Wednesday, 23 March 2022
Madame la Vice-Présidente du Congrès des Pouvoirs Locaux et Régionaux,
Chères et chers membres du Congrès,
Monsieur le Secrétaire Général du Congrès,
Mesdames et Messieurs,
Permettez-moi tout d’abord de remercier vivement Monsieur le Président Leen Verbeek de m’avoir invité à cet échange de vues, et de lui souhaiter un prompt rétablissement.
Ayant été pendant 17 ans conseiller municipal de ma ville, Tilburg, aux Pays-Bas, avant de devenir sénateur au parlement néerlandais – depuis 19 ans à présent – j’éprouve un profond intérêt pour le fonctionnement de l’état de droit et de la démocratie aux niveaux local et régional. Je suis par conséquent très honoré de m’exprimer à cette session du Congrès, auquel 46 états membres sont représentés.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I mentioned 46 members States as the 47th member State, the Russian Federation, was first suspended and then excluded from our Organisation. A most sad decision, unique in the history of the Council of Europe, with most serious consequences, for the Assembly and also for your Congress. Nevertheless, I am glad that we did dare to take this difficult decision, as I said after the Parliamentary Assembly unanimously adopted its opinion that Russia should immediately be excluded by the Committee of Ministers. Because by crossing the Ukrainian border with its army, the Russian Federation also crossed the red line of the Statute of the Council of Europe: starting an unprovoked war of aggression against another member State. This goes completely against the goal of the pursuit of peace by striving for greater unity in Europe. And although I really want all European states to be part of our Organisation, a State which crosses this red line de facto excludes itself from our Organisation. I am glad that we were able to be crystal clear, quick and decisive. This was possible because of the improved relationship, I believe, between the intergovernmental and the parliamentary parts of our Organisation, especially since 2019 when both statutory organs finally agreed that both would have a role to play in case a member State would blatantly violate the Statute. This was not the case in 2014, I recall, after the annexation of Crimea, when the Council of Europe failed to act in an appropriate and concerted way. This time there was a willingness and the ability to act in synergy. You have all seen the result of the improved cooperation: the suspension of the Russian Federation within 3 days and exclusion within 3 weeks. I am also glad that your Congress immediately joined the two statutory organs’ decisions. I have already complimented your President, and the same compliments are valid for all of you. And I very much welcome the declaration you adopted unanimously yesterday on the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine.
In the Opinion adopted unanimously on 15 March, representatives of parliaments of our 46 member States did not only state that Russia could no longer be a member of the Council of Europe. We also expressed our solidarity with Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and PACE’s Ukrainian members, reaffirming “unwavering support for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”. And we deeply deplored the fact that Russian citizens will pay a high price of this exclusion. They will no longer be protected by the most advanced human rights protection system in the world: the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and our vast convention system. There is no doubt about it: it is the President, the government and the Parliament of the Russian Federation which are to be held accountable for taking away these fundamental rights and protection of freedoms of their citizens, 26 years after granting this protection to them by joining the Council of Europe and acceding to the Convention.
Let me briefly tell you what I think will happen now:
We will discuss the consequences of the Russian Federation’s aggression on Ukraine at our next part-session, from 25 to 28 April. This will be the time to consider a strategy, a medium-term plan for reconstructing Ukraine, for healing the wounds. I hope your President will again be with us during these days.
Let us face reality: the consequences of this war will last for decades, be it in terms of reconstruction needs, or for the safe and sustainable return of refugees, to name but a few challenges. I am in close contact with our colleague parliamentarians from Ukraine as well as with the government of our member State to see where, when and how we can help them to survive this blatant attack to their citizens and the State of Ukraine. And how to overcome the enormous harm which has been done is being done to them. And I am closely cooperating with the other organs and bodies of our Organisation, including of course your Congress.
At the same time, we must envisage initiatives to support and engage with human rights defenders, democratic forces, free media and independent civil society in the Russian Federation. We have to express our support to those distancing themselves from the aggressors, those who have the courage to protest against the war and who are harshly repressed at this very moment because of that courage. I am interested in hearing possibilities you as Congress might consider in this respect how difficult it is.
I strongly believe that the Council of Europe is more relevant now than ever before.
Especially in this difficult situation and amidst these growing security threats, we have to preserve and reaffirm our identity as an independent forum for comprehensive and inclusive political dialogue and co-operation. Our organisation must remain the pillar of democratic security, the guarantor of human rights and rule of law, as well as a platform for effective multilateralism in Europe.
That is why I sincerely hope that the different organs of our Organisation will come to the conclusion that now is the time to organise the 4th Summit of the Council of Europe. The last summit was held in Warsaw in 2005. There is now an urgent need for us to come together at the highest possible level in this organisation. Such a summit, already requested several times by our Assembly, would allow us not only to discuss at the highest level the current crisis in Europe and draw lessons from the situation, but above all, to look to the future, to recommit to our fundamental values, to inspire a new energy to our European cooperation and to create a fresh strategy for a Europe with 46 member States. It would be an opportunity to get out of this crisis and play our role in a better political architecture of Europe. The input of the Congress, - of you, local and regional representatives -, would of course be important in this process.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I began my speech by stressing the importance of my previous functions as a local representative. Ever since then, I have always strongly believed that democracy begins at the local and the regional levels. It is implemented, defended and safeguarded by the essential work that you, the local and regional representatives, carry out on a daily basis and with the complex challenges that you face there. Building and constructing democracy should not be a top-down process, but the complete reverse – it has to come from the bases.
At the very heart of democracy lies the essential trust our citizens put in others to work on their behalf and to honestly pursue the common interests of all people. And you, local and regional representatives, are these initial contact points for citizens and you play an essential role in the implementation of democracy.
One of the main challenges is to take care of all those who now have to seek shelter outside Ukraine. At the PACE we have called on our member States to step up their support for other member States which have received a large number of Ukrainian refugees. We also issued a plea to devise strategies and measures aimed at their integration on a long-term perspective. This I think is directly applicable to local and regional representatives, because no strategies will work unless they are fully supported and effectively implemented at the local level.
Local representatives are at the forefront in receiving refugees -having to find innovative solutions, quickly, providing emergency shelters for families, taking care of organising the education for the children. I should like to pay tribute in this respect in particular to the Mayors of Ukraine’s neighbouring countries, who have shown an exceptional solidarity for refugees.
Special attention must be made in ensuring children’s rights are respected – in the spirit of your debate yesterday on Involving children in the sustainable development in their cities what Baroness Doreen Massey told your assembly yesterday when addressing future collaboration on child participation at community, regional, national and global levels -, making sure that they can benefit of a quality education in the countries where they settle in, as well as making an absolute priority the protection of unaccompanied minors from human traffickers.
Ladies and gentlemen,
There is much work ahead and the Council of Europe will have to act on the ground through its cooperation programmes to provide meaningful help to member States. But for this assistance to be properly implemented, there is a need for adequate financial resources. With the Russian Federation’s exclusion from the Council of Europe, there will be a diminution of around 11% in the ordinary budget of the organisation.
The Parliamentary Assembly has issued a call to all member States, asking them to show their continued trust in the Council of Europe by ensuring its financial sustainability. I welcomed the will clearly expressed by some member States already such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, to contribute voluntarily for the compensation in the loss of funding to the organisation’s budget as a result of Russia’s departure. Europe needs to show solidarity and all member States should join forces by increasing their financial contribution. This would allow the organisation to continue to fulfil its statutory duties and political role to uphold the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law at a time when these are needed more than ever. I have sent a letter in this sense to all leaders of national parliamentary delegations of the PACE, calling on the parliaments to join this initiative and to press for increased funding from their governments. I believe that you as local and regional authorities’ representatives are well placed to relay this call and support our initiative. I have already had serious talks about this with your President, and we will continue to do so.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The challenges that our societies are confronted with are complex and require a comprehensive and coordinated response at the European, national, regional and local levels.
As I said in my election speech a few weeks ago, alone we tend to be rather weak. Together we can show the strength one might expect from Europe’s oldest and broadest treaty-based organisation. That is why I consider it of crucial importance that the Council of Europe statutory organs and bodies work in synergy, to reinforce each other, for the benefit of our fellow citizens.
Yesterday Mr Vitali Klitschko, the Mayor of Kyiv, when addressing your Assembly said that this is not a war against Ukraine, it is a war against values. There is a lot of wisdom in these words. I am convinced that the ongoing crisis has demonstrated that our shared values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law are very much alive and bind us all together making us stronger and more united.
Thanks again for inviting me here today; I am happy to take questions.