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Opening of the sitting No 3

Election

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:03:50

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Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Would you take your seats as swiftly as possible, please. For the benefit of new members and also as a reminder to former members or previous members, could I ask you to take your seats in your numbered seat and not to move around the hemicycle. It makes it virtually impossible for the chair to call people who wish to be called if you're not sitting where we expect to find you. Thank you.

The sitting is open.

This morning the agenda calls for the election of a judge to the European Court of Human Rights in respect of France. The list of candidates and biographical notices are to be found in Documents 15008 and 15036 and Addendum 2. The voting will take place in the area behind the president's chair. At 1 p.m. the ballots will be suspended. It will re-open at 3:30 p.m. in order to allow the result to be announced before the end of this afternoon sitting. At 5 p.m. the chair will announce the closing of the poll as usual counting will then take place under the supervision of four tellers. In a moment we shall draw by lot the names four tellers who will supervise the counting of the votes.

I trust you can stand the suspense.

The result of the selection of scrutineers drawn by ballot, and I apologize if I mangle surnames, but I'm used to having my own mangled. Ms Feleknas UCA, Ms Tadeja ŠUŠTAR, Mr Pedro CEGONHO, Ms Kamila GASIUK-PIHOWICZ. I hope that is clear and they should go to the area behind the president's chair when voting closes, which will be at the end of the afternoon sitting.

I'm now in a position to announce the results of the ballot for Vice President in respect of Russia. The total number of members voting was 174. The number of spoilt ballot papers was two. So the number of valid votes was 172. I have to remind you that 162 votes are required for an absolute majority. Mr Piotr TOLSTOY received 101 votes in favour with 71 against. Mr Piotr TOLSTOY has not therefore achieved the required absolute majority, so we now have to hold a further ballot under the same arrangements for which a simple majority of the votes cast with more than half the representatives having voted is required. The election will be held in the area behind the president's chair. At one o'clock the ballots will be suspended. It will reopen at 3:30 p.m. in order to allow the result to be announced before the end of this afternoon sitting. I propose that the ballot should close at 5 p.m., counting will then take place under the supervision of the four tellers appointed for the election of a judge to the European Court in respect of France. The same four tellers will be required, please, to perform that duty also.

I now declare the ballot open and the chair will announce the results of the election here in the assembly chamber before the end of this afternoon sitting. I trust that is clear and will now continue with the agenda.

The next item of business is the debate on the report entitled "The Functioning of Democratic Institutions of Poland", which is Document 1502 and Addendum 1, presented by Ms Azadeh ROJHAN GUSTAFSSON and Mr Pieter OMTZIGT on behalf of the Monitoring Committee. This debate must conclude by 12 o'clock for the address of the President of Georgia and it will continue this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. We begin with Ms Azadeh ROJHAN GUSTAFSSON and Mr Pieter OMTZIGT co-rapporteurs. Madam, sir, you have 13 minutes in total, which you can divide between yourselves for the presentation of the report and the reply to the debate. Ms GUSTAFSSON, you have the floor.

Debate: The functioning of democratic institutions in Poland

Ms Azadeh ROJHAN GUSTAFSSON

Sweden, SOC, Co-rapporteur 

10:11:08

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Thank you, chair.

Dear colleagues,

All member states of the Council of Europe are obliged to respect the principals of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

Therefore, any development in a member state that undermines or weakens one of these fundamental principles is of immediate concern and must be addressed.

Since 2015 there have been numerous reports and judgments, from inter alia the Venice Commission and the European Court of Human Rights, addressing the worrying developments in the Polish justice system and the judiciary.

The great concerns have been regarding the legal reforms making the judicial system in Poland vulnerable to political interference and easier to bring under political control of the executive. This is a development that completely challenges the very principles of a democratic state governed by the rule of law.

Unfortunately, the numerous recommendations of the Venice Commission and other bodies have not been implemented or addressed by the authorities in Poland.

In this report we emphasise the already expressed concern from other bodies and we also see a worrying trend where the changes in the legal system are being implemented despite these concerns and with a lack of respect to European norms. And we do not see any indication from the Polish authorities to address these issues any time soon. In the contrary, there have been recent steps taken by the Polish authorities to even further the deterioration of the independence of the judiciary.

What this report does is that it underlines that the legal reforms in Poland have had a damaging effect on the rule of law in Poland and,therefore, an overall negative effect on the effective functioning of democratic institutions in the country.

 

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:13:15

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Mr Pieter OMTZIGT, you have the floor.

Mr Pieter OMTZIGT

Netherlands, EPP/CD, Co-rapporteur 

10:13:19

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Thank you.

And we can be a bit more precise on what the Polish government is trying to do at the moment. The Polish government has had a reform and I would not consider these reforms reforms but instead deteriorations. The first reform they did was to merge the person of the Minister of Justice with the Prosecutor General. That means that the Minister of Justice is not only Minister of Justice but can also take decisions as Prosecutor General. He can even interfere in individual court decisions. On top of that, in the law of the common courts he can nominate the precedence of the courts or can transfer them. So here you have one person having executive power and having power on the magistrates and judges, which is a concentration which is really unwarranted. Then you could have a counterbalancing power, which is the National Council of the Judiciary. What happened in the recent reform is that from a self-governing body, that became a body which is now exclusively elected by the Polish Parliament. The self-governing body is appointed by politicians. It's not a self-governing body. Combine those two things and you see that the executive has brought the courts under executive power, and that's not where they should be. They should be independent. Let's try it more. In the Supreme Court it tried to lower the age of retirements, which would help to get rid of quite a few judges and then bring in new ones which you could appoint so they could pack the court. The European Court of Justice said no, the Polish authority actually obliged and reinstated the persons but still introduced two new Chambers and the Chamber of Extraordinary Appeal which can re-open quite a lot of cases which have a final judgment and also puts in uncertainty whether judgments are final. In recent weeks we saw very quick reforms which were not reforms: they were initiative laws by parliamentarians which would actually make it impossible for judges to express themselves on the justice system. It would also make it impossible for them to check whether a court is really a valid court to make a judgment. The Venice Commission made a really quick opinion on this and noted that this runs counter to both Article 6 on the independence of the justice system and a fair trial and Article 10 which is the freedom of expression, which obviously also holds for judges. That is severe and it not only touches Poland. It touches every EU country because in the EU we trust each other. And at 27 or 28, sorry to our British friends, countries work together and, for instance, issue European arrest warrants on the basis of fellow decisions. If the courts are not considered to be impartial courts then we have a real problem not only within Poland, but in 26 or 27 other nations who form part of this community of the Council of Europe as well. That's why we think the situation is really grave and that this report is really warranted. We're also very much looking forward to the explanation from our Polish friends on why they think this is within the realms of the commitments they signed under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thank you.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:16:54

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Thank you Mr Pieter OMTZIGT.

You now have seven and a half minutes between you to wind up the debate later.

So I now call for the party groups. One of the first representatives is from ALDE, Mr Iulian BULAI from Romania. You have the floor.

Mr Iulian BULAI

Romania, ALDE, Spokeperson for the group 

10:17:15

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Dear colleagues,

I will start by thanking the rapporteurs, in the name of the whole ALDE group, for their thorough work and keen interest in the welfare of democracy and rule of law.

I think all of us, as lawmakers with a deep belief in equality before the law and the separation of powers, are or should be worried when facing a concerted effort to impose a dictatorship of the majority. And this is what is happening now in Poland. In different moments, the civil society, the press, the public opinion in general and various international bodies have protested the changes affecting the Polish constitutional court or the pressure against independent voices in the judiciary. But I have to stress one of the main observations in the report: the most outrageous acts of the government and the Polish momentary majority in the Parliament are only the most visible side of what in fact is an attempt to abolish the independence of the judicial power.

It is not only the separation of power that those in power now in Warsaw want to pervert now in the name of a political group, and I suspect that control over the judiciary is not the ultimate goal. In a democratic society, the constitutional courts and the judiciary are the guarantors of all rights and freedoms, and it is these rights and freedoms that the political majority are trying to curtail.

Before or at the same time, the political majority in Poland has turned state television into purveyors of government propaganda; it has weakened the independence of the electoral commission; it has put pressure on free speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association; and it is widening their power over their opponents. The power does not aim at the institutions or the members of the judiciary, it aims at the people and their freedom of not agreeing with the government, of having other values, identities or political options. It aims at putting one part of Polish society against the other, in order to preserve the control over resources, the electoral processes and the freedom of consciousness.

It is highly the moment to not only remember the dangers of the dictatorships of the majority, which is not a theoretical memory, but a vivid, direct one in Europe. It is also the moment to warn that Poland is a test case. The Polish government and its parliamentary majority are now, and have been for several years already, testing the limits of tolerance of the international community and of the general framework of international protection of human rights and liberties.

In the name of the ALDE group and in light of the findings of this report, I have to say it appears that the threats against the independence of the judiciary and democratic freedom in general in Poland need to be further put under scrutiny. We ask the Committee to start a full monitoring procedure for Poland, irrespective of the schedule of periodic reviews.

Thank you.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:20:28

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Thank you Mr Iulian BULAI.

For the EC/DA Mr Martin HEBNER, from Germany.

Mr Martin HEBNER

Germany, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group 

10:20:35

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I am pleased to speak here on behalf of the EC, the European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance, and of course we must say quite clearly that the rule of law must be guaranteed and that the separation of powers must be ensured. We are also aware of the fact that after the end of the communist regime, Poland did not change its justice system from the ground up. This was a mistake in terms of time, but also in terms of content.

At the moment Poland, as a sovereign state, is in the process of installing a new judicial reform in this case, and we have to make it quite clear that a practice that is common practice in other countries, including this body, is now also being introduced here. To make it quite clear, as far as the selection of judges is concerned: Poland is even superior to my home country Germany in this respect, because the Polish Judicial Council KSK is constituted in this case analogous to the Judicial Election Committee in Germany, or even far superior to it, because judges have a majority in this Judicial Council.

Quite in contrast to Germany, where the governing parties, the ministers as well as in this case the parliament, and thus quite clearly the governing parties, carry out the corresponding switching here. And that is why one should urgently advise against members of a German delegation, in particular, from appearing here with a raised forefinger towards Poland. And this also applies to other countries, because the practice in Poland, which was adopted today by the new government and parliament in this case, is not too different from other countries in this body, and I would like to say quite clearly that I am also critical of the practice in my own country. There is also clear criticism from authorities such as Mr Böckenförde, a former constitutional judge, who calls this party patronage in Germany. But here one cannot put Poland in the dock for a similar or even better regulation, which is supposed to prevent this, in the dock alone. Ladies and gentlemen, and I am not even talking about countries like Turkey.

In this case, it could have been expected that an application, if presented in this way and clearly addressed to Poland, would be compared. A comparison also with the practice in other countries in this House. This has not been done; on the contrary, this application, Chapter A.9, also refers to best practice. It will not be executed. Here we talk about worst case and so on and compare it with how it works in other countries. Or else, much worse, as in the case now established in Poland, with the new reform.

It is therefore urgently advisable not to put Poland alone in the dock, and in that case - there is no other way to put it - with a certain, indeed self-assurance. This request, as it stands, must be rejected as a matter of urgency, since it presents Poland as if it were the only country concerned, even though it is common practice in other countries of the Community to apply a similar practice. It must be said quite clearly that a general comparison is needed here.

Thank you very much.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:23:53

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Thank you Mr Martin HEBNER.

For the Group of the Unified European Left Mr Georgios KATROUGKALOS from Greece.

Please, the floor is yours.

Mr Georgios KATROUGKALOS

Greece, UEL, Spokesperson for the group 

10:24:01

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Thank you.

Thank you Mr Chair.

I fully agree with the rapporteur and the previous speakers on the gravity of the situation.

The cumulative impact of recent reforms undermines the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Poland.

A similar breach of the rule of law directly affects Europe as a whole. It cannot be considered as an internal affair of Poland.

Even more worrisome is the fact that this attack on the judiciary coincides with new legislation limiting basic freedoms, such as the freedom of assembly and other measures promoting intolerance and hate speech.

A great number of Polish municipalities declare now their cities to be LGBT free. Over 80 municipalities have taken similar decisions that violate a number of articles of the European Convention of Human Rights. This is already a practice condemned not only by the European Parliament but also by the Polish ombudsman.

So we have two fundamental questions to answer. First, what can we do as the Council of Europe, taking into account that similar efforts to face this situation by the European Parliament and the European Commission did not deliver concrete results in the last two years. I think that the number one priority is the defence of judges against politically motivated disciplinary action. There are judges now that do not know today if the next day we'll find them on the bench.

The second, and maybe even more fundamental question. What are the broader conclusions we could draw for our democracies beyond Poland? The standard answer as you know, is that we are facing a new phenomenon. They say the decline of democracy, the emergence of illiberal, ill or broken democracies. This trend is usually associated with populism, an even vaguer term. I think that it is a half truth and superficial. It confuses the symptoms with the cause of the disease. The truth is that there is an inextricable link between democracy and political liberalism, but this link can be violated by both terms. We could have illiberal democracies but also undemocratic liberalism. An undemocratic liberalism in the sense of weakening of our democracies because of the dominance of neo-liberal policies, the breach of social contracts and the explosion of inequalities, sidelining of political accountability, isolation of political decisions by the people. Many times it is the undemocratic liberalism the catalyst which functions for the emergence of illiberal democracies.

So, popular sovereignty, rule of law and fundamental rights, including social rights, are complementary pillars of democracy. We should defend all of them.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:27:17

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Thank you. And now for the Group of the European People's Party Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN from the Netherlands, please.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group 

10:27:23

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Thank you, Mr President.

Dear colleagues,

The report we are discussing now is about the desperate situation of the Polish judiciary. I thank the rapporteurs because they have a factual statement on what went wrong since 2015.

Dear colleagues, if there had been an effort in Poland to make the judicial system more efficient and if it had been an attempt to make the judiciary more accountable and transparent to the citizens, as should be accepted from a modern democratic society, nobody here would have had a problem. On the contrary, we can't speak anymore about the judiciary in Poland, where independence and impartiality is preserved.

Dear colleagues, the reality is that since 2015 the actual Polish authorities bring the judiciary under the control of the executive and/or the legislator. Or even worse, they have brought it under the control of the actual ruling majority. Every instrument which can be used for that purpose is used. This is in my view, in our view, politics in its worst form. We should all distance ourselves from this kind of undemocratic and also unethical behaviour.

Dear colleagues, the rule of law connected to values such as independence are an undeniable part of the commitments of our and also the Polish membership in the Council of Europe and in the European Union. All institutions like the European Court of Justice, the Venice Commission the worldwide advisor of the good functioning of the rule of law not only criticise, but ask Poland to go back on the wrong decisions taken. The Venice Commission stated last December that the new reform further undermines the judicial independence. The amendments curtailed the freedoms of expression and association. Polish judges are put into an impossible situation of having to face disciplinary proceedings for decisions which may be required but the European Convention on Human Rights or under the law of the European Union. Poland has to come back from it.

Dear colleagues, I am not as the Group of the European People's Party defending the institutions. I am defending Polish citizens because a country where the rule of law is at stake, a country we are citizens can't enjoy an independent and impartial judiciary, such a country can't attract investments, such a country can't fight corruption. That means the well-being of citizens, their prosperity, is endangered by the government taking such a responsibility. Come back on it. Wolne sądy, wolni ludzie.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:30:42

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Thank you.

I must ask speakers respectfully to try to stick to time, please, because otherwise the people that wish to speak will not be able to do so. Finally, on behalf of the political groups Mr SCHWABE from Germany for the Socialist Group. The floor is yours.

Mr Frank SCHWABE

Germany, SOC, Spokesperson for the group 

10:30:57

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Thank you very much, Mister President.

Dear colleagues, first, it's interesting to recognise we now speak in the name of the very honorable and traditional group of European Conservatives to defend the government of Poland. I would like to thank the rapporteurs for this important report, which we've had to wait a very long time for. It's not you but there were others who failed to present a report in time to act. We always have a discussion about the question of who's more responsible for human rights: is it the Council of Europe or the European Union? There's some criticism sometimes about the European Union taking too much power on the question. But it's up to us, if we don't act in time how can we claim what the question that the European Union takes action under Article 7 is? We didn't do anything or not enough till now. It's one of the core values of the Council of Europe that the reforms implemented in the member states are fully in line with European norms and standards and effectively strengthen judiciary independence and the rule of law. Unfortunately, we have to admit that reforms on the judiciary taking place in Poland run counter to common European standards. The political crisis, the question of judiciary especially did not begin now. We have to remember that it began in 2015 with a new government. The new ruling majority set out as one of its main priorities to reform the judiciary and the justice system as it was viewed as a mechanism through which the previous authorities could reverse the new agenda of the ruling government. The most respectable international institutions, and we have to respect them, we all of them have to respect them, among which also the core institutions within the Council of Europe, such as the  Venice Commission and Commission on Human Rights, many times addressed the alarming situation in Poland. Already in 2017 in its opinion on Poland the Venice Commission expressed strong concerns over the reform initiated by the government at that time. Unfortunately, some of the December 2019 amendments may be seen as further undermining the independence of the judiciary. Moreover, the most recent amendments as of January 2020 even further deteriorate the independence of the judiciary and respect for the rule of law in Poland. We have to ask the government in Poland, the majority in Poland, to change many things. All these are mentioned in the report. I think this is crucial for us and crucial for us to truly support the courageous judges who fight for an independent judiciary in Poland. It is very clear that we have to stand behind and wherever next to the Venice Commission. We stand against every government when they take the Venice Commission and I think, unfortunately, we don't have another chance to use the strongest option we have: to put a country under monitoring. It's up to us to do it in the afternoon. I ask you to vote in favour of monitoring Poland.

Thank you very much

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:34:07

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Thank you Mr Frank SCHWABE.

I'm reliably informed that it is not Mr Frank SCHWABE who is raising the roof, it is the wind. I'm also informed the likelihood is that the roof will remain in place. Colleagues may take some comfort from that.

We now move to the general list of speakers and from the Group of the European People's Party, Mr Frédéric REISS from France, please Monsieur. You have the floor. 

Mr Frédéric REISS

France, EPP/CD 

10:34:36

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Thank you, Mr President,

Dear colleagues,

You alert us, Rapporteurs, to the fact that the reforms of the judiciary and the judicial system undertaken by the Polish Government are, in many respects, contrary to European standards. They seriously undermine the independence of judges and the rule of law. The judicial system is placed under the control of the executive or legislative power, or even under the political control of the majority in power.

This situation is both worrying and unacceptable. It is imperative that the Polish authorities make changes to the reforms of the judicial system. Indeed, the independence of the public prosecutor's office has been called into question with the merger of the functions of Minister of Justice and Attorney General. The risk of politicisation is great. These two functions must become separate again.

The weakening of the constitutional court is also a matter of great concern. Its independence is undermined by the considerable discretionary power now enjoyed by the Polish President in the appointment procedure. Its ability to judge the constitutionality of laws can be hampered both by the Attorney General, and hence the Minister of Justice, who can block the proceedings by deciding not to attend the hearings, and by Parliament, which can decide to apply its decisions selectively. The powers conferred by the new law on the Polish authorities vis-à-vis the constitutional court are contrary to the very principles of the rule of law.

The election of the members of the National Council of the Judiciary, an autonomous body responsible for safeguarding the independence of the judiciary, posed a real problem: the 15 judges who were members of the Council were not elected by their peers but were appointed by parliament.

The law on the organisation of the courts, which has expanded and strengthened the role of the Minister of Justice in disciplinary proceedings against judges, is obviously not acceptable. The lowering of the retirement age and the discretionary power given to the Minister of Justice to authorise the whether or not judges can remain in their position is also not acceptable. The principle of the irremovability of judges is violated. And, Mr Rapporteur, you quite rightly pointed this out earlier.

The law on the Supreme Court was also a cause for concern, as it provided for the creation of two new courts to which lay members could be appointed, which raised doubts about the quality of justice dispensed. In addition, one of these two chambers will have the possibility to carry out extraordinary appeals to review the decisions of other courts, including other division of the Supreme Court. This novelty constitutes a serious threat to legal certainty and runs counter to the principle of res judicata.

The growing tensions between the majority in power and the judicial institutions must be resolved: it is the future of Polish democracy that is at stake. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Polish people, who deserve an effective and independent judiciary.

Thank you.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:37:43

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Thank you Monsieur REISS.

Also from France, Madame BLONDIN, please. 

The floor is yours.

Ms Maryvonne BLONDIN

France, SOC 

10:37:50

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Thank you, Mr President.

Dear colleagues,

I would like to thank our fellow rapporteurs for the quality of their work on the functioning of democratic institutions in Poland, which focuses on the changes in the judicial system.

This work was launched in 2016. Four years already, colleagues. The report clearly sets out the reasons – both linked to the change of rapporteurs and to the fear of the report's conclusions being used in the runup to the elections – which have led to delays in the presentation of the conclusions to the Assembly.

As soon as it came to power in 2015, the Polish Government carried out reforms of the judicial system, in the name of the legitimate desire to strengthen confidence in the judicial system and improve its functioning. The objectives are certainly laudable, but the reforms carried out have clearly weakened its independence and autonomy.

I am thinking of the Council of the Judiciary, whose judges are now elected by Parliament, of the desire to obstruct the functioning of the Polish Constitutional Court, or of the strengthening of disciplinary proceedings against judges and prosecutors.

Is this an internal Polish issue? No. Not when reforms undertaken lead to undermining the fundamental values and principles of democracy that we share. That is a strong element of the resolution before us today.

The separation of powers is an essential principle for the proper functioning of the rule of law: justice must not be placed under the control of the executive or the legislature. It must be truly independent and its decisions must be published and enforced, even when the government does not like them. We call sufficiently for compliance with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights so as not to recall this point in this case.

I therefore share the concerns expressed by our colleagues about the consequences of the reforms of the judicial system and their call to review all measures in order to comply with the recommendations of the Council of Europe.

This is an issue that concerns us all and I will vote in favour of the resolution before us.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:40:25

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Thank you, Madame BLONDIN.

From Switzerland Mr GRIN, please.

Mr Jean-Pierre GRIN

Switzerland, ALDE 

10:40:33

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Thank you, Mr President,

Dear colleagues,

In my speech, I would like to re-emphasise the excellent report by our two colleagues, "Moving towards the rule of law in Poland and elsewhere".  This report recognises some of the difficulties faced by the Polish judiciary and judicial system, especially with regard to the efficiency of the administration of justice.

The Commission deplores the misuse of disciplinary proceedings against judges and prosecutors in Poland, which has a deterrent effect on the judiciary and undermines its independence. For democratic institutions to function well, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers is paramount.

Democracy must also avoid intolerance and hate speech: respect for minorities is an essential element in moving towards genuine national cohesion, and the conclusions of this report show us that Poland still has some way to go in terms of the independence of the judiciary and tolerance towards minorities.

Social dialogue is of great importance as an instrument for stability and the reduction of social and economic inequalities in a democracy. But effective dialogue also requires a certain respect and balance between the business community and trade unions, as well as between the different political forces in the country.

Solidarity in democratic institutions is a complex but necessary rule. The existence of clear and fair rules, which apply to everyone in practice, is essential. Democratic debate and decision-making – through parliaments – are also indispensable.

Furthermore, I am convinced that the future of a democracy lies in a certain decentralisation of powers. Municipalities and regions must take part in the decision-making process and thus take on certain tasks. But for this, the financial resources corresponding to the importance of the work delegated must be allocated to them by the central authority. Territorial solidarity is a matter of democratic security. In today's world, it is not possible to assume the prosperity of some regions at the expense of others.

It is the same problem for democratic institutions: the balance of power between each authority is an indispensable element. Intolerance is not a good counsellor, nor is interference by one institution in another: it creates insecurity and undermines citizens' trust in their authorities.

While there is still a long way to go in reforming the Polish judicial system, as this report points out, it should also be stressed that Poland has never refused to cooperate with the co-rapporteurs in their investigations. I hope that this openness will be the first step towards a thorough reform of its democratic institutions.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:43:46

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Thank you. Could I interrupt the debate just briefly to remind members that two votes are in progress. One is to elect one judge from France for the European Court of Human Rights, the second is to elect a Vice President of the Assembly in respect of Russia. Colleagues who have not voted may do so by going to the area behind the speaker's chair. The vote will be opened again this afternoon.

We now come to Mr Andreas NICK from Germany, please. The floor is yours. 

Mr Andreas NICK

Germany, EPP/CD 

10:44:14

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Mr President,

Dear Colleagues,

Poland is an important and proud European country with a chequered history, and I say this here as a representative of the German delegation. But Poland has also made an outstanding contribution to the Solidarność movement in 1989/90. The unforgotten Prime Minister Mazowiecki took an important step to enabling us to overcome the divisions of Europe and moving towards the return of freedom and democracy to the eastern part of our continent.

Colleagues, we are friends of Poland. And as friends of Poland and the Polish people, we cannot and must not remain silent on this subject here today. Democracies die slowly. Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority. It feeds from the institutional framework, without which we cannot protect the freedom of the individual and their individual human rights in the long term. To do this, it is essential to have an independent judiciary, free media, free scientific circles, and a strong and active civil society. It is not a question of national sovereignty.

Since 1990, Poland has been a fully convinced member of the Council of Europe, and we have seen that it has helped the country secure the path to democracy and the rule of law. And our Venice Commission, which I thank very warmly for its work on this issue, rightly bears the full title of 'European Commission for Democracy through Law'. I would also like to thank the rapporteur for this very detailed report, which talks about the situation regarding the rule of law in Poland.

As we've already heard, this is not the responsibility of today's rapporteur. We had a report back in 2016 that was an urgent request to draft a report back then. It has taken more than four years for us to come forward with that report, and that delay does little to reinforce the credibility of the Council of Europe as a guardian of the rule of law and democracy. And I think this is the kind of thing we should ensure doesn't happen again; we have to up our game.  

I think we should be debating this question with the full gravity it deserves. I take note of the reports which have been tabled to this report. They strengthen the political message contained therein.

I think our strongest weapon is to reopen the monitoring procedure and this is something which we have to propose in the amendments. Both our rapporteur and the Venice Commission have done a serious job working on this issue. The Council of Europe, together with the European Union has an important role to play in protecting democracy and the rule of law in all 47 Member States.

Thank you very much.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:47:19

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Thank you, Mr Andreas NICK.

Ms Thorhildur Sunna ÆVARSDÓTTIR, please, from Iceland.

Ms Thorhildur Sunna ÆVARSDÓTTIR

Iceland, SOC 

10:47:23

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Thank you, Mister President. Dear colleagues,

This debate is about democracy and its absolute requirement of a balance of power. Why? Because the public's protection requires, and the public's protection from the misuse of power requires protection from the excessive accumulation of power within one group. And there's a great reason for this: with absolute power comes the danger of the destruction of democracy itself. We have many horrible historical examples of this. Examples we should all strive not to repeat. The independence of the judiciary is therefore vital to democracy, and the independence of the judiciary is indispensable to upholding the rule of law. Because if the judiciary is compromised, if the judiciary is under the control of the executive, the citizens cannot trust them to protect them from the excessive use of power of that same executive. And this is why, of course, the independence of the judiciary is vital for the protection of human rights of all citizens.

Dear colleagues, this central and circular role of an independent judiciary is aptly described in Paragraph 1 of the draft resolution in this excellent report, and I thank the reporters for their work, this Paragraph 1 of the draft resolution where it states that Assembly reiterates that democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights are interlinked and cannot exist without one another. Respecting but also fostering and strengthening these three fundamental principles is an obligation incumbent on all member states. Conversely, any developments in a member state that undermine or weaken one of those fundamental principles is of immediate concern. I couldn't agree more. And it is therefore that I would like to say that it is the safety of the Polish people and it's the security of the Polish people that are our immediate concern. And I say to our Polish colleagues here: please don't mistake our concern for animosity. Please don't mistake our concern as an attack on the Polish people. The motivation behind our concern is love. We are your democratic family and with this report we are asking you to stay with our family in this house of democracy where you belong.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:49:57

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Mr John HOWELL from the United Kingdom, please.

Mr John HOWELL

United Kingdom, EC/DA 

10:50:03

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Thank you, Mr President.

I would like to refer people to the report and to paragraph 127. It says in the report: "the need for continuing reforms of the judiciary is clear and recognised." It goes on to say it is undeniable that the Polish justice system and judiciary are and have been facing systemic problems and challenges that affect the rule of law, especially with regard to the efficiency of the administration of justice. So what we are talking about here is not challenging the need for reform in Poland. We are not challenging the right of the Polish authorities to reform the legal system. What this is about is a more nuanced debate about whether the reforms have been done in the right way. And I thought that Mr Andreas NICK's comments about the slowness of movement of the Council of Europe were spot on. The time that it has taken for this to be discussed and to be brought forward has been far too long.

It has come to this as a confrontational debate now, when it should have been a process of involvement of mediation by the Council of Europe with the Polish authorities to try to get the legal framework absolutely right. Now nothing that I say in any way contradicts the importance of the rule of law or the independence of the judiciary. And it is certainly not an attack on Poland. I have been a great friend of Poland for over 30 years now, and I've spent much of my formative years working with the Poles and working in Poland. And it pains me to see that they have come to a situation where the European Court of Justice is seen as the de facto court for Poland rather than their own courts. And I think that that, too, needs to be avoided.

There is in the heart of this a conflict of laws that we are seeing before us. In Poland we are seeing a conflict between the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. In the European Court of Human Rights we are seeing differences of opinion as opposed to those judgments that have been given that emphasized the need for Poland to reform its legal system and the opinions of people like the Venice Commission. In these situations, we need to work hard with the Polish authorities to make sure that there is a proper solution to this problem, not by confrontational monitoring but by working steadfastly with them to make sure that it happens.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:53:06

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Thank you Mr John HOWELL.

Mr Zsolt CSENGER-ZALÁN please from Hungary. You have the floor.

Mr Zsolt CSENGER-ZALÁN

Hungary, EPP/CD 

10:53:12

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Thank you for the floor, Mr President.

Dear colleagues,

Let me thank the rapporteurs for conducting a comprehensive and a very detailed analysis on ordering the membership obligations to the Council of Europe.

In order to avoid the perception of politicised and biased process, it would be advisable to extend this practice to more than a selected number of countries in central and eastern Europe. The document tries to focus on the main legislative developments of the recent years. However, it contains some elements, which are irrelevant and politically charged as regards to compliance with the norms and standards of the organisation. One example is the description of the Polish justice reforms as the combination of worst practices existing in other countries. We just cannot accept such subjective, politicised and biased evaluations. These formulations reconfirm the double standards by which Poland has been judged again.

Consequently, the part that states that the similar implementation of these reforms in other countries is not a valid basis for argument is deeply unfair and again based on a subjective approach. The text contains distortions, misleading accusations and factually unsupported insinuations that question the validity of other arguments in the document. Sharing the already expressed concerns of the Polish government, Hungary fully objects to it and rejects the proposed decision to continue monitoring Poland's compliance with its obligations and commitments based on this biased and politically motivated report.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:55:33

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Thank you.

I wish to now hear from Mr Krzysztof ŚMISZEK from Poland.

The floor is yours.

Mr Krzysztof ŚMISZEK

Poland, SOC 

10:55:39

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Thank you Mr Chair.

As a newly elected member of the Polish Parliament and a newcomer to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I must admit at the very beginning that it is very hard for me to stand in front of you and to talk about the functioning of democratic institutions in my country.

After the collapse of the communist regime, Poland was regarded as a front-runner and a leader of democratic changes in the region. Gradually but consistently, my country tried to restore democratic institutions that were to serve democracy and the people, including courts with independent judges who are free from political influence. In the 90s we joined the Council of Europe in a good-faith of sharing the same values: democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Unfortunately, for the last five years we have been witnessing systematic destruction of the pillars of the Polish democracy. The ruling party started its war against the constitution, against judges, as well as all independent institutions that were in a position to block undemocratic changes.

The report and the draft resolution which are subject of our discussion here in Strasbourg show in a very clear and concise way in which direction democracy goes in Poland. This is not the direction towards European values. This is not a direction towards the European Convention of Human Rights. This is not a direction towards rule of law and balance of powers.

As a lawyer and a human rights defender I must admit that I'm terrified. I'm worried about rights of individuals in my country. The right to a fair trial, the right to a fair sentence handed down by an independent judge.

Finally, I'm worried about the right of every individual to not be afraid of its own state. The independent prosecutor's office has been subordinated to the minister of justice. The same minister of justice got the power to appoint and dismiss the presidents of all courts all over the country. The National Council of the Judiciary has been packed with political nominees. The same happened with the constitutional tribunal. Public media, which were taken over by the government, run defamatory campaigns against judges and human rights activists in order to justify the so-called reforms in the judicial system.

A few days ago, the polish Parliament adopted a new law introducing a range of new disciplinary tools against those judges who are brave enough to say no to the undemocratic changes.

Dear colleagues, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is the right place to talk about this worrying situation in my country. Here in the heart of Europe we need to be clear about European values. Taking the floor today does not make me happy neither proud. On the contrary, it makes me feel ashamed. But something much more important is at stake: the common legal space in Europe. A space for human rights and freedom. This space is dramatically shrinking. We need to remember there are no human rights without very effective judicial protection. That is why I ask the Assembly to support the resolution and to call on Polish authorities to restore the independence of democratic institutions.

I thank you for your attention.

Sir Roger GALE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, President of the Assembly 

10:58:52

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Thank you Mr Krzysztof ŚMISZEK, and whether or not colleagues agree with your views I'm sure they will appreciate the clarity with which you expressed your maiden speech in this hemicycle.

Mr Jacques MAIRE, please, from France. You have the floor.

Mr Jacques MAIRE

France, ALDE 

10:59:05

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Thank you. I would first like to thank our two rapporteurs, Ms Azadeh ROJHAN GUSTAFSSON and Mr Pieter OMTZIGT, for their work on democratic institutions. It is a report that is excellent, remarkable and uncompromising. It gives, of course, an informed view of the reality of the reforms, but it goes much further, since it actually details what is most important: the political project behind these reforms.

This is a political project that refers to a regression in terms of democracy and civilisation. It saddens this Assembly because the Polish people have, in recent decades, distinguished themselves wonderfully as one of the first peoples in Europe to fight against totalitarianism.

From this point of view, when I listen to my Hungarian colleague who has just spoken, in the name of Hungary, saying that Hungary condemns this report, I am not speaking in the name of France. I am speaking in the name of a parliamentarian. We are parliamentarians. We do not have to say whether or not our country is defending or attacking a report, because, in fact, you only speak for your majority. We are speaking on behalf of our political commitments and we do not have to make a complete mix of intergovernmental and political issues in this type of case.

In a few days, the President of the French Republic will be in Warsaw. He will say what he wants to his counterpart and that's fine. This has no bearing on the positions we take here in this Hemicycle.

I would also like to say that, from my point of view, the situation has been so well illustrated by the previous speakers that, obviously, I would say that the situation is more than ambiguous. How can we, on the one hand, cooperate with the rapporteurs? How can we say that we are open to discussions with the Venice Commission? And how can we, in these cases, be perfectly informed and cynically make decisions that are exactly the opposite of the recommendations that have been made?

Polish courts are not only responsible for the application of national law: they are also responsible for the application of European law. This problem is therefore not just a domestic policy problem for the Polish people. It is also a problem of European policy, which means that you are both a member of the Union and that you are a member of the Council of Europe as a whole. That is why we remain vigilant about the nature of the reforms in force. That is how we wish to be extremely vigilant about protecting the rights of Poles who will be under threat in the coming period, and it is in this respect that I fully agree with all the conclusions reached by our two rapporteurs, including the relaunch of the monitoring process without delay.

Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:02:07

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Thank you Mr. MAYOR.

I now call Mr TRUSKOLASKI from Poland.

Mr Krzysztof TRUSKOLASKI

Poland, EPP/CD 

11:02:15

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Thank you, Madam President.

The current Polish authorities do not stop in striving for complete subordination of the justice system. The real takeover marked the beginning of previously unknown submission of all spheres of public life to party dependency. From state institutions to public media, it is only thanks to international pressure, heroic attitude of judges and thousands of protesting Poles that we still have free and independent courts in our country.

The genesis of the successive actions taken by the ruling party towards subordinating the judiciary to party dependency was the judgement of the Polish Supreme Court, which following the guidelines of the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that the National Council of the Judiciary established by the ruling party is not an impartial and independent body and the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court is not a court within the meaning of EU and national law.

Now, we have another problem: the ruling party dominating the lower chambers of parliament pushed through the so-called "muzzle act" whose provisions, according to many authorities within the legal field, will ultimately allow for disciplinary punishment of judges who pass sentences that are inconsistent with the ruling approach.

These harmful laws have not yet entered the current legal order just because they are being discussed in the senate where the democratic opposition has majority of votes and the experts in the field of law invited by the speaker of this Chamber, as well as the Venice Commission, stated explicitly that the provisions of the muzzle act are authoritarian and repressive.

Now, we are waiting for the president's signature. During a recent debate in the European Parliament everyone could see that even the ruling party politicians in a substantive way were unable to convince Europe towards their reforms. That is why my statement today is an objection against lawlessness and violations of the rule of law by the ruling party.

Poland is the cradle of solidarity. This is where the march towards freedom of the peoples of Europe oppressed by communist rule began. Poles still want to be a part of the lawful world. We will certainly not go down that road.

Thank you. 

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:04:46

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Thank you, sir.

I call Mr FASSINO from Italy.

Mr Piero FASSINO

Italy, SOC 

11:04:54

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Thank you, president.

We are all used to democratic systems that are based on the division of powers, the independence of the judiciary, a check and balance between parliament and government, and freedom of the media. That is exactly what is being questioned in Poland today. We are discussing a report which clearly condemns the tampering of a fundamental principle of democracies, which is the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, the executive power, the judiciary and the power of parliament.

In fact, in many countries — I am thinking of Hungary, I am thinking of other European countries, I am thinking of countries from other continents — we are witnessing a change in the profile of democracy. What has also been theorized as "illiberal democracy".

Illiberal democracy means the dictatorship of the majority. A majority that feels it is in a position to control any decision. Illiberal democracy means blowing up the division of powers and subjecting the judiciary to political power. Illiberal democracy means blowing up any principle of check and balance between the executive and the representative power of parliament. Illiberal democracy is the submission of the press to the executive power and the government.

That is exactly what is happening in Poland, that is what is happening in Hungary, that is what is happening in other European countries. I believe that we have a duty, as the European institutional forum that deals with democracy, the protection of civil and political rights and freedoms, to make this very clear. I welcome the report that has been presented because, on this, on the basis of facts and not prejudices — I say this to our Hungarian colleague: all the theses in this report are based on facts and arguments, not on prejudice — it shows very clearly that we need to sound the alarm about what is happening in Poland. And that, I repeat, can and is already happening in other European countries.

On the other hand, we have the assessment provided by the Venice Commission, which is made up of legal experts who are not vitiated by prejudice. It is the assessment that the European Union makes. And so, I believe that we must be consistent with these approaches and continue to monitor the situation in Poland. Because it is a situation where liberal democracy and its essential foundations are being called into question.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:08:02

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Thank you, sir. I give the floor to Mr. TARCZYŃSKI from Poland.

Mr Dominik TARCZYŃSKI

Poland, EC/DA 

11:08:10

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President, I have the impression that I'm the only one who doesn't have to read from the paper because I know this report and I know the law which was constituted in Poland. I'm not going to go into details: everyone can get into the report and read it. I've got the impression that many of you haven't read it because we just heard that our minister is the one who is appointing the judges. It's not true. It's not true. I've got the question for the German socialists: who is the one in Germany who appoints your judges? It's him. Then we heard from French socialists that this discussion, this debate, this report is about the safety of Polish people. Thank you very much, we are good. We don't have burning cars in a war zone, we don't have riots where people are beaten or losing their lives as it is in France now. So, please, take care of yourself. We are good. Then we are hearing about democracy, that this debate is about democracy. Yes, democracy in our government is the best example of democracy because this reform, this exact reform, was promised during the campaign and that's why our government was elected in 2015 and 2019 with even greater support. So this is democracy. We don't want anyone to rule our country for us. Our people decided because we promised these reforms. You have no idea what are you talking about. Most of you haven't gone through communism. We had to suffer communism and now these judges, many of them, are the same who were the judges during martial law in Poland. It's just a fact. We can't find this information in this report. This is about the history, about martial law, about communism, about the whole reform of Polish society. It's not about the judiciary itself. Then we heard it moments ago from all the socialists from Italy about the freedom of media. I'm the best example: I was fired when I was a journalist when Civic Platform came to power. Before 2015 and 2007. I'm the best example. I lost my job. We haven't fired anyone. I'm not going to go into the details of this report. Read it! If you want to talk to me and find out about the facts, I'm here.

Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:10:48

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Thank you. Thank you.

I call Mr KALASHNIKOV (Russian Federation). I don't see him... No... (Sighs)

I, therefore, give the floor to Mr SCHENNACH from Austria.

Mr Stefan SCHENNACH

Austria, SOC 

11:11:16

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Thank you, Madam President.

I would really like to thank the two rapporteurs, Ms Gustafsson and Mr Omtzigt, for this report, because it was four and a half years ago that I tabled the motion to do so. Now the baby is born, and the baby shows how very concerned we are throughout Europe about what is happening here in Poland.

Max Frisch once wrote a book called "Biedermann und die Brandstifter", and a little bit seems to me that the arsonists are fully at work here, because what is in danger here? The hallmark of democracy is the separation of powers, the division of powers, and this separation of powers, it tips over precisely in the case of justice, and that is alarming.

A judiciary that is being politicised, a judiciary that is not independent: that is where people lose confidence. Because - and this is particularly important here - the people trust the judiciary first and foremost, and the judiciary must be independent. With this gagging law now - and this is what it is called in Poland, the gagging law - the judges are to be disciplined. The Constitutional Court is brought to the Supreme Court in opposition or in a fighting attitude. The government has decided to consider the Supreme Court's case law as paper waste. That is unbelievable, and that cannot and must not happen in Europe. It is only to be hoped that the extinguishers of this fire, the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, will roll out the water hoses here to extinguish this fire, because this can never be accepted in this way, even in the spirit of the Polish people. And it is precisely here, as a member of the Council of Europe, where we attach the greatest importance to the rule of law, that we have to vote.

An amendment, which I have signed, among others, calls for Poland to be placed under the ordinary monitoring procedure. As former chairman of the Monitoring Committee, I can only appeal to you to agree to this. With only one vote difference, this amendment did not get a majority. I think how we can help the Polish people is to open a monitoring procedure here in the Council of Europe to ensure the rule of law.

Thank you very much!

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:14:20

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Thank you, thank you.

I give the floor to Mr BASHKIN, from the Russian Federation.

Mr Aleksandr BASHKIN

Russian Federation, NR 

11:14:29

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Madam President.

Distinguished colleagues,

As regards to the report, we'd like to thank the drafters of the report for the high quality and objective work they've performed. I saw in the report no signs of a lack of respect for Polish legislation or administration of justice. We should point out that the Polish state has a genuine intention of improving the administration of justice. However, in the opinion of the Community of European Nations, the Polish legislators have chosen a mistaken path. The task of the Assembly is to nudge our Polish friends and colleagues in the right direction, which is the purpose of today's report and debate.

On the substance, most experts see in the large scale legal reform in Poland an attempt of the government to seize control of the administration of justice and limit the independence of judges. The attack on the independence of judges is waged on three main tracks: the establishment of a representative organ of the judiciary, the National Council of the Judiciary; a change to the composition of the supreme court; and thirdly, expanding the executive powers of the justice ministry with respect to the court system.

What is particularly bewildering is the ad personam merger of what are normally competing structures: the justice minister and the public prosecutor. The act on the organisation of common courts provides that the minister of justice, acting as prosecutor, may dismiss any Polish court chair or deputy without giving the reasons. Those chairs of courts whose work is committed by the justice ministry will receive financial incentives and rapid career growth. What is this? It is a threat to the independence of the court and its subordination to the executive.

A further act implementing amendments to the act of organisation of the supreme court and other legislative acts also violates the status of judges. The decisions in this law directly affect the independence of judges and the independence of courts. Since it interferes in the judicial system, it violates the constitutional principle of the separation of powers. The right for consideration of one's case by an independent and impartial court is the right of each and every citizen, guaranteed by Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The independence of judges lies not in his or her power, but it is a fundamental duty and a fundamental guarantee of the functioning of the judicial system. The constitutional duty of the legislative and executive lies in protecting the independence of the judge and of the court, and not constricting it. This is one further argument in favour of us supporting today the resolution to help our Polish colleagues in the parliament there to change the situation, to bring it in full compliance with the principles of the Council of Europe: rule of law, independence of the courts and equality of arms for all citizens.

Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:17:42

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Thank you, my dear colleagues.

I remind you that the ballots for the election of a judge to the European Court of Human Rights, in respect of France, and a Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in respect of the Russian Federation, are under way. I invite those of you who have not yet voted, to do so.

I am looking for Mr ZINGERIS, who is due to speak and who does not seem to be in the Chamber. In that case, I will give the floor to Ms. TANGUY from France.

Ms Liliana TANGUY

France, ALDE 

11:18:17

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Madam President,

Ladies and gentlemen, rapporteurs,

Dear colleagues,

For several years, successive reforms of the judicial system in Poland, in particular as regards the functioning of the Constitutional Court, have raised concerns about the country's commitment to the essential principles of the Council of Europe, including the rule of law.

Most recently, following its visit to the country in early January, the Venice Commission issued a critical opinion on the latest amendments to the texts concerning the judiciary, which had been adopted at first reading in December. The opinion stresses that these reforms have a negative impact on the effective functioning of Polish institutions and compromise the independence of the judiciary. However, despite the reluctance of the Senate, the Polish Lower House finally adopted the text on 23 January.

In that context, the outcome of the report and resolution we are considering today is particularly important. As the rapporteurs point out — and I welcome the quality of the work — despite the structural and systemic challenges of the Polish judicial system in terms of the length of proceedings, the lack of effective remedies or compensation, the reforms undertaken can only be accepted if they guarantee respect for the rule of law. This is not the case because the measures concerning the decision making and composition of the Constitutional Court, as well as the non-execution and non-publication of its judgments, infringe the principle of legal certainty and the right to a fair trial set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Our rapporteurs conclude that the reforms undertaken have exposed the Polish judicial system to political interference and the risk of political abuse through an excessive centralisation of discretionary powers in the hands of the executive and the legislature. The cumulative effects of these provisions are contrary to the principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law. Accordingly, the country's authorities are invited to establish an impartial public inquiry commission by the end of March 2020 at the latest.

For my part, I believe that the preservation, promotion and strengthening of the principles of democracy and the rule of law are the fundamental tasks of the Council of Europe. Therefore, I agree with the conclusions of the Monitoring Committee, particularly with regard to a periodic review report on Poland, while at the same time supporting Polish civil society. I also deplore the increasing polarization of the political climate in the country. Nevertheless, I am pleased that this House, like the European Parliament, is taking up this situation.

Thank you for your attention.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:21:05

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Thank you, ma'am.

I'm looking for Mr VAREIKIS, who still doesn't seem to be here.

I therefore give the floor to Mr BEN CHIKHA from Belgium, please.

Mr Fourat BEN CHIKHA

Belgium, SOC 

11:21:19

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Thank you, Madam Chair, 

Members of the Assembly,

First of all, I wanted to thank the co-rapporteurs for the work they have been doing. As members of the Assembly, it's important that our governments defend democracy, the rule of law and human rights. And as the resolution already emphasises, we have seen an increase of intolerance and intolerant behaviour towards minorities. Especially towards members of the LGBT community. The intolerance has grown to such an extent that it has resulted in LGBT-free zones, with an increase of hate speech and an intolerant discourse that is being set by the ruling party in Poland.

It is therefore very alarming that the judiciary and justice system in Poland leaves the system vulnerable to political interference of the ruling party, which uses their power to continue to marginalise the LGBT community.

The courts in Poland have always played a crucial role against insidious anti-LGBT ideologies. A recent example of this was the Warsaw District Court which ordered the Newspaper Gazeta Polska, which supports the supports the nationalist-conservative governing Law and Justice party, to stop the distribution of hate speech stickers creating LGBT-free zones.

It is of great importance that we, the Assembly, do not forget the direct and current impact the reformation of the Polish justice system has on the daily lives of people of the LGBT community.

And just a little reminder. From the moment that one minority is under attack, all minorities are under attack. LGBT are human rights. Let's never forget that. 

Thank you. 

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:23:19

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Thank you, sir.

I give the floor to Mrs ARENT of Poland.

Ms Iwona ARENT

Poland, EC/DA 

11:23:27

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Thank you, Madam President.

Dear colleagues, today you are talking about the functioning of democracy in Poland, when in France there are constant protests violently suppressed by force against the judges. Germany and the German courts do not respect and do not execute the Polish court judgments, the court you defend. It's a matter of apologizing to Karol Tendera, a prisoner of the German Auschwitz-Birkenau camp for using the phrase "Polish death camps" by German public television. Mr Pieter OMTZIGT, it's no better in your country, the Netherlands, to hear about the understatement of crime statistics and the constitutionality of parliamentary resolution and treaties cannot be controlled by the courts. Ms Azadeh ROHJAN GUSTAFSSON, in your country, Sweden. in the last year there were over 8 000 rapes. Over 200 bombings and 40 000 girls have had their clitoris circumcised. It's terrible. I'm not going to mention the functioning of the democracy in other countries and there would be something to talk about. Poles support the changes in the justice system. They have met with arrogance and injustice in the courts. You let yourself be manipulated into political games initiated by the opposition in Poland. The marches and protests of a handful of people are inspired by the political parties that lost the election three months ago and cannot accept it. Together with them, commercial media whose capital is located in Germany, are falsifying the situation in Poland. There is and will be freedom and democracy in Poland because we fought hard for it. But there will also be justice. Thank you

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:25:55

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Thank you.

I call Mr Petri HONKONEN from Finland.

Mr Petri HONKONEN

Finland, ALDE 

11:26:01

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Thank you, Madam President.

Dear colleagues,

I want to thank the rapporteurs for their profound work for this serious issue. Let me also announce my deep concern about the developments in Poland. A neutral and independent justice system and judiciary creates the ground for a legitimate democracy and human rights. It is the foundation for western democracy.

The Polish reform of the justice system does not respect these core principles. If the government of Poland implements this new legislation, it will make the judiciary too vulnerable to political interests. This may weaken civil rights of the people of Poland. I agree with the colleagues who think that the Assembly should open a monitoring procedure with regard to Poland. We must remember that we always put a problem to the monitoring procedure, not the people.

It is highly important that in Europe, institutions react and counteract against negative developments concerning human rights and democracy. As for the European Union, we have launched a discussion on how to use our financial instruments to lead this negative evolution in a positive direction. We must use all our instruments to protect the citizens and their rights. The same is also true for the Council of Europe and our Assembly. This movement we see here is crucial: the institutions take back their core role and begin to have more influence and impact on the lives of their citizens. Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:27:44

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Thank you.

I call Mr Aleksander POCIEJ of Poland.

Mr Aleksander POCIEJ

Poland, EPP/CD 

11:27:54

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Thank you, Madam President.

First of all, I must thank the rapporteur and somebody — who is no longer with us — who has done a great deal of work, a member from Luxembourg, Mr Cruchten, who has worked a great deal on this report. When I hear the representative of the Conservatives say "It is Poland that is being accused here", that's not true. It is the government that maintains an anti-democratic, anti-European policy and destroys the rule of law, nullifying the separation of powers.

When I hear colleagues saying that it is about "reforms", it makes me laugh.

In the last four and a half years, nothing has changed for citizens in Poland. On the contrary, the situation has got worse, it has deteriorated. The time it takes to obtain justice in Poland, in some courts, has doubled. And still, some people talk about "reforms". No, it has nothing to do with the people of Poland. Over this period, the government has changed the legislation on the judicial system at least 20 times.

Where do we find ourselves now? The Constitutional Court is completely paralysed, completely subject to political power. The National Council of Judges which, among other things, is supposed to appoint judges independently, is now completely subordinate to politicians.

The presidents of all the different courts in Poland have been changed, almost all of them. By who? By the Minister of Justice, who is at the same time the Attorney General. And the latest law to have been adopted means that judges and their independence are being targeted.

This recent legislation represents a risk for citizens and their right to justice, free of political interference and recognised by the European Court of Human Rights. As a Pole, this day and this debate make me very sad.

Thank you. Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:31:16

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Thank you.

I now call Mr Momodou Malcolm JALLOWJALLOW from Sweden.

Mr Momodou Malcolm JALLOW

Sweden, UEL 

11:31:30

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Thank you so much, Madame President.

This debate is about democracy and the rule of law and it amazes me when I hear people use this debate to say what is happening in Sweden or what is happening in France or what is happening in Germany. Now, this Assembly is the guardian of human rights and the rule of law and we would, we will, at any point in time try to fight to make sure that we maintain the standards that we say we represent, regardless if it is in France or in Poland, but today this debate is about Poland and let's focus on what the debate is about.

Madame President, this Assembly is the guardian of democracy and the rule of law. It only makes sense that when we see one of us violating these very principles that we are sworn to protect that we act. Democracy, the rule of law and the respect of human rights are indivisible and intimately interlinked to one another. The need to guarantee the rule of law and the separation of powers is an obligation incumbent upon all democracies and cannot be compromised.

Madame President, these are fundamental principles that bind us together in Europe and must therefore at all times be respected and strengthened. So, the development that we have seen and have been seeing in Poland and that has been accurately described by the report is gravely concerning.

Madame President, as members of this Council, we have a responsibility to adhere to the European Convention of Human Rights but also the obligation to act when these very rights are violated. Any development in a member state that undermines or weakens the fundamental principles of the rule of law, democracy, and respect of human rights should be of immediate concern to this Assembly. We have all heard of the shortcomings and concerns within the Polish judicial system, how the government has systematically undermined the independent of the judiciary in contradiction to the European norms and standards. We've seen reforms rendering the judicial system vulnerable to political interference and control of the executive, challenging the very principles of a democratic state governed by the rule of law.

Madame President, we've heard about the LGBT-free zones; we know about the promotions of intolerance and the hate speech and this what we doing here today we doing for the Polish people's rights. We're doing it; it's about the rights for human rights and freedom for the Polish people. It's about democracy, the rule of law, and human rights for the Polish people. The freedom of the Polish people is directly connected to our freedom and when we do everything within our power to protect that freedom, we are directly protecting our own freedom.

Madame President, Poland is a test case attempting to test the level at which fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law can be pushed, challenged and violated, whether or not this great Assembly deserves our role as the guardian of democracy and the rule of law depends on how we act now.

Madame President, I really thank the rapporteurs for a job well done.

Thank you so much.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:34:53

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Thank you.

I now call Ms Kamila GASIUK-PIHOWICZ of Poland.

Ms Kamila GASIUK-PIHOWICZ

Poland, EPP/CD 

11:35:01

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Ms President,

Democracy, rule of law, judicial independence, the right to a fair trial, these have been some of our most important values for several decades. They have been the foundation of European cooperation. Turning away from them means turning way from Europe.

Today we are facing a great challenge. We find ourself in a difficult situation because the Polish government acts against both Polish citizens and European values. Given this, we cannot remain silent. I feel ashamed that my country due to the actions of the Law and Justice government wants a success story of a democratic transition turned into a democratic outsider.

Ladies and gentlemen, I do not want any further need to adopt a resolution supporting the independence of Polish courts. I do not want the Venice Commission having to come to Poland and to investigate the cases of violation of European standards of rule of law. I do not want a paralysis of Polish courts. I do not want the judgments being refused by the courts of other countries.

I wish that my country becomes again a role model for other countries going through a democratic transition. To make that happen, the current government needs to restore the independence of national council of the judiciary, depoliticise the constitutional court, and restore full independence of disciplinary proceedings against judges. Unfortunately, the government instead of taking a step back, makes a step forward towards a disaster.

Ladies and gentlemen, today here in Strasbourg I appeal to the Law and Justice government to respect the judgments of Polish and European courts and tribunals and to withdraw the changes undermining judicial independence. They are a shame for Poland and a source of problems for Polish citizens. I also appeal to European institutions to keep their firm position and further defend our common values. I hope that you will not stop demanding the Polish government to respect European values and the rights of its citizens. I believe, in fact, and I'm sure that one day the violation of our common European values will end. It will be over in all those European countries where we can see today to a larger or lesser extent, also in Poland. It will pass as every disease does. I believe that this disease affecting our democracy will be over sooner thanks to the mutual support and cooperation of all those who share the common European values. Free courts, free citizens.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:38:12

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Thank you.

Mr Mr Jokin BILDARRATZ FROM Spain now has the floor.

Mr Jokin BILDARRATZ

Spain, ALDE 

11:38:20

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Thank you, Madame President. I think that a large part of the institutions in Europe and most of the political groups agree that we have a similar diagnosis regarding the situation currently being experienced in Poland because the vast majority of us understand that there is a clear violation of the fundamental rights and principles prevailing the Council of Europe. They are not being met by the Polish government because there is a violation of the rule of law, a breach of democratic values and a breach of the separation of powers being promoted by the Polish government.

But I understand that the debate is essentially on determining what is the solution to this problem. In my modest opinion, it's very important when looking for the solution which we should set forth for this problem. The key question is what has been the attitude of the Polish government and what we think is going to be the attitude looking to the future of the Polish government? How many initiatives and years have gone by in this Council of Europe regarding the Polish government? And indeed coming from other European institutions in the EU and the response of the Polish government has been in the negative because in addition to the initiatives of the Council of Europe, as I said, the European Union has also called for a change of attitude in reasonable terms because the European Union has reacted fairly slowly just as we have and the proposals that have been put forward, both by ourselves and our European Union institutions have been disregarded by the Polish government. There's an inordinate increase in executive powers at the expense of the judiciary. The attempts of the Polish authorities to restrict freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the right to privacy have been made manifest, I think, and they compel the Council of Europe to respond. The Venice Commission has put forward no less than five reports and none of them has been favourable to the Polish government. 

To conclude, it's my understanding that the Polish government is reaching the borderline now and the attitude in the Council of Europe has to be a response in defence of values and law, the values which guide us on our path and which underpin law and we need to produce a response of custodianship of the values of the Council of Europe. That is why in congratulating and thanking the rapporteurs for the arduous job they've performed, we, or I, shall vote in favour of this report. 

Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:41:39

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Thank you.

I call Sir Edward LEIGH of the United Kingdom.

Sir Edward LEIGH

United Kingdom, EC/DA 

11:41:47

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Respect for democracy and the rule of law are of course fundamental to the Council of Europe. I believe that this report actually undermines the Council's ideals. I believe it fails to protect the pluralism that makes our continent so rich in its diversity. In both tone and content it seeks to replace pluralism by enforcing conformism with social liberal ideas. Now with the limited time I want to highlight just one example from this report. Paragraph 22 notes the results of the election for the Polish Senate. The governing body, PIS, failed to obtain a majority in the senate, as we know. Six districts had results close enough that the governing party asked for recounts. A day later the opposition made some requests for these three results. The language, and language is very important, Madam President, by which this reports is written is totally biased. For instance, it says on the 21 October 2019, PIS requested a recount of the votes of the Senate races in 6 districts where they "claimed the results were very close", but where there had been in their view "a high number of spoiled ballots". A day later, the opposition requested the recount of the results in another three districts for "a variety of reasons." The governing parties actions are explained because of things that "they claim," that are "in their view," while the opposition's actions took place "for a variety of reasons."

The implication is that the governing parties requests are political and subjective while the opposition's requests are neutral and varied. Language and terminology aside, this paragraph reflects a more deep-seated problem. Accurate counting of votes is fundamental to democracy. It's not a high idea to aim for, but the basic standard. You can't be a functioning democracy without it. It's one among many reasons why the Council of Europe sends observers to monitor elections. If there are improprieties, they should be investigated. If results are particularly close, what harm is a recount? Why should greater vigilance in proper electoral procedure be considered problematic? That is what the report implies. Establishing the correct number of votes is not nitpicking. It is how democracy works. This is just one paragraph out of 140 paragraphs in this report. I'm sure some of the criticisms may be valid and the government should act on it in Poland, but if the Council of Europe tries to sideline and illegitimise social conservatism and others, we will only undermine our own foundations. Look at other pan-European institutions. Enforced conformity is one of the reasons why British voters felt uncomfortable with the European Union. Now we are leaving. All Britains want to continue our friendship with our fellow Europeans, especially the Poles, with whom we have stood shoulder to shoulder. Madam President, this report is biased and flawed. It is a political attack on a socially conservative government.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:45:05

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Thank you.

I call Mr Dimitrios KAIRIDIS from Greece.

Mr Dimitrios KAIRIDIS

Greece, EPP/CD 

11:45:12

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Thank you, Ms Chair.

Esteemed colleagues, we must have read a different report given my predecessor's comments about it. For all of us including all the members of the Greek delegation who are committed to a united, democratic, liberal Europe, Poland is more than a country, it is a cause.

We are all very invested in the success of Poland, a nation that in the past embodied the tragedies but more recently the resilience and determination of all Europeans to build a better future out of the catastrophes of the 20th century. Poland has been a stellar performer of the transition from communism to a market economy and democracy. A poster child of the success of Europe. As a result, the last 30 years have been the best 30 years in modern Polish history. This unprecedented achievement, thanks to the hard work of the Polish people first and foremost, is today in peril.

While economic convergence continues, political divergence with the back-pedalling of the rule of law in Poland during the last five years is taking place. We have a report to approve, written in a moderate and restraint language. However, during the last few days, the Polish government has decided to ignore it despite the outcry of the European Commission, the European Court of Justice, the Venice Commission and the very Senate of Poland.

It is now up to us to stand by the values that underpin our Assembly and send a powerful message to the Polish government to stop and reverse course, and to the Polish people that we are here to help restore the rule of law in their great nation.

Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:47:35

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Thank you.

I call Ms Marija GOLUBEVA from Latvia.

Ms Marija GOLUBEVA

Latvia, ALDE 

11:47:43

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Ladies and gentlemen.

Democracy is not a dictatorship of the majority. The discussion here is about the decision to set up new procedures and disciplinary tools, possibly to ensure control of the judiciary by governing majority. I think this assembly is right to be concerned, as its role is to uphold democracy and human rights, and I do not see this concern as confrontational.

On the contrary, I think we should take regard of the concerns of many Polish citizens who are protesting against subordination of the judiciary to the political majority. According to the media, when one of the members of the Polish Government was told that the Supreme Court does not recognise judges appointed under the new procedure, he said that the Supreme Court is just a group of professors, while he has the Polish people on his side. Now that is a very dangerous statement. The citizens who do not support the ruling majority are also part of the nation. This is one of the basic tenets of liberal democracy. So is the division of powers. I think it is important to protect liberal democracy in Europe, and I think this Assembly is right to be concerned about the independence of the judiciary.

Thank you.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:48:56

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I call Mr Mr Alexander CHRISTIANSSON of Sweden.

Mr Alexander CHRISTIANSSON

Sweden, EC/DA 

11:49:05

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Madam President.

Last week a spokesmen from the European Commission in Brussels said, and I quote, "the Commission is very concerned about the rule of law situation in Poland". End of quote. This was after Poland had lost several cases in the EU's Court of Justice brought by the Commission over alleged shortcomings in the country's administration of justice and threatening Poland with losing millions of Euros of EU funding unless it corrected these alleged shortcomings.

In reaction to this, Poland's Foreign Ministry summoned the Commission's representative in Warsaw over what it called an inadmissible statement. It added, and I quote, "such statements go beyond the competence of the EU, which is not entitled to assess the independence and legal legitimacy of constitutional courts of EU member states", end of quote.

I must say that the Polish Foreign Minister has my full understanding and sympathy. The EU is not a federal structure and yet in practice it behaves like one more and more every single day. Many of the EU's member states are against this development, and one, the United Kingdom, is indeed leaving the block on Friday, in large measure because of the EU's rapid drift in the direction of centralist intrusive rule.

Colleagues, our Polish friends have suffered foreign domination for centuries. At the end of the last century Poland managed to liberate itself from the oppression of one Union, the Soviet Union, and at the beginning of this century it joined another union, the European Union. One it expected and still expects will remain one of freedom, democracy and human rights between essentially sovereign states.

The Poles themselves admit that their legal administration can be improved. The report before us today outlined several ways forward, some of which may be workable, others not. It's for the Poles to decide freely and without finger pointing from the outside, especially from an unelected bureaucracy like the Commission that brings case after case to a European Court of Justice. Also the lively and free debate in Poland bears witness to the health of the Polish democracy. Even my own country, Sweden, has a public service that is often in practice heavily biased.

Thank you Madam President.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:51:32

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Thank you, sir.

The last speaker for this morning is Mr Jussi SARAMO, from Finland.

Mr Jussi SARAMO

Finland, UEL 

11:51:39

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Dear colleagues,

I would like to thank for this important report on the functioning of democratic institutions in Poland. The report devotes a lot of attention to the judicial reforms in the country and, in particular, the threat they pose to the independence of the judiciary in the country.

I visited Poland just before the elections. I was choked on the state of the democracy and rule of law in the heart of Europe.

In my remarks, I want to highlight the issue of minority rights in Poland under the rule of the Law and Justice party, which secured its second term in the parliamentary elections. As the report makes clear, its election campaign relied heavily on demonising the LGBT community.

The report at hand notes that the ruling party’s intolerant public discourse during it “has created a permissive environment and a sense of impunity for hate speech, and even violent actions, against minorities and other vulnerable groups, especially LGTBI people who are painted as a threat to the Polish national identity”.

In Poland, same sex unions are illegal. Gay couples cannot take out loans, settle taxes together or inherit. There are no non-discrimination protections guarding against being fired from jobs or kicked out from homes. Anti-LGBT attacks are not considered a hate crime by Polish law. Life for LGBT people feels increasingly dangerous.

In this situation one could think the leaders, the powerful people, would try to make their citizens' life better by improving human rights. But in Poland, they are doing the opposite.

Indeed, the leader of PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has described the LGBT movement as “a real threat to our identity, to our nation and to the Polish state”. It gives me no pleasure to say that one can find plenty of other similar statements.

According to Human Rights Watch, the judicial system in Poland has in certain instances served as a bulwark against discriminatory practices in the country. For LGBT rights, and human rights in general, it is of utmost importance that the independence of the judiciary be upheld and the current negative trend concerning the rule of law in Poland, outlined in this report and others, be reversed.

Dear friends, we are not talking about politics, we are talking about democracy and human rights.

Ms Nicole TRISSE

France, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

11:54:25

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Thank you.

Colleagues, I remind you that the ballots for the election of a judge to the European Court of Human Rights in respect of France and a Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in respect of the Russian Federation are under way.

I invite those of you who have not yet voted to do so. Furthermore, as I said before, all speakers on the list have spoken. I remind you that the debate will continue this afternoon at 3.30 p.m. with the Committee's reply and the vote on the amendments and the draft resolution.

Thank you.

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:00:13

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Madam President.

It is an immense honour to be able to have you with us here in this Hemicycle today in our beautiful home which houses members of parliament from 47 different countries, united by shared values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Madam President, your country, Georgia, chose a bit more than 20 years ago to become part of this family of values on 27 April 1999, a major step in the constitution of democratic institutions in your country with new importance given to reforms in crucial areas including the fight against corruption, mechanisms to protect human rights and the reform of the judiciary.

These forms of progress represent ongoing progress which this Assembly fully recognises. Other issues remain open. I'm convinced that dialogue and constructive cooperation with all political forces will allow new reforms to go even further and to make your country even stronger and more stable.

As you yourself mentioned in your speech good wishes for the new year, a peaceful and stable Georgia is something that we all need.

Let me also wish you all success in your efforts. You can count on our Assembly. We will continue to accompany you as you go down that path.

Madam President, we are honoured to have you with us here today at this symbolic moment when your country chairs for the first time the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. We are looking forward to hearing your message and your vision as to the future.

You have the floor Madam President.

Adress by Ms Salome ZOURABICHVILI, President of Georgia

Ms Salome ZOURABICHVILI

President of Georgia  

12:02:09

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Mr. Speaker,

Excellency,

Distinguished members of the Assembly,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me, first of all, to congratulate Mr Hendrik DAEMS on his election as President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I wish you, Mr President, a successful term of office. Your success will be our success and I wish this House constructive work under your guidance.

Ms Salome ZOURABICHVILI

President of Georgia  

12:02:59

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It is an honour for me to address you today.

It is an important occasion, as Georgia has assumed this year the presidency of the Committee of Ministers for the first time.

This is for us an important responsibility and a wonderful opportunity at the same time.

Yesterday our foreign minister presented our priorities during this presidency: human rights and environmental protection, a very new and important endeavour; civil participation in decision making processes, the next stage of democracy; child-friendly justice, converging experiences on the restorative justice; and strengthening democracy through education, culture and youth engagement. Those four priorities are those we are going to work on all together. They were selected to reflect the challenges that are faced by all societies today and I intend to launch a comprehensive discussion on possible solutions.

I hope that the six months ahead will be fully used for fruitful deliberations and to identify the very concrete next steps to be taken for further progress in our common endeavour.

Excellencies, 70 years ago post-World War II Europe, fully understanding the true value of peace and the need to bounce back from the destruction and despair, created the Council of Europe to achieve greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage, and facilitating their economic and social progress. And it did. The adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights laid the ground for the organisation and became the guideline for each and every member. Democracy, human rights and rule of law became the core principles that we all need to adhere to and to be guided by.

I strongly believe, especially today, even more today, that each and every member of the Council of Europe should abide by the values and principles of the organisation. We individually and collectively have subscribed to the same standards and rules, and therefore are equally committed to following and implementing them, whether a small or large country, a poor or rich country, all the new democracies, developed or emerging economies. Hence, equality of treatment, objectivity in assessment and fairness in implementation are the sine qua non conditions for this organisation to remain credible, trusted and efficient. We all need such an organisation.

Progress and development bring evermore issues and challenges that members attempt to individually tackle. In reality most of these challenges, being global in form and universal in essence, need a unified response and the Council of Europe is a place where we come together and share knowledge and best practices. Here, through cooperation and mutual support we come up with common solutions.

The Council of Europe has been reflecting the most contemporary issues, has been setting new principles and elaborating conventions which are adopted by the Council and then translated into national legislation. That is how we all progress. That is the road that we have taken. Though the hardest part we all face is implementation, and Georgia is no exception.

Excellencies, Georgia celebrated 20 years of membership last year. It had recovered independence from Soviet rule just 12 years before that. Today it is indeed difficult to imagine where we were and how fast what one can call a revolution has happened. We have come a long way. Acceding to the Council of Europe marked the start of the path towards the transformation of our society, the liberation of individuals, the democratisation of the political system, and the consolidation of democratic institutions and of a state based on the rule of law. A past that corresponded entirely to the free choice of the nation. A choice that has never faltered and which is to this day inspiring us and bringing us ever closer to the European full integration. In this short time, at least from a historical perspective, Georgia has succeeded in turning itself from a post-Soviet state into an emerging ever stronger and vibrant, sometimes some would say too vibrant, democracy. She has turned into a modern European state with stronger institutions, a free economy, sustained economic growth, and developing social and health care systems, all in an environment of stability.

This is a country that managed to pave its way towards its ultimate aim: the European Union and NATO. Despite everything, and everything it was, the conflicts, frozen or open war, occupied territories, threats and attempts of destabilisation, we have managed reforms in compliance with most of the requirements, despite sometimes pain and hardship and the strain of the brutal changes on the population. We have managed to move forcefully in one, and only one direction, with the unwavering support of the absolute majority of the population. Achieving the Association Agreement, the DCFTA, the visa-free regime with the EU and the substantial package with NATO has been a demonstration, an answer to these achievements and the acknowledgement by our partners that Georgia was and is a trustworthy partner.

We know that the end of the road is still not reached. It will take even more political will and more readiness to achieve the last wave of reforms. The last stretch is not the easiest one, but it is the most rewarding, and it will be the most rewarding. Standing here is an important opportunity for me to reflect on some of these achievements while recognising the challenges and reflecting on steps for the future.

The new constitution adopted in 2018 is a shift to yet another stage of our democratic development. It demonstrates our commitment to human rights protection in addition to the fundamental rights and freedoms. This constitution has introduced the newest in social, economic and environmental rights that places it on a similar footing to modern and progressive European states. Environmental rights, more specifically protection of individuals and communities against environmental harm, is a priority that most countries are now learning how to to deal with. It is a UN Sustainable Development Goal that we all agreed beyond our continent. I believe that caring about our planet requires joint efforts at every geographical, political or societal level. Therefore it is no accident that Georgia chose human rights and environmental protection as one of its priorities for our presidency. We intend to pursue this priority not only during the presidency term, but well beyond.

Since joining the Council, Georgia has adopted 18 conventions and protocols. I would like to single out one of the latest ratifications, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. As the first woman president of Georgia I am no exception in Georgian history, for Georgia has been a progressive country in gender equality for centuries. We had women governing the country centuries ago and Georgia's constitution in 1920 already ensured equal political rights for women not only to elect but to be elected. The first constituent assembly of Georgia had five women members, one of them the first Muslim woman to be elected.

Still I consider it my special responsibility to go even beyond the existing situation where already half of the cabinet of ministers are composed of women, including two vice prime ministers. But we have to go further. My personal duty is to promote and encourage equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women at every level of society in every part of Georgia. Unfortunately the need to safeguard women from violence at home or elsewhere has appeared in recent years, even in Georgia, which seemed immune to such excesses. But drastic social changes and economic hardship have taken their toll, and families have been giving in to the spiral of domestic abuse and violence. The Istanbul Convention sets high standards for preventing violence, protection of victims and most importantly, prosecuting accused offenders. This will be at the centre of my attention to see that it is implemented without complacency or hesitation.

In 2019 Georgia adopted important pieces of legislation in order to further enhance the protection of human rights. I'm proud that Georgia has taken, among the few that have moved in that direction, an important step towards ensuring equality by defining and prohibiting sexual harassment. The society itself is slowly accepting the terms, and there are more and more individuals aware of their rights, especially in the workplace, and ready to defend them. The adoption of the code of the rights of the child was an important milestone for enforcing the state system that ensures the welfare and protection of every child. The code also creates greater guarantees to promote and ensure the participation of children in decision-making on all matters that concern them directly. We are now in the process of creating and improving the mechanisms to implement the code.

Adoption of the new law on occupational safety is an achievement towards improving employment rights. It establishes high standards of protection and effective sanctions. It enhances what is the most important, the mandate of labour inspection, and aims to change the work culture. The law reflects the ILO recommendations and the respective EU Directives. The next step entails active work on reinforcing labour inspections in order to ensure a proper implementation of the standards, including by the bigger companies. Strict implementation in practice, which is still to be achieved, will depend directly on the effectiveness of the inspection and of the monitoring system.

Human rights need constant safeguarding. Here I would like to once again underline the significance of the law on the elimination of all forms of discrimination that protects all minority groups from discrimination.

I participated in the ceremony dedicated to the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem last week. I'm going to take part in the ceremony right now here, and I have to say that Jewish people in Georgia have coexisted with Christians and Muslim minorities for 26 centuries without a single fact of persecution on ethnic or religious grounds. Our friendship, and I don't want to speak about tolerance because to tolerate someone is to not understand the other, but just tolerate, it's a friendship, and it is an example that both nations are proud of. In today's world of conflicts and tensions, such an illustration of peaceful cohabitation is even more valuable and necessary for all. That is why I strongly believe that the exceptional relations of Georgians and Jews deserve special acknowledgement as an intangible cultural heritage. We are working towards submitting this heritage on this ground in an application to UNESCO to be integrated in the world intangible heritage list.

Many different religions have been practised in Georgia for centuries and respective groups have peacefully cohabited. We have districts, not only in the capital Tbilisi but also in Kutaisi and many other cities, where Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian Gregorian churches, synagogues and mosques are built next to each other and where people continue to practice their religion in pure coexistence. The Tiblisi mosque is quite exceptional since it is the only one today where Shia and Sunni Muslims pray together. This traditional tolerance and coexistence is still very much a reality and has not been overshadowed or limited by the distressed isolation or agression that we see today in the outside world. While the Georgian Orthodox church has, by tradition, its place and special constitutional status in the country, the state also recognises and protects the rights of other religious organisations through the state agency for religious affairs. At this time there are 11 denominations working with the agency, which channels legal and financial support to these organisations.

I would like to recall that Georgia is among the countries that grant full linguistic, cultural and religious rights to the national minorities living on our territory. We have coexisted for centuries. This diversity is an integral part of Georgia's socio-economic development. These minorities enjoy full rights to their language, to their culture, to their traditions. To such an extent, and that is maybe part of the problem, that a majority of these national minorities do not speak the state language, and that is an obstacle to promotion. That is an issue that I consider to be my personal competence and duty, to ameliorate and to promote these efforts towards better and fuller integration. Efforts are made to overcome these limitations and we are doing everything to ensure a better participation of these minorities in not only the social and cultural life of the country, but also a better political participation.

One sensitive issue that remains in our society concernes the rights of sexual minorities to promote their rights in the public space. Both maybe the religious traditions but also maybe the weight of Soviet puritanism explain some adverse reactions to public demonstrations of the LGBT community, such as Pride. The authorities have been taking the necessary measures to protect these rights and that of freedom of expression while preventing conflicts between other social groups that might be averse to these expressions. Law enforcement bodies have managed better and better these sensitive situations and have been effective in physically protecting minority groups on such occasions. Of course the ideal is when there will not be any need to protect physically those minorities.

Freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed by the Georgian Constitution, but not only guaranteed: it is fully enforced. Practice goes well beyond legislation. Freedom is without limits. Sometimes, even as it happens in other societies today, putting strains on society because of hate speech and the absence of any self-restraint that generates, as it does in other places, adverse effects on the social climate. Here, like in most of the free developed countries, social media, where free expression does not go necessarily hand-in-hand with responsibility and is often accentuated by anonymity, is adding to the existing tensions of an already polarised society. But at the same time we are proud of the extent to which the social media figures today as one of the most free in the contemporary countries.

Today all media outlets enjoy full freedom. No media outlet has been fined or constrained by public or judicial decisions of any kind. When the ownership of an opposition TV channel, Rustavi 2, was contested in a Georgian court, and while it was portrayed again and again as an attempt by the government to overtake today, tomorrow, immediately, the control of this channel, none of this has happened. To the contrary, and for the whole period of the trial, tax authorities refrained from administrative actions, even to request payments of the tax arrears amounting to a few million laris. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Georgia and from there to the European Court of Human Rights. In its decision of last July the ECHR stated that none of the articles of the European Convention had been violated in relation to Rustavi 2, including the right to a fair trial, and recognised in the case the impartiality of the Georgian judicial system. That is is maybe an example that we should be wary of the bad news that sometimes comes from different information sources.

After a few years of endless protests against the presumed attempt to take over the R2 opposition channel, the judgment of the courts returned the channel to its legitimate owners and there again we had these predictions that it would mean dramatically a change in ownership that would result in a change in the broadcasting policy. That again has not happened. Rustavi 2 remains to this day as vibrant an opposition channel as it was before, while the Georgian media scene has been enriched by a handful of new opposition channels that have gone on the air. Today's media landscape in Georgia is probably one of the most diverse, free and uncontrolled as can be. It is also clear that the opposition channels are the ones that set the tone of the information.

Georgia has developed a comprehensive approach towards human rights and the government has adopted the national human rights strategy and action plan for 2014 to 2020. The implementation process was recently evaluated by an independent expert commissioned jointly by the EU and the UN and it is noteworthy that the report welcomes the significant progress, to greater or lesser degrees, in almost all of the specific subject areas addressed in the strategy. We all understand that meticulous work needs to be done to continue and to implement these achievements in practice and monitor the impact on the protection and enjoyment of human rights. The role of the public defender is vital in this process. The ombudsman, whose independence I think is clear for everyone including this chamber, provides sets of recommendations in each annual report that is presented to the parliament. Though the number of implemented recommendations is growing there is certainly room for improvement and more implementation of these recommendations. From its own monitoring perspective the parliament has gained expanded oversight functions under the new constitution that should be and are partly actively applied. The new rules of procedure created more mechanisms to make the parliament effective in monitoring the implementation and being informed of policy decisions, including minister's hour, thematic enquiries and interpellation.

The role of opposition has also increased in conducting oversight functions. During 2019 the parliament held thirteen minister's hours, three thematic groups and four interpellations happened. The progress has been evidenced by the European Court of Human Rights and it is a progress that is shown in statistics, which is probably the most objective regarding the human rights situation in Georgia. More people attain justice in Georgian courts and have no need to further apply to the ECHR. In the last six years the number of applications has been reduced four times.

Meanwhile the rate of successful execution of the court rulings that have been confirmed by the Committee of Minister's resolutions is growing. Progress has also been achieved in the commitment to settle cases at a national level. To date 128 cases have been struck out through friendly settlements and government decisions. Substantial progress has been made in strengthening alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, mediation and arbitration in support of the judicial reform and reduction of caseloads domestically and in the ECHR.

I've mentioned individual cases at the European Court of Human Rights several times but I must draw your attention to two interstate cases of Georgia versus Russia. Massive deportation of Georgians from Russia in 2006: Georgia won the case on its merits in 2014. However the grand chamber decision on compensation of these damages in the amount of 10 million euros for 1500 Georgian nationals was taken only on 31 January 2019. To this day Russia disregards this decision and does not fulfil its obligation. I have to reiterate here the call from the authorities to this organisation and to its members to press Russian authorities into fulfilling its commitments and obligations and to pay the compensation to the victims without further delay. Double standards not only are not acceptable per se but they weaken in the first place this organisation and its principles.

The second interstate case: 2008, Russia-Georgia War. The final hearing was held almost two years ago in May 2018. We are still waiting for the court to deliver the judgment in a timely manner and the victims have been waiting since August of 2008, almost 12 years ago. Most importantly, Georgian society as a whole expects justice to be served. It is also an example for the others. Again, standards should apply and justice should be delivered.

The independence of the judiciary and building public confidence in the court system remain a priority for Georgia. We have completed already three stages of the reform and now the Parliament is working on the next set of amendments to ensure what is called the fourth wave. This entails improvement of the mechanisms and of the framework of disciplinary liability of the judges, various aspects of legal proceedings and the independent inspectors agency of the High Council of Justice that has to be strengthened. Work on this part is well ahead. We also have to solve the problem of the backlog of cases, the reform of the High School of Justice and elaborating new regulations regarding the High Council of Justice with emphasis on transparency, accountability and on an issue that I know is something under your attention, the procedures for the nomination of judges. The amendments on these issues will be introduced to the Parliament of Georgia in the coming weeks and months, and plans are to finalise the process during the spring session. I will be very attentive to that.

In Spring 2019 the Parliament revised the nomination and selection process for appointing the supreme court judges to ensure transparency, accountability and professional evaluation of the candidates. There were five main recommendations provided by the Venice Commission. Four of the main ones have been endorsed by the Parliament. Transparency of the process has been achieved, especially at the parliamentary level where Georgia has initiated a process of full transparency, live recordings of hearings on TV and the whole Georgian society was following this selection at the level of the parliament. There are still criticisms of the way the High Council of Justice has proceeded. There still will be probably criticism of some of the selections by the parliament. It is not for me to express an opinion on that. I know that we are in the process, that it's probably the most difficult part where our past is still too present: our Soviet past as well as our post-Soviet past and the past that is linked to an authoritarian regime that in Georgia has really affected the trust in the judicial system. But we are getting out of that and the selection process, the next one for the judges that have not been appointed this time, will have to be improved and hopefully will be seriously improved.

Even if there are still criticisms towards the Georgian judicial system, and nobody is ideal or perfect, but still, the assessments and evaluations that are conducted by international organisations tend to be more and more positive. The Heritage Foundation ranked Georgia 18 among the European courts. World Justice Project puts Georgia in the top 20 for court efficiency. The Global Competitiveness Index puts Georgia in 15th place for public safety and 13th for its protection from organised crime. The result of the last IPSOS survey identified that despite the shortcomings 51% of Georgians trust the justice system, which is after all similar to the average trust rate in the European courts. These numbers speak for themselves but they're not sufficient. We can do better and we will do better.

The path to democracy is through free and fair elections. The OECD has provided substantial recommendations for improving the election processes. The parliamentary working group has been actively working since summer of 2019 to draft amendments to the election code to incorporate the respective recommendations. The working group includes representatives of not only all the parliamentary parties but other qualified political forces as well. It is an important work that I am fully behind and supportive of. On the path to secure free and fair elections Georgia has worked a long way and has gradually improved the processes and each election has marked a step forward. But clearly there are two more changes that need to be enforced in order to increase again the public trust toward the process and secure what is the most important, a high level of participation. I am confident that the ongoing process will deliver a better electoral code and raise the standards.

We should not forget that the biggest challenge to holding free and fair elections and to democracy in general is the progressive and extensive polarisation in political life which in the end affects all aspects of the society as cancer invades all healthy cells of the body. This is a challenge that increasingly many countries face today and Georgia is no exception unfortunately. Non-acceptance of different opinions, aggression and hate speech divide our societies, antagonise individuals, and fuel distrust and division. Coupled with fake news and disinformation, polarisation becomes a fertile ground for outside influence during election campaigns and beyond. The extreme negativism deprives our population of the opportunity to unite around important and common issues.

Meanwhile we have the resource of such issues as matter of consensus, which are the following: overcoming occupation of our territories, consolidating independence and achieving European integration, national objectives that are common to each and every Georgian and could serve as a unifying platform. It is my hope and aspiration that Georgian Society put more efforts towards reconciliation and unification around the common threats and the common objectives. I personally have meticulously avoided being hijacked in any way by the polarisation process as I believe deeply that only in a strong consensus on our major values and priorities can this country continue not only its democratic development but consolidate its independence and strive to end the occupation. A divided country cannot confront these existential challenges successfully.

It has been almost 12 years since the Russo-Georgian War led to 20% of Georgian territory being occupied by Russia. The human rights situation in the occupied territories is deteriorating constantly. The administrative boundary line is being shifted continuously and crossing points closed for mundane reasons, obstructing freedom of movement for the population living in the Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali regions. The crossing point to the Tskhinvali region has been closed since September. The practice of closing the crossing points has resulted in tragedies, such as the death of Ms Martiashvili. Too many tragedies result from this closure. All our citizens there are suffering human rights deprivation, lack of adequate health services, prohibition of education in native Georgian language as well as restrictions on teachings in Abkhazian or Ossetian languages through the policy of Russification. But also intensified ethnically-targeted violations against what is now a very small Georgian minority in the enclave of Gali. Citizens living on our side of the administrative line in villages that have been partitioned are kidnapped, ransomed, in some cases tortured or even killed for not having respected a border that has no legal existence and that, from one day to another, suddenly appears in a backyard or goes through the village and its traditional graveyards. The latest incident was the detention of Doctor Gaprindashvili for entering the occupied Tskhinvali region in order to provide medical help. Such acts go against all internationally recognised humanitarian rules and create grounds for additional escalation. I would like to use this forum to thank all our international partners and organisations for the the effort in supporting the release of Doctor Gaprindashvili after two months of detention. This success is our success, our common success to all. The international monitoring of the situation is very limited due to the fact that the EUMM, while being mandated to operate throughout the whole territory of Georgia, is still today not allowed in the occupied regions by the Russian Federation, in violation of the 2008 ceasefire agreement.

Last summer Georgia filed a new interstate case at the European Court of Human Rights regarding the violations of human rights on the occupied territories by Russia. They concern the violation of seven articles of the Convention and three articles of Protocols 1 and 4. Again, no double standards in this organisation. On our part Georgia's peace initiative as a step to a better future is a very vivid demonstration of our commitment, aiming at improving the humanitarian and socio-economic conditions of people residing on the other side of the administrative line. But our peace initiative, our unilateral decision not to use war as a way to resolve the conflict, has not been reciprocated in any way by Russia. To the country, incidents, threats, militarisation of the occupied territories are the only answers we get. The Geneva International Discussions are politically stalled and the Incident Prevention Mechanisms are rarely successful in solving technical issues. Both instruments are marked with constant walkouts as soon as important issues are raised. No progress or perspective seems to be expected from the existing formats until they are reinvigorated and receive a new political dimension. In order for them to become formats for solving the conflict not merely managing it, I strongly believe that our only solution is diplomacy based on the national consensus I referred to already, and with the support of all our international partners. The UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly have all adopted numerous resolutions related to the Russo-Georgian War. That is very important as a demonstration of international support, but we need more. We need the engagement of all and we are already also ready to do our part in order to find the path to a solution that will allow our country to regain unity and to ensure freedom all over its territory.

Since my election I have been actively working towards moving the Georgian occupation up on the political agenda of our partners. We call upon all our partners to restore the Georgian issue in all their bilateral or multilateral talks with Russia, reminding it of its commitments and the ceasefire agreement. In particular, the deescalation of the ABL, allowing the EUMM to monitor the whole region as a first step towards deoccupation and reunification of the territories as well as of our people.

Beyond the tragedy that the boundary line of the occupied territories represents and the moving division line that places Russian forces at some 30 kilometres from our capital city, or the multiplication of military bases on both occupied territories, the main issue is that ordinary citizens deserve a better and freer life in their own country.

For centuries, Georgia was the Eastern frontier for Europe, bridging East and West, Asia and Europe. For centuries Georgia has shared and defended the very same values of freedom and tolerance that we have as guidelines for our organisation. Since independence, Georgia has had more than its share of tensions, conflicts, war. Tensions have also risen in the region around us. Global challenges have made their way to us. In this context what should surprise us? It is not that Georgia has not yet succeeded in all these endeavors, has not achieved all its reform plans and has still progress to make. Surprising is how much it has managed despite all of that. Surprising is the resilience of this small country. Surprising is the level of democracy reached after 70 years of Soviet rule. Surprising is its capacity to maintain stability and preserve peace despite the occupation of its territories. Surprising is its determination to build democracy and not to let its own European values be challenged from outside or from within. Extremism has not and will not take root in Georgia. Threats from outside have not led us to isolation or aggression.

In the 21st century development and progress have brought new challenges that no country can individually tackle. Climate change, ageing population, migrations, digital revolution and populism or polarisation. We need to stand united on these issues in all multilateral formats. We need to stand strong in our commitment to jointly define what needs to be done. Our individual dedication will make the Council of Europe stronger, its institutions effective and all of us members successful.

Thank you very much.

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:48:40

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Thank you, Madam President.

You've got the floor.

Sir Edward LEIGH

United Kingdom, EC/DA 

12:48:45

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The purpose of the Council of Europe is to hold distinguished speakers to account. Our speaker has given a fine speech, it has taken 50 minutes, there are 34 people down, most of them will not ask a question. Next time Mr President will you please encourage distinguished foreign leaders to give a speech or perhaps 15 or 20 minutes so we can get plenty of questions in. That is our purpose. 

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:49:08

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Thank you for your statement this has been asked and we will now go to the questions.

I propose that we have the five groups' questions together: that will facilitate and give us a little bit more time and I also already organised ourselves to have the commemorative procedure after this sitting 10 minutes later.

So I will now have the five Chairpersons in principle to ask their questions consecutively and then Madame President will be invited to answer these five questions which will allow us to have some more.

So first 30 seconds, Mr Aleksander POCIEJ.

Mr Aleksander POCIEJ

Poland, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group 

12:49:44

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Thank you.

Madam President, I'm a Polish citizen and probably as you know, all Polish people are friends of Georgia.

However, many of Georgia's friends, including the US Congress and the European Parliament have voiced concerns over worrying tendencies in Georgia. Especially after the so-called Gavrilov's night in June, or 28 November, when Mr Ivanishvili, chairman of Georgian Dream, publicly stated that many more opposition leaders will serve in jail and immediately prosecutions against some opposition leaders started.

As a president of Georgia, do those two items not worry you?

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:50:41

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Thank you. On behalf of the Socialist Group, Mr Frank SCHWABE.

Mr Frank SCHWABE

Germany, SOC, Spokesperson for the group 

12:50:46

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Madame President, you mentioned the situation of the LGBTI in your country and you mentioned the difficult situation. What can you do, you yourself, the political representatives, what can we do to better the situation of those people in your country? The second one refers a little bit to what Mr Aleksander POCIEJ said before. We have a very polarised political situation in Georgia and you mention it and you describe it. What is possible and what is your position and what can you do to minimise such a polarisation? What is a very not really not helpful not for the people and not for the democracy in Georgia.

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:51:28

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Thank you.

Next question, on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Mr Martin POLIAČIK.

Mr Martin POLIAČIK

Slovak Republic, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group 

12:51:33

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Thank you, Mr President.

Madame President, I have a very simple question to ask. What do you think about the importance of fighting fake news and dis-information? Because in December Facebook deleted hundreds of pages and profiles in Georgia for they, as they stated, "in authentic coordinated behaviour". According to Facebook's official statement, these pages were targeting opposition politicians and civil society organisations. According to digital forensics research lab of the Atlantic Council of Washington, these pages in addition are targeting opposition politicians and spreading anti-European propaganda and messages and might be linked with the government. What has been done to address these concerns? 

Thank you very much. 

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:52:23

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Thank you.

On behalf of the European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance, Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO.

Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO

Ukraine, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group 

12:52:27

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My question is next.

The consequences of Putin's aggression against your country Georgia, my country Ukraine, are awful. But the Russian Federation continues to violate the statute of the Council of Europe, to ignore the resolutions of this Assembly.

What can be done by the international community in general and the Council of Europe in particular during the Georgian chairmanship to make Russia fulfil their obligations?

Do you support the imposing of EU sanctions against the Russian Federation also for occupying your territories?

Thank you.

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:53:07

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On behalf of the Group of the Unified European Left, Mr Leonid KALASHNIKOV.

Mr Leonid KALASHNIKOV

Russian Federation, UEL, Spokesperson for the group 

12:53:10

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Thank you, Madame President.

Georgia has always been a hospitable country in hosting international organisations. The Session of the Committee of Ministers is going to take place in your country and you've also hosted orthodox missions. Nonetheless, you, as a hospitable president, did not condemn the beating of a representative of our delegation. Our country has become dangerous, not only for political freedoms and religions, and Jews and other national minorities and women, but also for parliaments as well. What is your response to this?

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

12:53:55

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Thank you.

Madam President, may I ask you to be a little bit briefer so we can ask some more questions.

You have the floor.

Ms Salome ZOURABICHVILI

President of Georgia  

12:54:12

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Thank you very much for all these questions.

I will start with the Gavrilov issue from our friend from Poland.

I think that we have to divide this issue into two. There was first uproar of the Georgian society, a very spontaneous one, to the fact that a Russian parliamentary was present in the Georgian Parliament and gave some speeches that were not acceptable to a country that has 20% of its territory occupied. I did not, and nobody accepted the fact that somebody should be beaten, but somebody should also show some restraint.

But the second part that happened after the departure of Mr Gavrilov from Georgia, after the fact that the chair of the Parliament of Georgia resigned because there was this incident and he took responsibility for this incident. After the issue was closed then began a second stage, a second phase which endangered the parliament. It was a clear attempt to seize the parliament, as was said directly by the leaders, the radical leaders that were leading these attempts. I do not know frankly, and I have some past in a very European and some very democratic country, I do not know any European country that would accept that its parliament is seized by force. And even more so when a country has 20% of its territory occupied. That at 40 kilometres from that same Parliament there are Russian forces, and when we know how easily Russians use arguments of this destabilisation to enter the country. So I think that the second phase of the reaction of the authorities were fully necessary, were limited and I've seen many more repressions in other countries when they are in those situations, that are situations of instability. I think that this young democracy has protected itself quite well.

For the second question that concerns LGBT, I do not think that we should overstate the issue. There is no central discrimination both in my administration and other administrations. There are no issues individually. The issues that have been set in Georgia where that of public demonstrations, that by some parts of the society are taken as promotion. I think that we have been progressing in ensuring security and in preventing violence between the different groups and some extremist groups. I think that we are going to see in the coming months and years that we are progressing in that direction.

For fake news, and that concerns by the way the initial statement also referring to some declarations by President Ivanishvili, I think that we are all in Georgia, and me personally, I'm constantly under the pressures of fake news, distorted information about what I've said or not said, using partially some of the things I've said. Yes, social media are totally a full of different accounts, and my personal social media is infested with attacks from bots and other forms of attacks, as I'm sure you all know and have in your countries.

Now we have a choice here. The choice is to respect the freedom of expression of social media or to start restricting. We are not among the countries that have started to restrict in any way. I've been myself one of the promoters of the platform in the presidency to try to tackle the issues of disinformation, of fake news, of hate speech, because all of that goes together and we are entering the phase of political elections, parliamentary elections, that are coming in October. We have a very strong neighbour that can use and has used in other countries disinformation or fake news. So we need some form of regulation while respecting freedom of expression. That's a difficult task. I'm offering the presidential platform for that, which is neutral and can accept all political parties, but I'm also ready to support any other attempt to tackle this issue.

To the question of our Ukrainian friend. Yes indeed, Russia has not been fulfilling its commitment, has been violating the resolutions and that is a long story that we have been experiencing unfortunately before Ukraine has done so. The problem here is the problem I was alluding to with double standards: there are countries that cannot respect some of their engagements much more easily than others, where the monitoring is not as efficient as for others. The bigger they are the less they are subject to either sanctions or implementation and strict monitoring. So my call to this organisation is to ensure as much as possible the same standards for all countries. We have been respecting all the agreements that have been taken, including as I mentioned in my speech, the fact that we have renounced unilaterally the use of war. But none of the steps that we've taken have been answered.

Finally, the question of the Russian colleague is a very interesting one because I can answer very clearly to that. Georgia is the country that is going to host the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in May. Georgia is going at this occasion to go over and bypass its own national legislation, which prevents people that have been visiting the occupied territories without our authorisation and without entering through our territory, prevents them from re-entering the territory of Georgia. That would preclude many members of the Russian delegation to enter. But since we are a country that unlike what has been declared policy by the Russian President lately, we are a country that respects its international commitments, all of them, we are going to respect our international commitments and receive the Parliamentary Assembly as we are dictated by the rules and regulations of the Parliamentary Assembly and our adherence to the principles of this organisation. That is not easy. That is not easily accepted by the population but it's something that we will do because we are faithful to our principles and to our guidelines and this organisation.

Thank you very much

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

13:02:10

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We will now take the five next and last questions because we've got the Commemoration of the Holocaust rightly thereafter, which will be in-house on the second floor, so I do ask everyone who wishes to participate after this line of questions to immediately go there and I also ask the next five people to be extremely brief if possible.

First on the list, Ms Marie-Christine DALLOZ Group of the European People's Party.

Ms Marie-Christine DALLOZ

France, EPP/CD 

13:02:34

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Thank you, Mr. President.

Madam President,

On 12 December, the Georgian Parliament appointed 14 judges to the Supreme Court out of a total of 20 judges.

The selection process of candidates, carried out by the High Council of Justice, has been the subject of much criticism. The co-rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, for the monitoring of Georgia, deplored in particular the appointment of persons who had not demonstrated the necessary legal knowledge and independence for such an important position.

Can you tell me what measures your country intends to take to guarantee the independence of the judiciary?

Thank you, Madam President.

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

13:03:17

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Mr Titus CORLĂŢEAN.

Mr Titus CORLĂŢEAN

Romania, SOC 

13:03:19

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Welcome to Strasbourg, Madame President.

As the rapporteur on Georgia, I would like to ask you what are your concrete intentions and envisaged political and constitutional actions to support decisive progress in relation with those commitments assumed 20 years ago by Georgia upon accession especially in the field of the judiciary electoral legislation and the signature and ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages? I have in mind, for instance, the political crisis generated recently by the changes of what was established after the constitutional reform on the electoral legislation and as the initial decision the proportional system to be used starting with 2024. 

Thank you. 

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

13:04:01

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Mr Rafael HUSEYNOV.

Mr Rafael HUSEYNOV

Azerbaijan, ALDE 

13:04:03

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Madame President, Azerbaijan and Georgia are friendly countries that contribute to the implementation of many large energy projects. Due to this exemplary unity of work and ideas, we open the corridor and our region as a whole has proven to be a safe, stable and accessible space for investment. Earlier during your visit to Azerbaijan, you noted that the transport sector is very important for the world, noting that our countries have done significant work to integrate Asia, China and Europe, but the opportunities of this shortest route have not yet been fully utilised. What significant progress can be expected in close perspective? Thank you. 

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

13:04:46

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Mr John HOWELL.

Mr John HOWELL

United Kingdom, EC/DA 

13:04:48

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Thank you.

You spoke of Georgia's involvement in world problems, given your own background, what can you do to help the situation with Iran?

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

13:04:59

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Thank you. Mr Andrej HUNKO? I do not see Mr Andrej HUNKO. Madame President, you have the floor.

Ms Salome ZOURABICHVILI

President of Georgia  

13:05:06

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The first question on the appointment and selection of judges: I believe that the subject is like a glass half-empty and half-full. Half-full, because the process has made very significant progress and the transparency that has been ensured in the deliberations of Parliament on the choice of each judge, so that the proceedings were televised and that everyone can follow the details, with the possibility of questions and answers, that is the glass half-full and, at the same time, this has produced the questions that have been asked about the criteria and skills of some judges.

But I believe that in this area we must not forget where we are. We are a country emerging from the Soviet system, which is post-post-Soviet, which had a period in which the justice system was completely discredited. We are getting out of it. Things don't happen overnight. The decision, in accordance with the recommendation which had been made, to appoint only part of the judges and to leave a certain number of posts for the next Parliament, has been taken. I hope that the criteria, and this is what is under discussion, will be improved for this next selection. We are in a process of successive steps to move towards more independence and more efficiency of the justice system.

I think that also answers the following question, and it is also true with regard to the electoral system.

There have been many discussions about this system. These are discussions which are eminently political, which are of great interest to the political parties on which I have not spoken in Georgia – and I will not speak more here in this Assembly. However, what I can say as a guarantor of the Constitution: it is written in the Constitution that in 2024, in the next elections, the proportional representation system will be applied in Georgia. Furthermore, on the electoral code, which was also the question raised, there is a group – and I mentioned this in my speech – which includes all political parties and a certain number of non-parliamentary forces. The non-parliamentary group is today discussing the ODIHR recommendations for reforming the electoral code. I understood, from the indications given to me and which I checked with the President of Parliament before coming, that this group has made significant progress. We have the hope – I personally have the hope – that a large part, if not all, of the recommendations of the ODIHR and the OSCE will be implemented in the next elections and that this will be another step forward for Georgia in the evolution of its electoral system, which has been unchanged for the past twenty years.

To my friend from Azerbaijan, I want to answer the question about transport and our links. Georgia, in this region, is today located at an extremely strategic place in economic terms. This is the reason why all the rest of our reforms, be it the judicial system, the electoral system, the defence of human rights, are essential to ensure the stability of this country, which is at the crossroads between the European Union, with which we have a free trade agreement, and Central Asia and, further away, China, with which we also have a free trade agreement. currently, the EU has extremely important projects in the fields of transport, communication and connectivity. We have become full members of TNT programmes and our main priorities are precisely to develop all the infrastructures which are linked to transport. This obviously involves even closer relations with our main neighbour, on these roads that bring us together, whether it be TRACECA or the new gas pipelines. All this means that this region has enormous potential. It is up to us to be able to fully exploit it, not to endanger itthrough instability, and that is what is our priority. It also means developing ports. We have a port complex in perspective: the port of Anaklia. All this contributes to the future potential of Georgia, Azerbaijan and the whole of the Caucasus. For us, this is what represents the future, with the reunification of our territory.

Iran is a trick question. If my time at the head of the United Nations Group of Experts on sanctions against Iran had given me the key to knowing how to respond today to the situation in Iran, I would be the first to congratulate myself. I believe that we in little Georgia cannot provide a solution. All I can say is that, for us, any tension between an important and historic partner country in the region that is Iran, and our strategic partner, that is to say the United States, and another partner I have just come back from, Israel, is disastrous. Our development, as I have just said, is based on stability and the capacity that Georgia has had, over the centuries, to maintain relations with all its neighbors.

Unfortunately, in recent years, due to the actions of Russia, we have lost this capacity for dialogue with Russia, at least at this stage. However, through the centuries, we have always managed to do this. Georgia's ambition is to regain its place in this region, as a state which can speak with everyone and which is a state of stability in a region which, unfortunately, is a region in tension.

Thank you so much.

Mr Hendrik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE, President of the Assembly 

13:12:20

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Thank you, Madame President. This concludes the list of questions. I thank you for your answers. 

I remind all of the members that two votes are now in progress. One is to select one judge from France to the European Court of Human Rights. The second is to elect a Vice-President of the Assembly in respect of Russia.  

At 1 p.m. the ballots were suspended. They will re-open at 3:30 p.m. and will close at 5 p.m.

Those who have not voted may still do so by going to the area behind the President’s Chair.

The Assembly will hold its next public sitting this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. with the Agenda that you have approved this morning.

May I also invite those who wish to participate, to the second floor for the Commemoration of the Holocaust. Thank you.

The sitting is adjourned.

End of the sitting No. 3 at 13:10