the parties in power and the opposition to work together to ensure that there would be no going back on the reforms embarked upon, particularly regarding the Action Plan on compliance by the Republic of Moldova with its commitments vis-à-vis the Council of Europe, adopted by the Parliament in July 2012, and the revision of the Constitution, including its Article 78, to avoid any fresh political deadlock over the election of the President.
I also called for respect for the independence of the judiciary as regards the sensitive issues that divided opinion between the ruling Alliance and the opposition, such as the shutting down of the NIT TV television channel by the Broadcasting Council and the impact of the law banning totalitarian symbols. Finally, I urged progress in priority areas such as the fight against corruption, the reform of the prosecutor's office and the police, the independence of the judiciary and the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
I expressed my firm support for Moldova in its efforts to become a member of the European Union and pointed out that the Council of Europe and the European Union are partners in encouraging Council of Europe member States which wish to become members of the European Union to continue and reinforce their commitment to founding their societies on European values.
I believe that progress in complying with the obligations and commitments entered into on becoming a member of the Council of Europe is the best way of speeding up the integration process. So, although future accession to the European Union remains a strong motivating factor for this country, the Council of Europe will continue to be, for the near future, the right institutional framework for progress in achieving reforms.
In my address to the Moldovan Parliament, I officially offered the services of the Parliamentary Assembly as a platform for giving fresh impetus to dialogue between the representatives of the Moldovan Parliament and the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet. My meetings in Chisinau revealed the government and the parliament’s good faith and realistic approach to resolving the Transnistrian conflict, which could even provide pointers for resolving this type of conflict in the future. I believe that the current positive atmosphere in relations between Chisinau and Tiraspol must be used to make decisive progress and take concrete initiatives to develop contacts at all levels – political and economic and in civil society.
In Tiraspol on 18 December I talked to Mr Burla, President of the Transnistrian Supreme Soviet. I was pleased to see the positive reception given to this initiative on the whole in Tiraspol and I hope that the Supreme Soviet will swiftly take the decision to fully commit to this dialogue. With this aim in mind, I invited Mr Lupu, Speaker of the Moldovan Parliament, and Mr Burla to a trilateral meeting with me on 1 February 2013 in Paris, in an informal and friendly context.
I would once again like to thank the Moldovan authorities and in particular the Speaker of the Moldovan Parliament, for the excellent organisation of my visit and their sincere efforts to strengthen co-operation with the Council of Europe.
In the context of my official visit to Greece on 15-16 January 2013, I held talks in Athens with the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the President of the Hellenic Parliament as well as with Ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Public Order and Citizen Protection. On the same occasion, I joined the six members of a Assembly Ad hoc Sub-Committee on a separate visit to Greece, looking into the large-scale arrival of irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees on Europe’s southern shores, for part of their information visit to the country. In addition to joint discussions with the President of Parliament and members of the Greek delegation to the Assembly, we also visited the Amygdaleza Detention Centre and the Petrou Ralli Police Station's detention facility for irregular migrants and asylum seekers.
Greece is confronted with a major problem influx of irregular migration at the very moment when it must also try to deal with an unprecedented economic crisis, and cannot be expected to handle all the misery of the world on its own. Therefore the main political message of the visit was a call for greater European solidarity that could contribute to alleviating the migration pressures on the European Union external borders. Europe has the responsibility to do everything to avoid that the situation in the Mediterranean - already difficult today - becomes a veritable human catastrophe. Solidarity can express itself in several ways, be it financial or in terms of receiving refugees and asylum seekers transiting through Greece. A shared migration policy is even more essential at a time when the region is facing major instability.
Together with the Ad hoc Sub-Committee, we also pledged the Assembly’s assistance, calling for an urgent debate on this issue at the Assembly’s winter session in Strasbourg on 21-25 January 2013, in order to raise awareness among Council of Europe member States via their national delegations in the Assembly.
We warmly welcomed the Greek authorities’ will to tackle the politically sensitive issue of illegal immigration as well as their determination to resolve, as quickly as possible, the major backlog of 50,000 outstanding asylum applications. We particularly appreciated the promises by the Minister in charge to close three detention centres that have been deemed sub-standard, including the Petrou Ralli police station in Athens, where we witnessed ourselves deplorable conditions. We also welcomed indications from the Greek authorities that, from spring 2013, women and children will no longer be detained because of their irregular immigration status. I was particularly shocked by the prison-like conditions in which unaccompanied minors are currently held, and recall the Assembly's position that in no circumstances should unaccompanied migrant children be detained on immigration grounds.
For its part, the delegation expressed its deep concern at the systematic use of detention as a means of deterring migrants from entering or staying in Greece. Even if there has been progress in terms of building new detention centres with better conditions, such as the Amygdaleza centre, the delegation still witnessed severe problems in terms of access to asylum, health care, information and the possibility for detainees to communicate with the outside world. Most of the detention centres visited by the delegation on the Greek-Turkish border currently do not meet the standards of human dignity, as basic facilities such as heating, light and hot water are not provided.
I also discussed with the Greek authorities other arising concerns such as the increase of xenophobia, nationalism and both racially- and politically-motivated violence, and the preparedness of the country in the face of the growing number of Syrian refugees.
I invited the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to address the Assembly, and he expressed his interest in coming, possibly during its April 2013 part-session.