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11 October 2022 morning

2022 - Fourth part-session Print sitting

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Opening of the sitting No. 28

Debate: Supporting a European perspective for the Western Balkans

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

10:05:36

The sitting is open.

Please take your seats, colleagues.

I can inform you that as promised yesterday, a joint statement was made by the Chair of the Committee of Ministers, the Secretary General, and the President of the Parliamentary Assembly regarding the atrocities that have taken place yesterday and are taking place today in our member state Ukraine due to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.

The first item of business this morning is the debate on the report titled “Supporting a European perspective for the Western Balkans”, which you will find in Document 15609, which will be presented by Mr George PAPANDREOU on behalf of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy.

I remind you that we have already agreed that in order to finish by 12 p.m., when President Michael D. Higgins from Ireland will address our Parliamentary Assembly, we shall interrupt the list of speakers at about 11.45 a.m. to allow time for the reply and the vote.

I now call Mr George PAPANDREOU, Rapporteur.

Mr George PAPANDREOU, you have 7 minutes.

 

Mr George PAPANDREOU

Greece, SOC, Rapporteur

10:06:55

Thank you very much, Mister Chair.

The Balkan Peninsula is a beautifully diverse region.

However, many ethnic groups, minorities or even these small nascent countries themselves have often felt deep insecurity.

Under despotic or authoritarian regimes, citizen felt oppressed, minorities excluded or persecuted, any sense of justice, equality, and freedom squashed.

The imprint that this is left on our collective consciousness is that, when in trouble, we look for a big brother protector or depend on a neighbouring mother nation to come to our salvation.

This created profound dependencies on outside powers, and our local or regional grievances became proxy conflicts in a larger geopolitical game.

However, there is another side to the story.

In the late 18th century, a revolutionary Rigas Feraios, and many after him, had a very different vision for the Balkans.

He lived and wrote from Odessa, and he wrote on the unity of the Balkan peoples. I will use his words to juxtapose these to the horrible reality of today's war.

Against Putin's despotism, Rigas Feraios would call for radical and direct democracy. Against Putin's brutality, Rigas Feraios would project the universality of human truth and human rights. Against the Russification, the denial of Ukrainian identity, Rigas Feraios would proclaim a state of democracy and education, where in this case Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Turks, Jews, Vlachs and Albanians live harmoniously and equally. "A state of virtue" he called it.

This vision, which inspired many, had been lost after many wars that ensued, but this dream was rekindled when the EU invited the Western Balkans to the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003 and pledged that they have a genuine European perspective. Into a family of values which guarantees peaceful coexistence where all feel protected, respected as individuals, as a minority, as a nation, as a political group, as a citizen of any race, religion, gender, or ethnicity. Protected, secure. Not because of some big brother protecting us, but because of our pledge, our commitment to common values and practices. A family of dignity, trust, and virtue.

But as Mr Piero FASSINO and his co-signatory recently declared, after 20 years, the shine of Europe has been waning, bringing frustration, youth migration, reform fatigue, undermining the vision of a Balkans of cooperation, democracy, dignity and peace.

The old habits of looking for protectors are re-emerging. In this world of geopolitical rivalry, the Balkans could easily again become a playground of proxy conflicts.

This report hopes to be a new starting point. I hope it to be a spark to help rekindle the dream, the vision of the unified people of the Balkans within the European Union to further provide for a new impetus towards democratic reform where the Council of Europe can and must play a crucial role.

But it is also a challenge towards the European Union, a call for the necessary political will to move forward. Yet, as a challenge, it is a challenge to all of us. What Europe do we want?

Are we in the European Union ready to face the geopolitical challenges and make every effort and investment to integrate our neighbours into this family of values deepening and protecting these values in the process?

Can all in the candidate countries develop a new political momentum for the necessary institutional and social changes?

Can the region take the initiative, develop agency, collectively have ownership of this process rather than seeing it as an outside pressure to comply with unwelcome norms?

And what will the European Political Community become, the EPC as it has been called? Will this be a substitute for membership or an accelerator towards integration as the Commissioner for Enlargement hopes it will become?

Will our Fourth Council of Europe Summit become a catalyst for a more strategic relationship between the European Union and the Council of Europe?

Mister President, and how can this be beneficial for the Western Balkans?

How do we, as Europeans see our responses to the major challenges humanity faces: climate, health, deep wealth inequities, taming technologies for the common good, building peace, and fighting against the spread of weapons of mass destruction?

So, this report has tried to enumerate the steps that will allow us to establish a viable process which will guide us in facing these challenges in a common way with the Balkans inside the European Union, integrated into the European Union.

We outline in this report the priorities for changes in the countries of the Western Balkans. We also assess the responsibilities the European Union must undertake and the responsibilities for a stronger political will.

We also look at how the Council of Europe, we here, can develop a deeper and further strategic relationship with the European Union in order to play a catalytic role in the accession process of the western Balkans, one which I believe will also close the historical cycle of conflicts - of frozen or existing conflicts - in the region.

A final point: the Western Balkans are not a separate isolated issue. How we approach their difficulties, their histories, their conflicts, their aspirations, has to do with our future. What kind of Europe we want to create for future generations. And in this, we all have a role to play. All of us have a responsibility. We must take our future in our hands. It must be shaped by us, by all of us, and that is our challenge today.

Thank you, Mister President.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

10:13:44

Thank you very much, Mr rapporteur, Mr George PAPANDREOU.

Now I will open the floor. We will start with the speakers on behalf of the five political groups and first in the debate, I call Lord Alexander DUNDEE from the United Kingdom and he is going to speak on behalf of the European Conservatives Group and Democratic Alliance.

Alexander, you have the floor.

Lord Alexander DUNDEE

United Kingdom, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group

10:14:07

Mr President and Members,

I congratulate warmly Mr George PAPANDREOU for his excellent report.

As I come from a country that has left the European Union recently but remains an active founding member of the Council of Europe and considers itself a European country, allow me to emphasise the important European perspective provided by the Council of Europe for more than seven decades.

Many countries consider the common market and the subsidies of the EU as a strong incentive. However, a European spirit, culture and understanding are furthered much more through the standards on human rights and democracy set by the Council of Europe, as well as by its landmark achievements in a significant number of respects, including with education, on student mobility and the recognition of study periods and diplomas, as well as by its work on cultural heritage, just to mention a few activities of the Council of Europe and in association with the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media, of which I am the current Chairman.

At the same time, I support the express desire of countries in the Western Balkans to join the European Union. As we have seen with Türkiye, an EU candidate status can be a very long process, and I am afraid that the EU candidacy of Ukraine might also be a very long-term project.

The EU has grown stronger through several crises. However, as we notice just now, the challenges caused by the Russian war against Ukraine on energy markets, financial markets and economies globally, make political decisions within the EU ever more complicated and divided. Therefore, as this report does, I would urge the strengthening of European perspectives, standards and co-operation, among our member States. Equally, as also emphasised within the report, we must not play down the value of our own organisation, the Council of Europe.

In this spirit, I would like to highlight one issue. Having been foreign minister and prime minister of Greece in the past, Mr George PAPANDREOU will be only too well aware of the decades-long and dire humanitarian situation and suffering of so many irregular migrants on the so-called Balkan route from Greece to western EU countries and the United Kingdom.

Frontex has recorded an increase of 350% this year to more than 86 000 persons on the Western Balkan route and an increase of 120% to more than 25 000 persons on the Eastern Mediterranean route to Greece. Most of them have fallen victim to human smugglers and are forced to sleep rough in the woods or in the open in cities.

I am not sure that the situation will necessarily improve through an enlargement of the European Union, yet for member States of the Council of Europe, European solidarity and co-operation based on the rule of law and human rights should be fully achievable in this context in order to avoid such human suffering.

Mr President, this is the European perspective, which the founders of the Council of Europe enshrined into the statute of our organisation.

Thank you very much. 

 

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

10:17:19

Thank you very much, Lord Alexander DUNDEE.

Our next speaker is Ms Liliana TANGUY from France, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Ms Liliana TANGUY

France, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

10:17:33

Mr Chairman,

Dear colleagues,

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe welcomes the report and the motion for a resolution submitted for debate today.

Because the Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe, because they belong to our history and share our culture, our sense of belonging and our values, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe will always support efforts to bring them closer to the European Union.

Since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, progress has been made but we deplore the slow process of integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU.

Aware of the difficulties that this part of Europe is going through, our group welcomes all the initiatives aimed at maintaining peace and security there and keeping the spectre of violence at bay. We are aware that there are a number of latent conflicts that could undermine good neighbourly relations and stability in Europe.

We share the concerns expressed in this report about the lack of rule of law and good governance, the infringement of minority rights, the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary, from which these countries are not exempt . We are aware that bilateral conflicts in these countries are often an obstacle to inclusive regional cooperation.

That is why the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe believes in the virtue of inter-parliamentary cooperation to strengthen regional integration and democratic security in the region.

With the return of war to our continent, it has become urgent to react and protect the Western Balkans by facilitating the process of their integration into the EU.

The ALDE group supports the proposal to further develop cooperation activities in priority areas such as the rule of law and good governance, as well as to support local civil society initiatives. It also understands the interest of the Council of Europe in intensifying the political dimension of its engagement in the Western Balkans.

The group also endorses the recommendation to the Committee of Ministers to support the democratic forces in these countries to commit to improving their administrative functioning at all levels of governance, to step up the fight against corruption, to strengthen the role of civil society and to refrain from provocative discourse.

The Council of Europe must continue its dialogue with the EU, offering assistance in areas where its expertise is beneficial, such as the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

Our group would like to emphasise the interest in the creation of the European Political Community, which was created on 6 October in the European Council at the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron. This intergovernmental platform is a space for political dialogue whose priority is to strengthen cooperation in the areas of defence and security, and to improve interconnection in the telecommunications, cybersecurity and transport sectors.

The creation of the European Political Community responds to the need to recreate a continental unity following the Russian aggression against Ukraine. It is not intended to replace the EU or the Council of Europe. On the contrary, its mission will be to prepare the leaders, the elected representatives and the citizens of the candidate countries for their integration into the EU.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe strongly believes in the complementarity and synergies between these spaces of political dialogue to allow the acceleration of the integration process of the Western Balkan countries into the EU.

Thank you very much.

Mr George LOUCAIDES

Cyprus, UEL

10:21:28

Dear Colleagues,

I wish to congratulate Mr George PAPANDREOU for this important report.

In the many discussions we have had at Committee level, prior to this debate, it has become clear that the European Union has fallen short on the promises it has delivered to the Western Balkans and that its credibility is at stake.

This is a negative development that has led to widespread disappointment, anti-European sentiment and a democratic deficit in the region.

The Western Balkans, dear colleagues, have suffered armed conflicts and the NATO war in the 90s. At the same time, the neoliberal policies imposed over the years, including deregulation of the labour market and policies of privatisation, have aggravated unemployment and precariousness and brought about further deterioration of labour and social rights, poverty and social exclusion. This in turn, has caused further marginalisation and disappointment, especially among the youth, as well as increased racism and interethnic tension.

The Council of Europe, and in particular PACE, must stand by the Balkan countries in favour of democracy, peace and social justice, social and economic development and the strengthening of democratic institutions.

Standards setting, monitoring and co‑operation are essential in keeping up the momentum and achieving progress with respect to the Copenhagen criteria. We must also push for reconciliation and good neighbourhood relations in the region. The Prespa agreement has sent a clear message that historical disputes can be solved through dialogue.

It is essential for the people of these countries to view co‑operation with the EU as a process of mutual interest, one that can foster sustainable development for the whole region as well as security and stability.

Renewed commitment is what we must achieve. Rewarding progress with a concrete perspective of EU integration would be beneficial to the region and Europe as a whole. But enlargement must go beyond the technical level and reach the parliamentary and intergovernmental dimensions, local and regional authorities and civil society organisations.

Furthermore, the EU and the enlargement process in itself needs to change so that the Union’s strategic objectives reflect and prioritise policies aimed at combatting exploitation, precariousness, the deterioration of labour and social rights, poverty, and social exclusion.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:24:19

Thank you very much, Mr George LOUCAIDES.

I give the floor now to Mr Piero FASSINO.

Mr Piero FASSINO

Italy, SOC

10:24:27

Thank you Mr President.

I, of course, thank my colleague Mr George PAPANDREOU and agree with his report on behalf of the Socialist Group. We will support it.

I would like to start with this consideration. We are facing an atrocious war that we are all following with anguish, in Ukraine, and that war, however, brings us to other wars that have ravaged the continent since the end of World War II. I think of the wars in the Caucasus and I think of the war in the Balkans.

What do these wars tell us? They tell us that while there has been peace and stability and security in the European Union for 80 years, the pitfalls to our security, the pitfalls to peace, the places of instability and war, are the regions outside the European Union.

So this must tell us that the only way to prevent this instability and these wars from continuing in the future is to integrate these regions and bring them inside the European Union, because the European Union is the precondition for stability, it is the condition of security, it is the condition of peace.

This is particularly true today for the Balkans. In the aftermath of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, the international community promised the Balkans that integration into the Euro-Atlantic Institution would be the way to guarantee stability and security for the region, bringing it out of a long history of wars, to the point that the political lexicon was enriched with a word indicating this: "Balkanisation" meant precisely a reality characterised by a high degree of fragmentation and permanent conflict.

Well, 27 years have passed since Dayton, 19 years have passed since the Thessaloniki European Council and only four countries have started negotiations, two of them only in the last few months (North Macedonia and Albania) and for two other countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo we are still looking at a distant prospect.

This whole lapse of time has already produced consequences. It has produced frustration in public opinions that see the goal of Europe as more and more distant and evanescent, it has allowed other actors to enter the region, China, Russia, Turkey, others, and it has fostered as an alibi the slowdown in the Balkan countries in adjusting their legislation to European standards.

I believe that it is as Mr George PAPANDREOU rightly urges that a change of pace is necessary.

We need a quantum leap, a clear acceleration of the enlargement process, speeding up negotiations with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia, determining clear choices for Bosnia, granting it at least candidate status, and giving Kosovo a prospect of integration.

In all this, the Council of Europe can play, as it has played so far, an essential role in fostering dialogue, peacemaking and supporting the reforms that these countries need to make.

I believe precisely that these are the choices that we have to support because, as Mr George PAPANDREOU has just said, what happens in the Balkans as well as in the other areas of Eastern Europe determines the idea we have of Europe and how we are able to build a continent of peace, security and stability.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:28:01

Thank you, Mr Piero FASSINO.

I give now the floor to Mr Anastasios CHATZIVASILEIOU.

Mr Anastasios CHATZIVASILEIOU

Greece, EPP/CD

10:28:11

Madam Chair,

Dear colleagues,

I would like to thank and congratulate Mr George PAPANDREOU for his excellent report which we approve here today.

By all means, the future of the Western Balkans is inside the European Union for the sake of regional stability. Our Council should play a pivotal role in order to give a new impetus to the EU enlargement process. At the same time, we have to urge all the Western Balkan states to accelerate the necessary reforms.

As a Greek, I am proud of the Thessaloniki Summit where an important document was agreed, and I'm proud for our today's government, which is among the first ones in Europe that expressed unequivocal support for the European perspective of all our neighbours.

Let us be frank, dear colleagues. In the previous decades, Europe had turned a blind eye to corrupted leaders in the region of the Western Balkans. We were unable to give a way out to the younger generation that lusted for a European future.

What happened, dear colleagues?

Euroscepticism, nationalism and the influence of third revisionist countries grew in its place among the region.

The Western Balkans belonged geographically, historically and economically to Europe.

The Russian invasion in Ukraine justifiably takes up most of Europe's political energy. It looks like the Balkans are becoming a sideline story.

I would like to ring an alarm bell for all of us. We need to inject a new momentum in the Western Balkans perspective.

Yes, the Western Balkans should continue their efforts, but Europe also has to deliver. Leaving the region in a limbo will cause instability and the dangerous strengthening of malign influence by third actors.

Can we afford that? The answer is no, dear colleagues.

Of course, all Western Balkan states should work a lot: strengthening of the democratic institutions, respect for the rule of law, human rights and good neighbourly relations, protection of minorities and stronger reforms are the minimum steps.

Furthermore, we strongly support their alignment with the European Common Foreign Security Policy, but we would like them to join as real partners who share the same values and ideas with the European Union. This is why it's also important for all Western Balkan states to follow and implement the policy of sanctions against Putin's Russia.

Europe is not just words. Europe is principles and actions above all.

So, dear colleagues, our Parliamentary Assembly must revive the European dream for the Western Balkans. The question is not if they belong to the European Union. The question is when they will be ready to join, and the report of Mr George PAPANDREOU is definitely towards the right direction.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:31:09

Thank you very much.

The list of speakers on behalf of the political groups is herewith closed.

I now go to the normal speaker's list.

The first on my list is Mr Titus CORLĂŢEAN from Romania, of the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group.

Mr Titus CORLĂŢEAN

Romania, SOC

10:31:27

Hello president, colleagues,

First of all I would like to congratulate our rapporteur Mr George PAPANDREOU for his excellent report. Definitely I will share and support his conclusions.

Secondly, just a few political comments. The first one is the following: all the time the EU enlargement process was a huge asset for the European Union. It was the case with the Central Eastern former communist countries; it is the case now with some of the Eastern partners: Ukraine, Republic of Moldova, and I hope also Georgia before the end of the year.

It should definitely be the case, but not only in making reference to a European perspective. We should use the proper words: "accession to the European Union for the whole Balkan region". And I underline "the whole Balkan region", because in the end the geopolitical and strategic vision should be the following one.

The only solution for a stable, democratic, prosperous Balkan region – for peace, first of all – is a completely, fully integrated Balkan region. This is the essence of what we are discussing now.

Of course, the history was extremely complicated and sometimes still is.

This is why, when dealing and looking to some bilateral still complicated relations within this region – tensions and so on – and speaking also from our national experience from Romania, and also my own personal experience, we know and I know also how precious, how valuable the regional contribution is. Some regional organisations that are gathering the members of the Balkan region, for instance the Southeast European cooperation Process.

I do remind you, in 2014 under my national presidency, the Romania presidency of SEECP – I had the honour to assure the presidency of SEECP at the time – with the common effort of the countries in the region, inter alia with extremely important wisdom coming from Serbia and from Kosovo, we succeeded in accommodating Kosovo and to invite Kosovo to be a part of South-East European Corporation Process. It was an exceptional moment.

Based on the wisdom coming from our Greek and Macedonian friends, we succeeded in finalising the final document. We succeeded in having a good presidency and good achievements during the 2014 mandate at that time. So it is possible: let's also use these internal resources from the region.

Finally, of course the criteria should be respected, inter alia the protection of national minorities in the region, including the Romanian national minority or the Armenians, it is important – but in the end, everything is political.

So there is a need for a clear political commitment. This is why the signal that we are sending today from Strasbourg, from the Council of Europe, is extremely important: let's support the full integration of the Balkan region.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:34:36

Thank you very much.

I give the floor now to Mr Nicos TORNARITIS from Cypress.

Mr Nicos TORNARITIS

Cyprus, EPP/CD

10:34:46

Madam Chair,

Allow me first of all to thank and congratulate Mr George PAPANDREOU for his excellent report.

Dear Colleagues,

The European perspective of the Western Balkans must remain a strategic priority for the European Union. In this sense, the Council of Europe may have a notable contribution in encouraging both sides to reaffirm their commitments to the integration process and in supporting a new dynamic of dialogue and co‑operation.

It is essential that the process become fast-paced and efficient and conducive to political, economic but also social reform. Solid mechanisms should be established safeguarding good public governance, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the media and civil society and full protection of human rights especially those of ethnic minorities.

Balkan countries have made not worthy progress against deep-rooted dependencies for corruption, party polarisation and lack of transparency and accountability, yet the region remains vulnerable to external influence and manipulation driven by historical ties and political and economic interests.

The future of the Balkans should be safeguarded from such threatening dispositions. We must ensure that conditions of stability, democratic security, strong neighbourly relations and co-operation prevail.

A European perspective for the Western Balkans is a geostrategic investment for the whole of Europe. Therefore, we the Council of Europe, must continue to encourage and expect full alignment with our common European standards, values and principles.

Thank you very much.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:37:48

Thank you very much.

I give the floor now to Mr John HOWELL, from the United Kingdom.

Mr John HOWELL

United Kingdom, EC/DA

10:37:55

Thank you very much.

I would also like to offer my congratulations to Mr George PAPANDREOU for this report and for focusing our attention on the West Balkans, because, as we have already heard, there should be an alarm bell ringing for us to look at this area. It is an area that needs to be monitored in great depths.

As we have heard from Mr Piero FASSINO, there are other actors waiting to play their part in this area. The most obvious one is Russia, but there is one that is even more pernicious than Russia for playing its part in this area, and that is Iran. Iran is playing a major role in the West Balkans and you need only look at the size of its Embassy in Sarajevo to see that something must be going on.

There are two areas on which I would like to concentrate.

The first is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I have just returned from election monitoring for the presidential and the parliamentary elections. One can look at these elections in two terms. One can look at them in the short term, where there was no disruption that we were able to see and where people could vote without being at the point of a gun. But you can also look at them in terms of the long term. In this case they must be seen as disastrous. For people to go into an election booth and for them to spend 30 minutes reading through the four pages, the four areas or the ballot papers, it means that we have developed a system that is completely complicated for the area.

The fact that when you look at who voted, it was young people that were excluded from this because most of them have left the country, is illustrative of the fact that the Dayton Accord simply does not work and is not sustainable for the long term. Whatever we do, we must fix it and get it right.

The second area – I said I would do with two – is Kosovo, where my government is supportive of Kosovo and so is my delegation. It can bring nothing but benefits in human rights terms to the people of Kosovo to be fully members of this organisation.

There is throughout the region still too much dependence on Russia for natural gas, and that means big investment from the West.

For the Council of Europe, I can only agree with the report, that the Council should play a greater role in promoting dialogue, including regional co‑operation, the normalisation of relations and the solution of bilateral differences.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:41:13

Thank you very much, Mr John HOWELL.

I give the floor now to Mr Claude KERN from France.

Mr Claude KERN

France, ALDE

10:41:23

Thank you, Madam President.

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to thank our colleague, Mr George PAPANDREOU, for his excellent report. I myself have just returned from Sarajevo where, with other colleagues, I took part in this pre-electoral and then electoral observation mission. Thanks to the exchanges we were able to have on the spot, I was able to put my finger on some of the problems mentioned in this report.

I believe that it is necessary for the European Union and the countries concerned to take into account the situations and needs of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo in an appropriate manner. Let us not hide the fact: the march towards European integration is long and arduous, as the adoption of the acquis communautaire requires the adaptation of legislation and practices.

The situation of Montenegro is striking in this respect. Although it has opened all of the more than 30 negotiation chapters, only three have now been provisionally closed. I share the concerns expressed by our colleague, the rapporteur, about developments in the region.

The polarised political climate sometimes leads to inter-institutional conflicts. In several states, there are unfortunately serious failures of the rule of law, serious governance problems and serious flaws in the organisation and independence of the judiciary. Media freedom remains an issue, as does respect for national minorities. These problems are further compounded by democratic setbacks in some of these countries as well as in many others in Europe.

To deny these problems would be to lie. To say that it will be easy to solve them is too. Yet, we must move forward and give positive perspectives to the Western Balkan states, so that they do not turn to other influences that pay less attention to democratic issues.

I believe that the pre-accession countries should be able to reap the benefits of their efforts more quickly and without waiting for full membership. The fact that we have revised the methodology of the integration process to make it both faster and more gradual, but also reversible, seems to me to be a measure of good sense.

We need to strongly reaffirm the European perspective of the Western Balkans, without hiding anything about the arduous steps involved in joining the European Union. The same goes for Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova – and perhaps, I hope, one day for Georgia.

But the pre-accession phase is a crucial step if we are to avoid importing systemic problems into the European Union.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:44:13

Thank you, Mr Claude KERN.

Next speaker is Ms Emine Nur GÜNAY.

Ms Emine Nur GÜNAY

Türkiye, NR

10:44:22

Thank you Chair.

Dear President,

Dear colleagues,

I would like to thank the rapporteur for bringing up a very important regional issue.

Integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union is of significant value in terms of social and economic development, and welfare and stability of the region and Europe alike. It surely serves the benefit of interests of both sides.

Therefore, I think the enlargement and membership process should be truly endorsed. This will also push the regional countries for further political reforms and change in a rather more democratic and transparent direction.

Membership of the Western Balkans in the EU will contribute to the efforts aiming at tackling the challenges regional countries face vis-à-vis one another, and empowering political and diplomatic attempts for more grounded cooperation in the region.

I believe this process has also become a catalyst to address political and ethnic future fractures and division in the region, especially by pushing for political reforms in order to provide and safeguard sustainable social, economic, political and administrative structures.

In addition, the enlargement and membership process is an invaluable chance nowadays to render and keep aspirations for European integration vivid and credible. This is even more evident as we are in a period in which the European vision is questioned and waning.

Nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments, as well as islamophobia, are widespread in almost every corner of Europe. For this reason, it should be deemed as an opportunity to help reverse this unpleasant trend in Europe and rebuild confidence in European democratic values.

Finally, taking into concentration the history of the Balkans, the global and regional geopolitical and security challenges aroused by the third parties contenting for the influence in the region, it is for the benefit of the Western Balkan countries and the EU to deepen and finalise the integration and membership process. I believe this will contribute to the security and stability in the region and the European continent in the end.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:47:22

Merci beaucoup. [Thank you very much.]

I have now Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ from Switzerland.

Mr Pierre-Alain FRIDEZ

Switzerland, SOC

10:47:29

Thank you, Madam Vice-President.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Colleagues,

I am Swiss: we are talking about accession to the European Union, so I am not well placed. I am not a great specialist in the Balkan region, even though I have participated in election observations in the region on several occasions, and I have twice been with a Swiss parliamentary committee to visit Swiss troops – yes, there are Swiss troops abroad, in this case in Kosovo. I would like to make a few comments which I think are entirely in line with the rapporteur's very good work.

First an anecdote: I am a doctor. I sent one of my patients, a doctor in Switzerland, to be operated on in a regional hospital. This patient was a Kosovar refugee in Switzerland, naturalized Swiss, but who, twenty years before the event I am talking about, had seen his brother killed before his eyes by a Serbian soldier. I sent this patient to the hospital, and there he was confronted by a Serbian doctor, the anesthetist. They insulted each other and my patient left the hospital. More than twenty years after the events, the tension was still enormous.

I experienced this tension when I visited Mitrovicë twice, with Swiss troops, with this town separated by the river Ibar on one side, a rather Kosovar, Albanian population and on the other, Serbian. The tension is palpable. This tension will last. It will last a very long time. The only way to resolve it is to come out on top. The only way out is to offer prospects, especially economic, social, progress and development prospects: for me, this obviously means joining Europe, the European Union. It is really to offer these countries the motivation to abandon these hatreds that will be transmitted from generation to generation and that are still very much alive today.

The other element, and Mr Claude KERN spoke about it before, is that if Europe does not take care of this region, I promise you that there are other powers that will do it: China, Russia, with perhaps a little less praiseworthy intentions. So really, let's go along with the proposals and make sure that this region of the Western Balkans is not forgotten by Europe.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:50:01

Merci beaucoup, Monsieur FRIDEZ. [Thank you very much, Mister FRIDEZ.]

My next speaker is Ms Theodora BAKOYANNIS, from Greece.

Ms Theodora BAKOYANNIS

Greece, EPP/CD

10:50:09

Dear colleagues,

The Western Balkans produce more history than they can consume, said Churchill. Yet, that history today lacks honouring. It needs recognition as it is none other than part of our history, European history.

The report in question reaffirms the support for the European Union prospect of the Western Balkans. A promise that has been forgotten and is long overdue to the people of that region.

I want to congratulate the rapporteur Mr George PAPANDREOU for his excellent work, dedication, and insight within the report and resolution. It is as timely as it can be following the outbreak of war in Europe, following the rise of geopolitics and global insecurity. But also, following new attempts of Europe to unify as evident by the first European Political Community summit that took place in Prague just a few days ago.

But we need not look to new formats and forget the ones that have guaranteed peace in Europe for many years.

The EU prospects for all the countries of the Western Balkans and, I repeat, all the countries, has been the driver for reforms, for peace and stability in the Western Balkans for many years now.

Yes, they are not all on the same level. Yes, there are a lot of problems still in the Western Balkans. But if today the European Union does not send a clear message that we mean business, that we want the Western Balkans to be part of the European Union, then the disillusionment for the people will be so big that the interference of other players in the region, as a lot of colleagues already mentioned, will be there. China is there, Russia is there and Iran is there. A lot of other outside countries are there and are interested in the Western Balkans.

Dear colleagues, this is a question the Europeans must solve.

I'm grateful for all the support we get from people from outside the European Union, but the European Union must work now and the decision must be made as quickly as possible, because time for the Western Balkans is running out.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:52:55

Thank you very much, Madam Theodora BAKOYANNIS.

I now give the floor to the next speaker Ms Zita GURMAI.

Ms Zita GURMAI

Hungary, SOC

10:53:08

Thank you very much, dear President, distinguished colleagues.

The Covid-19 global pandemic and the war in Ukraine redirected our attention to the fact that the enlargement policy is a tool to advance the geostrategic interest of the EU and the opportunity to foster European unity.

At the level of the statement of principle that is almost unanimous agreement in the EU on the need to accelerate the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU.

Hungary has traditionally been among the pro-enlargement countries but in reality, the process has been stalled for years. The EU constantly sets new conditions and criteria for membership to the Western Balkan countries. Analyses have shown that currently no less than 15 EU member countries would not be able to fully meet all the conditions for membership set to Western Balkan countries.

The situation clearly needs to change urgently. Countries in the region are doing a lot to integrate with the EU. The EU should take this positive development and messages seriously and take real steps towards accession. They need to act now.

Among the positive messages from the region, I would like to mention here an important event of the last two weeks. On the 1 and 2 September, an Open Balkan Initiative summit was organised in Belgrade. It is a joint project of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania based on the idea of the free flow of people, goods, capital and services. The Montenegrin Prime Minister and Chair of the BiH Council of Ministers also attended the summit. The Hungarian and Turkish foreign ministers for president too. At the opening of the summit, the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, stated that leaders of member countries seriously considered inviting other countries that are EU members and important for the region, such as Greece, Italy, Hungary and Türkiye to join the regional initiative. The initiative is compatible with the EU principle. Open Balkan is a regional project, not compensation for membership in the EU or a kind of waiting room for membership. It is a peace project just like the Coal and Steel Community, a predecessor to the EU.

Open Balkan creates a new business environment and atmosphere in individual states and the region as well as new opportunities for co-operation. A faster flow of people, goods, capital and services, and accelerated growth of the economic indicators have proved that Western Balkan countries have something to offer to the EU. They have also proved that Western Balkan countries want, can and are able to co-operate with the EU, that they must formally and legally be part of the community of the European people and that for centuries already they have been part of Europe. The message sent from the Summit is the Open Balkan countries demonstrate solidarity at the time of the crisis.

I am convinced that the Open Balkan initiative is to speed up the integration of the region. These countries can act together as part of the EU as a group of countries with clearly defined requests and goals. The upcoming winter of 2022-2023 will be a great challenge and a test for all of us. It is the Union's turn to respond positively to the positive signals. The enlargement process cannot be endlessly postponed.

Thank you very much Mr George PAPANDREOU for your great report and for the endless support of the region.

Thank you very much.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:56:27

Thank you very much.

I give the floor now to Ms Jorida TABAKU from Albania.

 

Ms Jorida TABAKU

Albania, EPP/CD

10:56:38

First of all, let me thank the rapporteur but also for the report, and you have to be from the region to understand really the region.

Today, this UN Security Council resolution will be approved, condemning the Russian attacks on Kyiv. And the war in Ukraine has awakened memories in the Balkans. Several Balkan countries are still pointing fingers at each other, and I agree that should be condemnation. But we should also all move forward. Balkan countries should accept responsibilities and move forward. Moving forward means moving towards EU.

We cannot allow any more Balkan countries which have aligned foreign policies with Russia. We cannot allow any more Balkan countries which are Euro-sceptics and we cannot allow any more Balkan countries which are not in the standards and also norms of the EU.

Albania has been in this process longer than other Balkan countries, and we are aware that speed but also compliance with criteria are equally important. This is a very merit-based process and should not be considered as an award or a price. Europe has found force from within during the pandemic, especially now during the war. And I'm sure that we can all learn from the last 30 years of a very long accession process for some of our countries. The region has not been sheltered from democratic backsliding, from corruption, from breech of human rights, and not all countries in the region are able to hold free and fair elections.

But I believe that there is no other transformative process than the accession one. So, giving the opportunity to individual countries but also to the whole region to advance is also contributing in enforcing democracies in each of these countries. The region has been full of conflicts, disputes, wars, but the common perspective of EU accession is widely accepted, from 94% of support in Albania to 28% in some other countries.

EU member countries have also considered this as a strategic object and vision for some time, but that time, I think, is now gone. We have done too little too late, and I believe that we should move from strategy to action plans. And this has to happen now. Several achievements have happened during the last years that no one thought would have been possible.

The Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, Albanian Montenegro moving ahead starting the screening process. Montenegro but also Serbia already advanced. And again, too little, too late.

EU is the biggest donor in the region, the biggest investor, the biggest trade partner, but also EU has to be the first choice for all of our countries.

So, in supporting this report I believe that also this Assembly should play a bigger role in terms of the bodies representing it, such as GRECO and MONEYVAL, in terms of setting standards that are necessary for the EU process. All the resolutions, documents, that we approve here should be worth something. We should put them to use.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

10:59:52

Thank you very much.

I give the floor now to Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO from Ukraine.

Mr Oleksii GONCHARENKO

Ukraine, EC/DA

11:00:00

Thank you very much Madam Chair.

I want to say that it is an extremely important and timely report and topic, because finally we are here now, discussing a strategic topic.

This is the expanding of the free world. The Western Balkans should be an extremely important part of the free world. We should do everything to help them to do it.

Otherwise, we'll have great problems there – and we know what it could look like.

That's why I just want to remind you that this is not a vacuum. Other players in the world – autocracies, tyrannies – are trying to influence this region, are trying to use the Western Balkans, to have more bloodshed, to have more chaos in the world.

Who organised the coup d'etat in Montenegro? Russia.

Who tries to destabilise Bosnia and Herzegovina? Russia.

So today we need to say that we should do everything we can to make these countries prosperous, to make them be a part of our common – they are already part of our common values – but we need to take even more steps to make them stronger, to support democracy, human rights, the rule of law in all these countries.

In general, we should do everything we can to make the whole planet a free world.

But we should start with Europe. We should start with our own continent. There should not be any holes in the map of Europe where one country or another country is not part of the big European project, a big project where we appreciate human rights, the rule of law, democracy – which are our core values. So that's why it's so important to support these countries today.

In particular I want to say that Kosovo should be recognised by all countries of the Council of Europe.

For the moment 12 countries have not recognised it: I address you.

Please recognise this country as an independent state: they fought for their future, for their independence. They should sit here together with us. They should be a part of the Council of Europe.

Only like this can we be stronger. This country will also flourish.

I sponsored a bill to the Ukrainian parliament to support and to recognise the independence of Kosovo. We should all do this and together move ahead.

I'm sure that these countries can be a very strong part of our common big project. But for this, we should work.

I just want to remind you that it's not only the free world which is united; the non-free world is also united.

Just a week ago I woke up in my native city in Odessa to explosions just 500 meters from my home. What was it? An Iranian drone kamikaze. So that is a sign. So this is today: we have a huge big war between the free world and the non-free world.

So let's support the free world. Let's be stronger, bigger.

Let's support the Western Balkans.

Kosova është Evropë.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

11:03:12

For sure they have heard you.

I give the floor to Mr Jacques LE NAY, France.

Mr Jacques LE NAY

France, ALDE

11:03:22

Thank you, Madam President.

The Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe. This is an obvious geographical and cultural fact, but it must be said that the upheavals of history and political turmoil have not yet enabled a number of states in the region to join the European Union, to which they aspire to belong.

The report of our colleague Mr George PAPANDREOU rightly underlines the geopolitical issues of this region. I share his observation and his concerns, while the war launched by the Russian Federation in Ukraine may be a source of division.

The initial enthusiasm of the accession process and the desire to adapt must not be eroded. Unfortunately, however, certain contrary tendencies are at work, against a backdrop of weariness or resignation on the part of populations that feel left out. The report points out that, according to several studies, a growing number of people, especially among the young, believe that the prospect of the European Union will never materialise. Nationalism is gaining strength and we know where this can lead in a volatile region.

The political stakes are therefore high for the Western Balkan states. It is major for the European Union, both in its relationship with  neighbours who are destined to integrate, but also for its future integrity. For we are faced, in reality, with two risks of destabilisation that the Union must manage. We cannot take the risk of ratifying an accession for political reasons alone if the prerequisites, particularly in terms of democracy and the rule of law, are not met.

I therefore support our colleague's call for the Council of Europe, thanks to its wide range of instruments, to be able to support the Western Balkan states in their necessary reforms. I also consider that the revision of the modalities of the accession process, which France had called for, was necessary in order to guarantee both greater progressiveness and responsiveness, but also reversibility when necessary.

I am also pleased that several obstacles have been lifted, in particular by the lifting of Bulgaria's opposition to the accession of Northern Macedonia and the opening of negotiations with Albania.

In these troubled times, the European Union and the Council of Europe must work together to give the countries of the Western Balkans real and credible prospects for the future.

Thank you for your attention.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

11:05:59

Thank you very much.

I now give the floor to Mr Stefan JOVANOVIĆ, from Serbia.

Mr Stefan JOVANOVIĆ

Serbia, NR

11:06:10

Thank you, Madam Vice President.

Dear Mr George PAPANDREOU,

Distinguished delegates,

It is a distinct privilege for me to address you at this salient occasion as the first representative of Serbia's liberal conservative centre-right People's Party.

Today's debate has featured important remarks on democracy and reform as a sum of the central tenets of the EU's enlargement agenda.

To that, I would add the EU's own stated objective of fostering peace and stability in regions close to its border, which today may be more significant than it has been in many years.

Regrettably, however, the EU has far too often prioritised the latter at the expense of the former, especially in relations with its candidates for accession. In so doing, it has anchored and fostered autocratic regimes in the Western Balkans.

We welcome the initiation of the European Political Community. This is a positive step in addressing the EU's enlargement shortcomings and the Western Balkans' European prospects.

I would like to bring to your attention the issue of new aspirants for membership in the Council of Europe from our region. Since the founding of the council in 1949, the organisation has grown to include 46 members, all of whom were accepted unanimously having received the full support of the European community of nations.

A potential decision to consider a bid for membership on behalf of the provisional authorities of self-government in Pristina, applying as the so called Republic of Kosovo, could be a clear break with this long-standing practice, allowing the vision and this accord to take precedent over the core values of this Organisation.

Many distinguished members of this chamber rejected Pristina's claim to a statehood and rightfully so.

In a year in which the Council has repeatedly taken the principle stance on the need to respect the territorial integrity of its members, it is vital that this position continues to be upheld consistently and without exception.

By committing a unilateral act of secession in 2009, the authorities in Pristina bluntly violated Serbia's democratic constitution and the United Nation Security Council Resolution 1244.

Additionally, their poor track record and basic human rights and the rule of law stands in stark contrast with their wish to join this Council.

Under the watchful eye of the secessionist authorities, Serbs in Kosovo have become one of the most endangered ethnic groups in Europe.

Violators of territorial integrity, sovereign states, international law, and basic human rights, should not be embraced by the organisation devoted to the protection of these principles.

We do call upon the Parliamentary Assembly to reject the attempts of the provisional authorities in Pristina to become part of the Council of Europe, for they clearly do not meet the fundamental requirements.

Thank you for your attention.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

11:09:35

Thank you very much.

I give now the floor to Ms Margreet De BOER from the Netherlands.

Ms Margreet De BOER

Netherlands, SOC

11:09:43

Thank you.

And I start with congratulations to the rapporteur for this important and balanced report.

It is important for the International Community to show commitment to the Western Balkans and not forget the region, especially in light of the recent steps towards Ukraine and Moldova.

Further, the war in Ukraine has underlined the importance of EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans to prevent instability in the heart of Europe, especially given the ongoing attempts by Russia, but also China, Türkiye and others, to gain influence.

Renewed and concrete commitment from EU side is key, as the region has been neglected for the past decade, and many promises have been broken.

Last week, previous week, I was a member of the election observation mission in Bosnia Herzegovina and what struck me there was the lack of perspective that was felt by the people, leading to young people leaving the country and an exceptionally low birth rate.

I will not comment now on the election as such, as the report of the mission has to be published, but I'd like to comment briefly on what happened directly after the election.

On election day, the UN High Representative Christian Schmidt made changes to the electoral law. This is highly problematic. This action undermines him personally and the office of the High Representative as an institution. Not only by changing the law on election day and so expressing distrust in the voters, the people of Bosnia Herzegovina, but also because with his changes he further cemented ethnic deficiencies in the electoral system. And this will complicate negotiations on constitutional reform based on Court of Human Rights verdicts.

And this constitutional reform is necessary, also in the light of gaining candidate status to the EU. It is important that now, after the elections, inclusive and transplant negotiations on constitutional reform should be restarted, including NGOs and opposition parties. And important also is that the Finance Commission should be closely involved and give its assessment on any potential constitutional change.

To give this country and its people perspective, the international community should offer support in meeting the standards on democracy and human rights, instead of interfering by hindering progressive reform or by cementing ethnic deficiency. And this goes for the whole Western Balkans. We need to support a European perspective for the whole region.

Let me end with a few words to the colleagues from Kosovo. I welcome them as speakers in our Assembly and in this debate today, and I hope we can welcome them as a member state in the not too far future.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

11:12:58

Thank you very much.

I give the floor now to Mr Davor Ivo STIER, Group of the European People's Party, Croatia.

Mr Davor Ivo STIER

Croatia, EPP/CD

11:13:07

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that we all still remember the concept of Europe: whole, free, and at peace.

That was the ordering concept after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it has been challenged. It has been challenged by the neoliberal strategy of the Russian Federation, by the geopolitical concept of the Russian world. We saw that applied already in 2008 in Georgia and then afterwards and today in Ukraine.

That was a challenge to the concept of Europe: whole, free, and at peace.

That has consequences in weakening the idea of European integration, in fostering fragmentation. That had consequences also in the Western Balkans. We have seen more geopolitical competition in the Western Balkans, but we have seen as well attempts to imitate the Russian world concept. Of course, not to recreate or to have a sphere of influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union, but a small sphere of influence in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. That is a very dangerous concept.

Instead of that, what we need to do is to strengthen the independence and the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all the six countries in the western Balkans. All the six countries in the Western Balkans need to redouble their commitment to the EU: to the reforms, to the rule of law, to the democratic reforms, to combatting corruption, but also the full alignment with a common foreign security policy. That includes also sanctions against the Russian Federation. That is necessary. It has not been yet done by all the countries in the Western Balkans. It's necessary because Europe doesn't need Trojan horses now.

Having said that, there is also a huge responsibility on the EU to make good on the promise from Thessaloniki of a European perspective. A lot of emphasis has been put on the political institutions - and that is okay. But we also need to enlarge the societies. In this sense we can go faster.

Let me explain what I mean by enlarging societies.

There is a regional agreement now of a free‑roaming area. You can call from Belgrade to Tirana without paying roaming fees, but if you call Strasbourg, or if you call Athens, or if you call Zagreb, you have to pay roaming fees.

It's good to have regional co‑operation, but with this regional free‑roaming area we need to include it, integrate it immediately into the European free‑roaming area, to all the four freedoms, to have it integrated also into the societies of the Western Balkans.

Then political institutions, of course, meeting the criteria will follow, and then, hopefully, we will have a Europe: whole, free, and at peace.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

11:16:15

Thank you very much.

I give the floor to Mr Antón GÓMEZ-REINO.

Mr Antón GÓMEZ-REINO

Spain, UEL

11:16:24

Thank you, Madam Vice President.

I think that at a time that is so enormously tumultuous in Europe and the whole Eurasian context, we cannot allow ourselves to follow any other path in the Balkans than that of neutralising all of the tensions but especially interethnic tensions. To encourage in a real decisive way, autonomy and sovereignty for each and every one of the countries that make up the region and this obviously involves refusing all of the interference from outside geopolitical powers, including Russia, but we also have to be aware not to continuously exercise a de facto protectorate over those countries.

And finally, to support in a decisive way the processes of strengthening democracy on the Balkans. I think that who believe in the project of the rule of law, of democracy and of human rights in this Council and the shared European project, agree that we need to integrate and embrace and welcome Balkan countries, even more today than ever before. We need to do this because they are, obviously, brother countries. We need to do it this is how to guarantee stability and peace, not just for those countries but for Europe as a whole, and we need to do it also because, over and above what the political elites may wish - and in some cases, they are very separate from the concerns of their citizens - what the people and the citizens of those countries want to have happen.

And it is precisely along those lines and so as to strengthen the European outlook of Balkan countries that we need to do several things. First of all, as has already been said, the economic dynamics of neoliberalism cannot be the main thing that we export or impose on those societies. The counterpart of incorporating those countries into the European shared project is that they cannot simply be economic partners who are subject to serving stronger European economies. 

The second thing is that we need to bring about a Europe that is truly a multi-faith Europe. Cultural minorities that can be majorities in the countries, such as Muslims in Bosnia, need to know that we welcome them, and they need to feel like they are a part of our shared project.

And thirdly, and to conclude, we need to develop this co-operation in an honest way. Each Balkan country should not be seen as a piece on a geopolitical chessboard or a piece in a geopolitical board game to play with, but rather to deal with them as sovereign and legitimate forces. Only in this way, respecting their singularity, their sovereignty, and their autonomy, will we be able to bring about integration and adhesion not just of those governments and countries but what is really important of their societies as a whole. 

 

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

11:19:30

Thank you very much.

Now, before giving the floor to Ms Saranda BOGUJEVCI, I have to remind colleagues that, since yesterday, we gave the right to speak in the debates to Kosovo. And now, in this debate on the Western Balkans, the first time that a member of the Assembly of Kosovo has the right to speak.

So, you are very welcome.

So, Ms Saranda BOGUJEVCI, you have the floor.

Ms Saranda BOGUJEVCI

Assembly of Kosovo*

11:20:16

Thank you very much.

Madam Vice President,

Dear colleagues,

Let me first start by thanking you for giving us this opportunity but also the continued support that many of you have given to Kosovo over the years for us to come this far, and of course for taking this decision for us to be able to actively engage in these debates in the plenary, with the hope that soon we will have the full rights of participation.

I would also like to thank the President and the Secretary General for their guidance, and of course many colleagues here for the support.

Also, many thanks to Mr George PAPANDREOU for an outstanding report.

There's so much to be said. Today I could be talking about many things. Kosovo's achievements, as one of the most vibrant democracies in the region. If you don't believe me, you can always come and visit and see for yourself. Our difficulties that we're facing, difficulties with our neighbour, or the not so distant past that we've had.

But, today we are faced with concerns much wider than our region. Today we are faced with a brutal war. Today we are struggling for democracy and so on.

Today we are not only talking about the Western Balkans. But today we are talking about the future of Europe.

We as Kosovo, and all the countries of the Western Balkans, are Europe. There can be no other future for us other than being part of the European Union family.

In this line of work that we all do, in every decision that we make, I always think how these decisions will impact the future of our generations, our children. So now, more than ever, we have to be firm and brave and make the decisions that will have a positive impact on the future of our region but also of the whole Europe.

Now, as this is my first time addressing the the plenary, I would like to tell my Ukrainian colleagues and also the people of Ukraine that our thoughts and our hearts and our prayers are with you. We know far well what you're going through. I myself am a survivor of a massacre during the war in Kosovo. We will always stand with you in this fight and in this struggle. We hope that this terrible war will come to an end soon and that justice will prevail.

Slava Ukraini.

Thank you.

Ms Ria OOMEN-RUIJTEN

Netherlands, EPP/CD, President of the Assembly

11:23:12

Once again, congratulations. Thank you very much.

I give the floor now to Sir Edward LEIGH from the United Kingdom.

Sir Edward LEIGH

United Kingdom, EC/DA

11:23:28

It's an honour, Madam President, to follow the last speaker from Kosovo, and we welcome us to this Assembly of the free nations of Europe.

Because, dear colleagues, make no mistake: we are now engaged in an existential battle in the world.

On one hand, we have the freeman nations of the West, led by the United States of America, and let us have no criticism of that great republic, countries of the European Union, countries like my own, Great Britain. On the other hand, we have authoritarian regimes – Russia, China, Iran – who increasingly are flexing their muscles.

The opportunity in this debate is to say that we are united. When it comes to issues like the Western Balkans, I believe that there is no greater opportunity on any issue for this Assembly, the Council of Europe. Of course, we can debate these issues in terms of narrow technocratic ones, in terms of whether some country or not can join the European Union because of some obscure economic criteria, but the fundamental issue of what we are about is not economics, is not trade, it is about what makes Europe, what makes our history. It's about human rights, freedom, and justice and democracy.

I personally believe that, in a way, in the Council of Europe, we have slightly lost our way. We have become too focused on narrow issues, dare I say it on some work issues, and not on the real issues that we can help these countries in the Western Balkans and so many other countries.

The rule of law, free judiciary, minority rights, open media ownership. We, in the Council of Europe, in our debates, must focus laser-like on these issues, help the countries of the Western Balkans or any other member State of the Council of Europe to address these issues.

Then there is a whole new role for the Council of Europe. A whole new role in resisting the threat from Iran, from China, from Russia. Now, I don't want to get involved in the debates over Kosovo, but surely people do have a right to self-determination, and there is a question of de jure/de facto independence.

So, let us be united in this Assembly, and let us stand up for the freedom and minority rights of everywhere in the Western Balkans.

Thank you very much.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:26:37

Thank you Sir Edward LEIGH.

Next in the debate I call Mr Darko KAEVSKI from North Macedonia. You have the floor, Darko.

Mr Darko KAEVSKI

North Macedonia, SOC

11:26:46

Thank you, Mr President.

Dear colleagues,

First of all, I want to say congratulations to Mr George PAPANDREOU for a great report and also for the big support for all countries of the Western Balkans.

The Republic of North Macedonia is a stronger country from 19 July this year with the opening of accession negotiations.

With North Macedonia and Albania as candidates, the entire Balkan region is stronger, and it becomes a safer and more stable place for people to live.

The enlargement process gives us a chance to be an equal member of the Union, and a chance to create policies and vote for important decisions alongside the democratic states that are the role models for good governance.

Western Balkan countries are an integral part of Europe. The enlargement process enables the region to be peaceful, stable and democratic.

The European Union is home to over 500 million people. I welcome its decision to open the way for even more citizens.

Peace and freedom are preserved in the European Union. In crisis situations we can see the solidarity of the member states. The protection of human rights and freedom of expression are guaranteed. Conditions for stronger economic and social progress are ensured, as well as the functioning of public institutions.

We are proud that in the EU we see the true partner who supports us, and we are proud of the historical success of the Republic of North Macedonia to open the negotiation. I'm convinced that we'll deliver a great result because we are ready to overcome all the challenges, to harmonise the legislation in the identified areas, but also to change the institutional practices, all with the aim of being a full member of the EU as soon as possible.

In these challenging times, with the Russian aggression against Ukraine, we need to closely cooperate with joint activities as a region and show leadership with even closer partnership with the EU and the member states.

Joint cooperation is crucial. Together we have to make efforts to accelerate the green and digital transition, build just and sustainable societies, invest in renewables resources, and infrastructure.

But what's most important for us as a region is to ensure the rule of law, fight systematic corruption, make substantial reform of the public administration and create a democratic environment.

The Western Balkans are Europe, and we need strong partners to walk the path for a common future in the European Union.

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:29:18

Thank you Mr Darko KAEVSKI.

Next in the debate I call Mr Serhii SOBOLIEV from Ukraine.

Mr Serhii SOBOLIEV, you have the floor.

Mr Serhii SOBOLIEV

Ukraine, EPP/CD

11:29:41

Thank you Mr President, thank you Mr Rapporteur.

I think that Mr George PAPANDREOU found a lot of answers fortunately to very complicated questions, but unfortunately we have more questions than answers.

So this discussion is very important not only to the Western Balkans; it's very important to the whole European Union and to all unions of European peoples.

First of all, of course it's a war of civilisations. When my previous colleagues mentioned the new fascist regime of Putin in Russia, new dictator regimes in China or Iran – don't forget about North Korea, don't forget about Syria. I think that it's a real strategic war in the world.

So it's a possibility to protect the values of the European Union only when you have strong forces.

Ukraine shows the whole world, thanks to your technologies and your weapons, that we can also protect European and world values of democracy and the free world.

When some leaders of your European countries forget that when you didn't pay money for your own army, you will pay money for another army - as we saw now when some countries refused to employ sanctions against the Russian Federation and pay money for Russia to kill Ukrainian children, Ukrainian women - it's very important to understand that as well, as it's impossible to realise how Europe and the European Union can be without the free nations of the Western Balkans, including Kosovo.

It's impossible to realise how Europe and the European Union can be without such nations as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

I think that this report has the excellent possibility to understand that now we are all in one boat: a boat of democracy, but this boat must be protected, and must be protected not only by economical methods, but by military methods as well.

When somebody tries to discuss the future of military forces of the European Union as the alternative to NATO, I think that it's the worst mistake.

Without the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Japan and the rest of the free world, it's impossible to protect democracy in the world.

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:32:50

Thank you, Serhii.

Next in debate I call Ms Snježana NOVAKOVIĆ BURSAĆ.

You have the floor, Snježana.

Ms Snježana NOVAKOVIĆ BURSAĆ

Bosnia and Herzegovina, NR

11:33:00

Dear President, dear colleagues,

Thank you for the opportunity to address you. And I will be very very brief.

Firstly, I would like to thank to Mr George PAPANDREOU and everyone who strives to make the topic of Western Balkan countries' European perspective in the focus of attention because it's clear to all of us how important it is, for the region and for Europe as a whole.

However, it's equally important that our citizens believe in that perspective and feel it's important as well, and it is rightly mentioned in the report that trust and the desire to EU accession is declining throughout the region, unfortunately.

I think that it is more important to ask ourselves about the reasons for that situation and to try to find the correct answers on the internal European level than to look for the threats from the abroad and to trying to find enemies when they don't exist.

In my opinion, one of the key reasons for the public mistrust is the double standards history and existence throughout the region, unfortunately.

We cannot talk about the rule of law especially international law, if you have one standard towards Serbia and another towards other countries, as we have now.

It's really difficult, believe me, to believe in democracy while at the same time in my country, in Bosnia Herzegovina, lives a man, a resident of a foreign country, who pretending himself to be a high representative, who, without the necessary legitimacy or any legal basis, is trying to pass laws or impose laws and regulate internal relations.

Who can say for the Bosnia Herzegovina that is sovereign and democratic country having in mind that fact?

Currently, in Bosnia Herzegovina, we have a brutal attempt at interfering the election process based on illegal act of central electoral commission, an institution that is obliged to respect and implement electoral law. And, unfortunately, some from the international community welcome it.

And if we are talking about reconciliation, then all victims must be equally important and respected because unfortunately there are many of them on all sides. And for the end, if we really want Western Balkan countries within the EU, we need more, an equal rule of law, real democracy, and a fair approach to the past, to the present and especially to the future.

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:36:09

Thank you, Madam Snježana NOVAKOVIĆ BURSAĆ.

Now I call in the debate Ms Blerina GJYLAMETI from Albania.

You have the floor, Madam Blerina GJYLAMETI.

Ms Blerina GJYLAMETI

Albania, SOC

11:36:16

Dear Chair,

First let me congratulate Mr George PAPANDREOU for the outstanding report.

I want to emphasise that it was in the distant year 1990 when the EU launched, for the first time, the new approach for the Western Balkans.

It was that kind of decision that not only raised hope but at the same time served as an important catalyst for our countries to work for their economic development, leaving behind the wounds of the war that had taken place in the Balkans.

We oriented towards the strength in the law and undertaking important reforms.

It would be precisely this dream that would make the Western Balkans - and I want to emphasise here the whole region, the six countries - rise about the difficulties and conflicts of the moment and be oriented towards building bridges of regional cooperation, with the clear perspective that their destiny is in the European family and the sharing of the same values and the principles that the EU represents.

But even though 23 years have passed, the Western Balkans are still not integrated into the European Union.

In the face of the optimism and the desire of our people to be part of the EU, politically - unfortunately - our countries have encountered scepticism that has brought inexplicable delays in the journey of our country in the integration process: the refugee crisis, Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent aggression in Ukraine have highlighted the urgent need for the EU to first reform itself, to be more integrated among member States, and then to think about the management of the EU in enlargement and integration policies for the region.

The lack of rewards for the progress risks dampening public enthusiasm in our countries.

More and more citizens - especially among young people - are pessimistic about the prospect of EU membership.

European countries will not have to allow the European perspective of our countries to fade, especially in the context of where third parties are competing for influence, like Russia, China, and recently like Iran's attack in Albania.

I want to emphasise here Iran attacked our e-system so everything was broken down for many, many days.

If the EU does not pay attention to the region, the Western Balkans risk turning into a space of geopolitical antagonism that could import instability into the European Union.

It's time for the Council of Europe to play a greater role, working together with the EU.

We have to stand together not for the perspective of Western Balkans for the democratic world; we have to stay together here because we belong to Europe.

We share European values, and we should not have to wait any more to be a part of our original family.

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:39:27

Thank you, Ms Blerina GJYLAMETI.

Now, our next speaker to whom we are going to listen is Ms Elvira KOVÁCS, from Serbia.

You have the floor.

Ms Elvira KOVÁCS

Serbia, EPP/CD

11:39:38

Thank you, distinguished president.

Dear Colleagues,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For the last two decades it has been reiterated many times that the full EU membership for the Western Balkans is a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong, and united Europe. However, at this point, we have to admit that the EU enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans is at a standstill. Very modest progress has been made in the field of European integration in the region, and in recent years, the EU has failed to achieve significant and long-awaited breakthrough.

It goes without any saying, that candidate countries, including Serbia, are diligently doing their homework on harmonising with acquis and institution-building, but even completing all these legal and administrative tasks, without the EU clear and honest approach, it is impossible to know at what point of the future these countries are going to become members of the EU. Repeated statements by the EU officials, that the region belongs to the EU, have begun to feel worthless and stale.

The EU has wasted valuable time and a great deal of trust in the Western Balkans over the last two decades. I remind that in Serbia accession negotiations have been ongoing since 2014. It is very difficult to maintain the enthusiasm of the citizens for so long.

In the absence of a credible perspective, Euroscepticism, especially among the younger generation, is growing. Unfortunately, according to the latest public opinion polls, only a third of Serbian citizens trust the EU future and want Serbia to become a member of the EU, while slightly more than half, 51%, expressly oppose it. This is mainly because the EU itself cannot decide whether it wants to have Serbia among its members, namely, the EU approach offers too little reward tied to too many conditions. I am convinced that a way of how citizens consider the EU integration is based on stereotypes and prejudices, and not on concrete, real information. Moreover, of course, there is no doubt that it takes time to change citizens’ opinion.

In addition, fears of a severe winter are growing and all possible challenges are requiring urgent measures and bold decisions, especially when it comes to key existential issues such as energy stability, heating and inflation. Therefore, the EU should co‑operate even more closely with candidate countries in the key areas of security, energy, and infrastructure.

Normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina is essential to the Western Balkans. Concrete steps must be taken towards the establishment of the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities, as a proof that agreements are respected, that both sides are ready for compromise through dialogue, and hope that a satisfying solution could be reached for both sides.

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:42:56

Thank you, Ms Elvira KOVÁCS.

The next speaker is Mr Thibaut FRANÇOIS from France.

You have the floor.

Mr Thibaut FRANÇOIS

France, EC/DA

11:43:05

Mister Chair,

Mister Rapporteur,

I will do my introduction in English as it is the first time I'm addressing this Assembly.

It's an honour for me to represent the Rassemblement National in this Assembly.

This is the first time in the very long history of my party, which has reached 50 years last week.

The very locked French electoral system didn't allow my party to have a representation in this Assembly as we don't have any proportional election in France.

With my colleagues, therefore, we we will carry a different sound of voice in this Assembly, which sometimes is very happy to make some lessons and to give some lessons to the whole world. We will represent in this Assembly the 13.2 million people who voted for Ms Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election in France.

Mr Thibaut FRANÇOIS

France, EC/DA

11:43:48

And now I will speak in French, my native language.

When it comes to the integration of the Balkans and this report, which obviously is in favour of unconditional integration into the European Union, this report ignores an important aspect, that is the economic differences between Western Europe - if you will allow me - and the Balkans.

For example, the European investment plan has exceeded 30 billion euros of which 9 billion are directly linked to pre-accession aid.

So, what is the goal? The goal of the European Union is to modernise transport, green energy, environmental protection and governance. But at what price? France, my country, is being hard hit by an economic crisis, as well as consistent unemployment. Our energy access is under threat this winter: we don't have enough resources to heat our entire country. And now we're talking about integrating new countries into the European Union.

I will talk a bit more about the economic differences between these countries, which I think are intolerable. The minimum wage in Albania is 191 euros; in Bosnia, it is 204 euros; in Serbia, 283; in Macedonia, 240 euros per month; and in my country, France, it is 1,539 euros, which is almost six times more. How can you believe that it is possible to integrate the Balkans, given that there are such major economic differences with the European Union? These differences are obviously unsustainable.

So, we must not forget, within this august Assembly, that we are an assembly of the people, first and foremost. And in 2017, my great country as well as the Netherlands voted against the integration of several countries, new countries, into the European Union.

So, if you are so certain that this enlargement project is the right path, do not be afraid of the people. Hold referendums on this topic, on the integration of these countries into the European Union, and I can guarantee you one thing: the outcomes of these referendums will be quite different than what we have heard in the Assembly this morning.

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:45:51

Thank you Mr Thibaut FRANÇOIS.

The last speaker in the debate will be Mr Koloman BRENNER from Hungary, then I have to close the list.

 You have the floor.

Mr Koloman BRENNER

Hungary, NR

11:46:05

Thank you, Mr. President.

Dear Colleagues,

First, of course, I want to express my appreciation to Rapporteur George PAPANDREOU and all the contributors for this excellent report.

Let me start from the historical perspective. After all, I come from a country, Hungary, where for centuries we had the closest ties with the Balkan countries. The lesson of history is: without the Balkan states there is neither peace nor stability in Europe. Moreover, we are clearly in times where since the Russian aggression against Ukraine our global world order is being readjusted.

As a young person, I was able to witness how a great global, political, geopolitical change happened in 1989/90 during the political turnaround. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe liberated themselves from Soviet occupation and the one-party communist system. Here and now, we must give the Balkan states a clear perspective for the future. This is a selection of values and not of bills, gas bills, dear colleagues. The values of the European Union and the European Community are the rule of law, freedom of the media and genuine respect for national minorities. Believe me, as an opposition politician, as a conservative opposition politician from Hungary, I know how important all these basic European values are.

On the other hand, when I mentioned the rights of national minorities, this is also a guarantee for a secure future in Europe. We are sitting here in the Council of Europe. We have the Language Charter, we have the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. I am allowed to speak here in this Parliamentary Assembly in my German mother tongue. I belong to the German minority in Hungary. Also in such states as, for example, as I mentioned, Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have the objective of where it should go. On the other side of the coin is the fact that it is, of course, a difficult task for all these countries ‑ and this is my appeal to my colleagues in the Balkan states ‑ to fulfil all the criteria, the Copenhagen criteria as they were called at the time of the admission process of our countries.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:49:10

Thank you very much, Mr Koloman BRENNER.

As I said, I now have to interrupt the list of speakers.

The speeches of members of the speakers list who have been present during the debate but have not been given the opportunity to speak may be given to the table office for publication in the official report.

I remind colleagues that the texts are to be submitted in typescript, electronically, if possible no later than 4 hours after the list of speakers is interrupted.

Now, I call Mr George PAPANDREOU, the rapporteur, to reply.

You have 5 minutes.

Mr George PAPANDREOU

Greece, SOC, Rapporteur

11:49:46

Thank you very much.

First of all, let me thank all my colleagues for the warm support for this report and their comments.

On the country-specific comments, the goal of this report is not to avoid the conflicts we have in the region, but to see how the Council of Europe can be a major player towards the resolution of these. The accession process and the reform process where the Council of Europe has a role can become a catalyst for solving these problems.

Secondly, democracy, I believe, is linked to peace, and peace is linked to democracy. Democratic institutions, when functioning well, provide security, a sense of justice, fight inequalities and poverty, respect human and minority rights, guaranteeing social cohesion, in these very diverse societies. They solve problems. Democracy solves problems through peaceful dialogue and not violence.

To my colleague who is opposed to the enlargement process to the Western Balkans, I could only say that raising the standards, Mister Chairman and dear colleagues, raising the standards of the Western Balkans is in fact a way to have more prosperous friends also.

Making sure that it is a democratic area is a guarantee for a democracy in Europe, but it is also, as many have said, a geopolitical question. Accession is possibly the only way to guarantee peace in the long term. This, of course, as my colleague Ms Theodora BAKOYANNIS from Greece mentioned, the EU must have the will to solve this. The Balkans have been messy. It has been somewhat convenient for leaders that it was forgotten for many years. However, this has created frustration, youth migration, corruption – as many have said – allowing for the Balkans to become, again, a geopolitical playground.

We need to move forward with political will, and this is where the Council of Europe can play a very important role.

Reforms, changes, social reforms, a new methodology in enlargement procedures, put greater emphasis on the rule of law, fighting corruption, and not only market reform. This is where I think the Council of Europe will be of great importance. But there are other areas where, in my discussions with the commission and with other leaders in the European Union, there can be other areas where we can move forward in the accession process.

We do not need to reach the final accession of these countries before we find areas of co‑operation, and many were mentioned by colleagues: in the health sector, in the energy sector, in the, of course, defence and geopolitical foreign policy sector. These of course are many areas where we can work together.

I also would agree with Mr Titus CORLĂŢEAN, his experience but also experience that we have had in the Balkans. The regional co‑operation: we need to put more emphasis in the agency that we own this process ourselves. When we work together I have found we can find solutions. But this regional process can be crucial. We have seen that there have been some progress in the development which show that there can be a will to solve long-lasting problems as we had between Greece and North Macedonia, and not only there.

Finally, we had to consume a lot of history, as as my colleague Theodora has said earlier. But it is European history, and we must honour it.

I believe something that I think our first speaker, Mr John HOWELL, mentioned. We need to put emphasis, as a Council of Europe, in the democratic education. This also has been highlighted in the reports of the high‑level group for the Fourth Summit. One of the key elements is to bring democratic education into our systems, into our educational systems, but also informally, for leadership, for the younger leadership, bringing them together so that they can meet each other.

In the Balkans, because of the Cold War, we do not have the chance to really get to know each other. Still, there are many more areas for co‑operation and learning from each other. Particularly in conflict areas, we should be able to teach these conflicts in a way which shows the future is to work together in a very diverse society, in a very diverse region, which is in fact the beauty of the region. It is in fact an important element, an advantage for the region, which we need to invest in, if we build a democratic and peaceful region.

Thank you very much.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:54:58

Thank you so much, Mister George PAPANDREOU for preparing - on behalf of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy - this most important report-resolution-recommendation.

Does Mr Zsolt NÉMETH, the Chairperson of the Committee wish to speak?

You have the floor, Zsolt. You have 3 minutes.

Ms Snježana NOVAKOVIĆ BURSAĆ

Bosnia and Herzegovina, NR

13:07:13

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Dear chairman, dear colleagues.

I will be very brief.

Firstly, I would like to thank Mr. Papandreu and everyone who strives to make the topic of the Western Balkans countries european perspective in the focus of attention, because it is clear to all of us how important it is.

However, it is equally important that our citizens believe in that perspective and feel its importance as well, and you rightly mentioned that throughout the region, trust and the desire to EU accession are declining.

I think that it is more important to ask ourselves about the reasons and try to find the correct answers on the internal level, than to look for threats from the abroad.

One of the key reasons for the public mistrust is the double standards history and existence. We cannot talk about the rule of law, especially international law, if you have one standard towards Serbia and another towards other countries.

It is difficult to believe in democracy while at the same time in Bosnia and Herzegovina lives a man, a resident of a foreign country, who without the necessary legitimacy or any legal basis trying to passe laws and regulate internal relations.

Currently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more precisely in the Republic of Srpska, we have a brutal attempt to interfere in the election process based on illegal acts of the Central Election Commission, an institution that is obliged to respect and implement the Election Law, and some from the international community welcome it.

If we are talking about reconciliation, then all victims must be equally important and respected, because unfortunately there were many of them on all sides.

So, if we really want WB countries within the EU, all we need more unequivocal rule of law, real democracy, and a fair approach to the past, the present and the future.

 

Ms Biljana PANTIĆ PILJA

Serbia, EPP/CD

13:07:15

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Honourable Chair,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the beginning, I would like to thank our colleague Papandreou for the work he invested in drawing this report. This topic has been discussed on numerous occasions and in various fora for almost past two decades. We highly appreciate the fact that the topic is again on the agenda of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I cannot help noting certain symbolism in this. The Declaration underlining an unwavering support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries was adopted during the Greek Presidency in 2003.

Unfortunately, as stated in the draft resolution, due to the lack of progress, enthusiasm for the region’s entry into the EU has been decreasing. In addition, the crises within the EU have made Brussels shift the focus of its attention to some other regions and its own issues. As is the case right now due to the war conflicts in Ukraine.

A part of the responsibility for slow progress certainly falls on the countries of the Western Balkans themselves. Not all of us have shown readiness to reform our societies in a fast and determined way. Some are still dealing with the past and instead of engaging in a dialogue and providing arguments, they resort to unilateral measures, blackmails and fabrication of facts. They do not wish to participate in regional infrastructure and other development projects.

I would like to take this opportunity to inform you that Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania managed to achieve regional cooperation and connectivity. The Open Balkans initiative is an example of very successful regional cooperation and struggle for common goals, and I use the opportunity to invite other friends from the region to join that initiative.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Despite frequent announcements, the enlargement policy is not high on the EU Agenda. In addition, the European Union often changes the enlargement criteria. This significantly impedes the negotiating process and even worse, it enables some EU Member States to literally blackmail Western Balkan countries on their path to the EU, for their own special interests. I use this opportunity, as a representative of Serbia, to welcome the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.

The EU loses its authority as it does not want to respond to open issues relevant for the overall situation in the Western Balkans, even in cases when Brussels is a signatory party to some agreements. The best example of this is the Brussels Agreement signed by Belgrade and Pristina in 2013. For nine years now, Pristina has not wished to implement the provisions related to the establishment of the Community of Serb Municipalities, and Brussels has not responded to this, although it is the guarantor of the Agreement’s implementation.

Therefore, just like Western Balkan countries should consistently carry out comprehensive reforms and meet the EU accession requirements, the EU also needs to tackle its open issues and speed up the enlargement as soon as possible. It should define the obligations and timelines for all enlargement countries. The EU should also step up its cooperation with the Balkans even further, through various projects, thus ensuring greater connectivity and cooperation in the interest of states and citizens and the future of Europe.

The Council of Europe, on its side, should facilitate the EU enlargement process by considering various global, local and important issues relevant for the Western Balkans and the countries individually, acknowledging democratic and administrative capacities of the Western Balkan countries for meeting the Council of Europe’s criteria for its members, which enables them to be EU Member States as well.

Finally, an application for the membership of an entity with unresolved status would lead to a new political divisions in the Council of Europe at the moment when it is crucial to ensure the stability and credibility of the Organization.

Thank you for your attention.

Mr Predrag SEKULIĆ

Montenegro, SOC

13:07:17

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Dear colleagues,

The admission of Western Balkan countries to the European Union is the best investment in peace and stability of our region. Support to the European perspective of the Western Balkans, as all of us know, has become even more important in the current geo-political context.

For Montenegro there is no alternative to EU accession, and that is why we strongly support and welcome this resolution. Of course, it is our obligation to meet EU standards, just as we were committed to meeting the standards of the Council of Europe. The high level of public support for EU accession in our country demands from both Montenegrin authorities and the EU to show strong and renewed commitment to advancing this process.

In that light, I give my full support to the resolution we are discussing today, and I thank Mr. Papandreou for his devoted work.

Thank you.

Mr Aleksandar NIKOLOSKI

North Macedonia, EPP/CD

13:07:21

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Dear friends,

As Mr. Papandreou correctly points out in his report - surveys show that an increasing number of people in the Western Balkans, especially amongst the youth, are pessimistic about the prospects of EU accession. The European vision is losing its shine. In its place, ethno-nationalism has resurfaced a very worrying development.

What is happening to my country- Macedonia is the best example of this. It was Greece that was vetoing the opening of accession negotiations for years and then since 2020 that is Bulgaria, using its position of member in EU to blackmail Macedonia, denies the existence of the Macedonian nation, questioning the Macedonian culture and history and clamming that the Macedonian language is a dialect of the Bulgarian language. All this Macedonia is pushed to accept in order to open accession talks and may be one day to become member of EU. The rule of unanimity in accession process in misused brutally by Bulgaria. That is why many youngsters lose faith and either leave the country or are asking for alternatives.

In the report is written that Council of Europe welcomes the opening of accession negotiations with Macedonia on 19 July 2022. That is not true! Macedonia did not open accession negotiations only was pushed to change the constitution upon Bulgarian dictate and terms. Without change of the constitution there are no accession negotiations. You will all agree this is brutal intervention into the suverenity and independence of the country. There is no second example of any other EU or candidate country that faced this pre conditions, this is not European value!

Furthermore Bulgaria uses the same inflammatory discourse as does Vladimir Putin. Putin says there is no Ukrainian nation and language, they are Russian, Bulgarian politicians say there is no Macedonian nation and language, they are Bulgarian, and if Macedonia wants to progress towards EU must accept this!

This is why I call the Council of Europe in this report to recommend opening of accession negotiations for Macedonia without further delays and additional requests. Council of Europe should ask EU to respect its own Copenhagen criteria. The change of the constitution of independent country should not be precondition for accession negotiations. The Council of Europe should ask Bulgaria to stop pressuring on constitutional changes in Macedonia and allow accession talks. EU should use all its mechanisms to enforce this.

Only in this act the confidence will be borough back and optimism about the European perspective.

Another important issue is the fight against organized crime and corruption. A applaud the direct wording of the report on this issues. The respect of the rule of law and fight against corruption is geostrategic investment in peace, stability and democratic security for the whole of Europe. Unfortunately Macedonia has the most corrupted Government in its history according to the Transparency international reports and I ask the EU and Council of Europe to put pressure on implementing in the priority areas such as the rule of law and good governance, including efficiency, independence and accountability of the judiciary, anti-corruption, public administration reform.

Macedonia should start EU membership negotiations because the citizens of Macedonia deserve it, without any further request and pre conditions by Bulgaria such is the change of the constitution.

Only such an approach can lead to good neighborly relations and friendly relations between the Macedonian and Bulgarian people into the common European family.

Thank you.

Mr Larry BROCK

Canada

13:07:24

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Honourable colleagues,

Polling in recent years has shown that significant majorities in most countries in the Western Balkans see their future in the Europe Union and would vote to join it if given the opportunity. At the same time, polling in these countries has also shown that many doubt the EU’s sincerity about their potential membership. As Rapporteur Papandreou’s report reminds us, next June will be the 20th anniversary of the historic 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, when a joint declaration proclaimed that: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” In the years that followed that Summit, there was significant EU enlargement. The Western Balkans region, though – with the exception of Croatia – was largely excluded. To quote Rapporteur Papandreou’s explanatory memorandum: “The initial years of enthusiasm were followed by a lack of momentum and a tough reality check, which gave way to disappointment, frustration and pessimism.” This, in turn, he added, has “contributed to fuelling ethnocentric impulses and nationalistic nostalgia, tarnished the credibility of the EU … and led to the rise of anti-European sentiments in the region.” At the best of times, that combination would be a dangerous development. In the current context, however – as Russia seeks to sow division in Europe – the threat is much greater. For that reason, I echo this report’s call “for a new impetus to be given to the European Union enlargement process.” I also support its call for the Council of Europe to use its significant “tools and expertise in the field of rule of law, democracy and human rights” to help the countries of the Western Balkans “make tangible and measurable progress towards meeting the EU enlargement criteria.” I note that the EU and the Council of Europe are already key partners in the region – notably, through the Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans – so it would also seem there is room for further collaboration in that respect. Canada has tried to do our part through our Canada Fund for Local Initiatives: international assistance that has focused on good governance and the rule of law, among other things, in the Western Balkans. Thus far, the process of EU accession for the countries of the Western Balkans has been long, tortuous and difficult. But I agree with the report’s conclusion that: “The risks of its failure are much greater than the difficulties to be overcome.”

Mr Bernard FOURNIER

France, EPP/CD

13:07:26

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in French.

Ms Catarina ROCHA FERREIRA

Portugal, EPP/CD

13:07:28

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Dear Mr President,

Dear Colleagues,

To start, I would like to remind this Assembly that there is an important friendship to be maintained between the European Union and the Western Balkan countries.

As an example, the EU is the leading trade partner for all Western Balkans, with almost 70% of the region's total trade.

Taking a close look at the years from 2011 to 2021 we verify that the EU trade with the Western Balkans has grown by almost 130%. And in the same period, Western Balkans exports to the EU have increased by 207%.

So there is an important interconnection and the aim should be to create a better Europe for everyone.

In this regard both the Council of Europe and the European Union have a long tradition of co-operation which draws on their shared values:

human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

I underline the capacity and the indispensible role of the Council of Europe building bridges and promoting more cooperation and dialogue.

In fact, the EU integration of the Western Balkans is a shared strategic objective that unites the whole region and the European Union.

So, if we want to focus on building a credible EU future for the Western Balkan countries, that also means creating the right conditions in order to move forward with further European enlargement.

Russia's illegal and brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has changed the international order and made the European Union a geopolitical entity and, to that extent the possibility of creating new standards for the enlargement of European Union. However, the keyword in this process is commitment.

Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality.

But it must be a shared commitment also in implementing reforms and to transform the reforms into reality.

And the necessary reforms include: strengthening the rule of law, the fight against corruption and the independence of justice and media freedom

Defending these reforms is paramount for protecting democracy. As the report states: a closer European integration is important not only for the countries concerned but for the European continent and the European citizens.

Thank you.

Mr Enis KERVAN

Assembly of Kosovo*

13:07:30

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Dear Mr. President,

Thank you very much.

Initially I would like to thank all of you on behalf of the Kosovo’s Delegation, as this is the first time that Members of Kosovo Delegation are addressing the Assembly, it is a great honour and privilege.

I am coming from a multiethnic country with a clear vision and mission -Euro-Atlantic integration !

As a member Kosovo’s delegation I’m representing non- majority communities, such as: Turks, Bosnians, Romas, Ashkali and Egyptians .

where as a national minorities we have education in our languages, we have official languages ​​at the local and central levels and languages ​​in official use at the central level, such as in parliament, government, and other institutions.

According to the constitution and laws we are represented in all local and central institutions.

Dear all, coming from a country where the minority communities are part of a normal and institutional live along with the majority, it is a greatest achievement of one democratic country and privilege as a human, a success that many countries would like to achieve.

Therefore I thank Mr Papandreou for his report, and you all for contribution you are giving to support the European perspective for the Western Balkan Countries.

Here is the place where our voice can be heard, our contribution can be appreciated and your advices on any matter welcomed!

Yes, we deserve to be part of the democratic world, such as European Union.

Yes, we think that the citizens of Kosovo deserve the liberalization of visas, since we are the only ones in the region that do not have them!

In our way forward with a clear vision and mission, we need your strong support ,only together we can face the actual challenges and others to come!

As Mr. Papandreou highlighted in the report, supporting economic and social progress, democracy, rule of law and human rights, promoting reconciliation and good neighbourly relations in our region is geostrategic investment for the whole of Europe”. This is achievable only if all of us work together in this direction.

Dear all, On point 10 in page 4 of the report, Mr. Papandreous calls on all authorities in Western Balkan to play their role in achieving the listed requirements.

As a member of the Kosovo’s Delegation to PACE, I can assure you that Kosovo is fully committed to do so.

Last but not least, as you all know, Kosovo applied for the membership to the Council of Europe in May this year, as we are a country with e clear vision and we fulfil the principles of the Statute of the Council of Europe, we are looking forward for your support in this process, as Kosovo deserves to be part of it.

Ms Andrea EDER-GITSCHTHALER

Austria, EPP/CD

13:07:31

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in German.

Ms Marietta KARAMANLI

France, SOC

13:07:34

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in French.

Ms Alma ČOLO

Bosnia and Herzegovina, EPP/CD

13:07:37

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

I want to thank Mr. Papandreou from Greece on this report, which gives us new hope that the Western Balkan states can become EU members at some reasonable time in the future.

Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership 6 years ago. The Commission opinion on EU membership application was delivered in 2019. EU Council conclusions endorsing the 14 key priorities were adopted in December 2019.

According to the Commission’s assessment, the political environment remains polarized, as political leaders continued to engage in divisive rhetoric and unconstructive political disputes, which have hindered overall progress on the 14 key priorities. The boycott of the State institutions and the calls to roll back reforms are of deep concern and can only be overcome through political dialogue. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to address the 14 key priorities, and will have to deliver on a critical mass of reforms to obtain candidate status.

I totally agree that Western Balkans are geographically, culturally and historically an integral part of Europe. But it is a region of political instability in which the spectrum of violence still looms large and a number of bilateral disputes affect good neighborly relations.

The rise of nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric in political discourse is a matter of serious concern. I think that reconciliation is most important for maintaining peace and security, establishing sustainable co-operation and setting the region firmly on its European path. The prospect of membership in a common family of European values provided enthusiasm and the impetus for change in the region.

I think that The Parliamentary Assembly can make a major contribution by rekindling the hope for a European perspective for the Western Balkans and pressing for reform and good neighborly relations in the region.

The granting of candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina would give hope to all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially to young people who are leaving our country and looking for a better life in EU countries. After obtaining candidate status, we are ready to work with greater enthusiasm in order to achieve the rule of law, democracy and step up the fight against corruption.

Mr Domagoj HAJDUKOVIĆ

Croatia, SOC

13:07:39

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

A clear European perspective for Western Balkans is of outmost importance, now more than even. The war in Ukraine has reminded us how fragile peace is. The Western Balkans region has historically been an exporter of instability, First World War started in the region but there are also many more recent armed conflicts, genocides and atrocities that took place in the region. Balkans has historical been an arena of conflicting interests of geopolitical forces, Russian Federation being only one of these forces but certainly most malignant one. These influences were allowed to thrive with European Union failing to provide a clear and consistent policy on enlargement. One country even had to go through a very traumatic process of changing the name of the country in order to proceed on their EU accession! And yet, Union failed to honor that feat, choosing to delay and ignore Macedonia for far too long. Yes, dear colleagues, European Union has failed in this respect miserably.

Fortunately, focus of EU is back on the region and enlargement after the start of the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, it is disappointing to see that one country of the region is unwilling to see Russian aggression for what it is and clearly condemn such actions. In my view, there is no place in the EU for countries that quietly support war, aggression and genocide. The values of peace and freedom are fundamental for our European family.

Our organization should serve as a stepping stone on the European way of the countries in the region. The membership in the Council of Europe should help them to harmonize their society and legislation with EU standards and endorse the highest standards with regards to protection of human rights. In this context I believe we need to mention Kosovo that submitted a bid for full membership in Council of Europe. I urge you colleagues to support them and help them so that they can take their rightful position as a full member of Council of Europe, the oldest pan European organization.

Thank you.

Mr Sławomir NITRAS

Poland, EPP/CD

13:07:42

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

For the States of the Western Balkans, the ongoing war that is a result of Russian aggression on Ukraine must be an extraordinary experience. Multiple times in history, the region has been a field of proxy wars. Its political, ethnic and national conflicts were used by empires to lead their own wars and pursue their own interests.

Today, the countries of the Western Balkans are at a crossroads. However, the political upheaval caused by the war may be seen as a strong pro-European impulse that will accelerate the integration process – and the reforms it requires, especially those regarding the rule of law, the reforms of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime, safety, the functioning of democratic institutions and reconciliation between cohabiting nations.

Across Europe, nationalist tendencies are gaining power. It is not surprising that the countries of the Western Balkans are not free of those, either. However, I believe that given their recent experience of war, the societies of the Balkan States will see the EU as a real power that restraints war, conflict and poverty.

The role of the EU, its member States and its institutions, is to give the States of the Western Balkans a realistic hope for membership. Their citizens and governments cannot doubt that this offer is authentic and attainable. Moreover, the EU’s involvement in improving bilateral relations in the region is highly significant. What is equally important is increasing the level of investment of member States in the region. It is worth mentioning that in 2020 the European Commission started the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. The programme will surely accelerate the process of social, political and economic integration of the region with the European Union. The EU policy regarding the region should be distinctly different from analogous actions of other States – such as Russia and China – in the economic sphere. We have to widen the European sphere of freedom, of an efficient economy, of development in science and culture, of democracy and human rights, of European values, and not reach for economic footholds at the price of development and integrity of the candidate States. Such an attitude will guarantee the full integration of the Western Balkans region with the European Union.

Miroslawa NYKIEL

13:07:45

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

Mister President,

It’s not an exaggeration to say that 24th of February changed everything. It ended the approach of business-as-usual in relation to Russian Federation. It also showed European aspirations of former Soviet-bloc as clear as ever. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia applied for EU membership within weeks from the beginning of the war. These countries understand one thing better than anyone in the West: politics abhors a vacuum. The same applies for the Western Balkans. We, as European community, must redouble our efforts in order to speed up the European Union enlargement process. There is no reason to wait: support for EU accession is very high in almost every Western Balkan country. If we don’t take immediate steps to integrate Balkan countries into EU, we will have to face the consequences of having Russian and Chineese sphere of influence in Europe, which we helped created ourselves. As a parliamentarian from the former member of the Eastern Bloc: Poland, a country that was leading the way in democratic transformation and joining NATO and the EU in a very fast pace, I am urging everone in this chamber to support this draft resolution and a draft recommendation. And of course, I hope European Union member countries and Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe will provide all required assistance and support Western Balkan countries need to ensure the success of this process. I would also like to thank the rapporteur Mr George Papandreou for his excellent and important report.

Thank you.

Mr Christophe LACROIX

Belgium, SOC

13:07:49

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in French.

Ms Inka HOPSU

Finland, SOC

13:07:53

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

 

Mr. President, dear colleagues,

Let me start by thanking Mr. Papandreou for this important and timely report on supporting a European perspective for the Western Balkans. Peace, stability and wellbeing in the Balkans is in the interest of all of Europe. However, as the European union is strengthening its ties with all the countries in the region, it should be careful not to create a sense of unfairness with regard to Ukraine and Moldova, that are beginning their EU-membership journey.

Despite the differences of the countries concerned it is evident that the challenges to democracy, human rights and the rule of law evolve around the same themes. The region’s delicate background situation as well as an increase in political polarization has led to political deadlocks that have hampered democratic development and institutional progress. Russia’s increasing influence in the region certainly has not helped on the path to European integration. The link to the rest of Europe should be strengthened for example by 1) supporting youth and student exchange and 2) by easing free movement of people.

In 2019 this Assembly awarded the Vaclav Havel prize to the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), which brings together young people from across the Balkans to promote reconciliation. We should support such initiatives that aim to strengthen democracy and the activities of the civil society.

Reconciling with the past is of crucial importance when it comes to building a better future and I think that especially young people are very well placed to take forward such initiatives. I am very concerned about the increasing use of SLAPP’s (Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation) that have been initiated by powerful actors in for example Serbia to silence civil society organization and render their activities almost impossible. Instead of trying to hinder such activities I urge all Balkan states to support initiatives that bridge ethical divides and that allow citizens to take action towards greener and more just societies.

I would like to finish by commenting on Kosovo’s decision to seek membership in the Council of Europe. Membership in this organization requires respecting the common standards that we have jointly agreed on and I think that any European country that is willing to commit to our standards should be welcomed.

Mr Ahmet Ünal ÇEVİKÖZ

Türkiye, SOC

13:08:30

(Undelivered speech, Rules of Procedure Art. 31.2)

The report entitled "Supporting a European perspective for the Western Balkans" is very important at a time when we are all concerned about the increasing challenges to the unity of Europe. I therefore would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy as well as to our rapporteur Mr. George Papandreu who has prepared an excellent report describing the current situation in the region and drawing our attention to the important issues at stake there.

It is important to underline that the perspective of EU accession for the Balkan countries has been a primary motivation for each and every country in the region since the Dayton Agreements. Yet, as it is accurately mentioned in the report, the longer that process for the realisation of such a perspective is, the weaker the political momentum and public enthusiasm.

Russian military agression against Ukraine has become a new factor in increasing our concerns about the building of new walls in Europe. We cannot underestimate the risk that such aggression could become an appropriate tool to exploit the existing fractures in the Balkans and lead to serious destabilisation. We should therefore increase our focus more to the region to avoid such destabilisation.

Multilateralism and multilateral diplomacy are in a state of weakening. A new thinking is necessary. A new visionary approach should neither weaken the aspirations of the western Balkan countries in their path to EU accession, nor should it weaken the role that our organisation, the Council of Europe, has been playing in this continent for more than 70 years to strengthen democratic resilience, respect for the rule of law and human rights, promoting reconciliation and good neighbourly relations among the European countries.

New initiatives should not assume functions to undermine the role that existing institutions and organisations would continue to play. In that sense, the European Political Community should not be a forum to delay the EU accession process of the Western Balkans but to the contrary should be a forum to expedite that process. And in our fourth summit, we should come forward with a new vision, a new momentum, a new directive to assume our functions in our continent on protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This will not only reassure the unity of our continent including the western Balkans but also help us to overcome the danger of building new dividing lines.

 

Mr Fabian FUNKE

Germany, SOC

13:08:32

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in German

Mr Josip JURATOVIC

Germany, SOC

13:08:35

Speech not pronounced (Rules of Procedure, Art. 31.2), only available in German

Mr Zsolt NÉMETH

Hungary, EC/DA, Chairperson of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy

11:55:14

Thank you very much, Mr President.

I would like to welcome also our Kosovo colleague who was able for the first time to address the plenary of the Parliamentary Assembly.

The Western Balkans is really a European region becoming, like many times in the 20th century, more and more a playground of great power rivalry.

Over the 19 years which have passed since the Thessaloniki Summit, the commitment to enlargement has been confirmed many times at the highest level. However, this length of time, these 19 years, have not disappeared without traces and consequences.

The European vision is losing its shine, and the public enthusiasm is lowering, dear colleagues, not just in the Western Balkans, but also in the European Union capitals in the form of the so-called enlargement fatigue.

We have to react and act rapidly. This is our common responsibility, to keep alive the European perspective for the whole region, especially when we are in the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian war. This war underlines the crucial risks stemming from the European Union neighbourhood.

The Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy discussed this item on three occasions since May, and had several hearings with various guest speakers including Commissioner Várhely and Mr Lajčák, the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues.

These meetings were complemented by an intense fact-finding visit by Mr George PAPANDREOU, our rapporteur, to Brussels, where he had a chance to exchange face to face with key leaders from various EU institutions, including commissioners, Members of the European Parliament.

The European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Mr Várhely, appreciated the very balanced drafting of the report in his video message this morning in our Committee.

So, dear colleagues, it is high time for enlargement. When we should take seriously the enlargement of not in the shadow of the Russian-Ukrainian war?

While the topic is complex and multifaceted, I am very glad to note that the draft resolution and the draft recommendation were adopted unanimously in the Committee last month.

Thank you very much to our rapporteur Mr George PAPANDREOU for your work and the Secretariat obviously.

Thank you very much.

Vote: Supporting a European perspective for the Western Balkans

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

11:58:16

Thank you, Mr Zsolt NÉMETH.

Dear colleagues, the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy has presented a draft resolution which you find in Document 15609 to which no amendments have been tabled and a draft recommendation to which one written amendment and one oral amendment have been tabled.

We now first will proceed to vote on the draft resolution contained in Document 15609 as no amendments have been presented. A simple majority is required.

The vote is open.

I close the votes.

May I ask for the results to be displayed?

The resolution is adopted.

We will now consider the draft recommendation.

I understand that Ms Etilda GJONAJ would like to withdraw Amendment 1 in favour of an oral amendment agreed in the Committee. Is that so Ms Etilda GJONAJ?

Do you want to withdraw your amendment? Yes or no.

Ms Etilda GJONAJ

Albania, SOC

11:59:57

(Do you want to withdraw your amendment? Yes or no?)

This amendment that we table...

(No, sorry)

I just have only to explain a little bit...

(No, no, you have to say whether you withdraw it or no)

Actually the Rapporteur has proposed an oral amendment as a compromise, so we withdraw our amendment and support the oral amendment.

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:00:18

Thank you much - sorry but our rules are strict, Madam.

So, yes, you withdraw it.

We have heard that, indeed, an oral amendment from Mr George PAPANDREOU has been proposed. It reads as follows:

"In the draft recommendation paragraph 3 delete the following words: 'bringing together five countries of the region as members and having developed strong cooperation with Kosovo'".

The President may accept an oral amendment on the grounds of promoted clarity, accuracy, or conciliation - and if there's no opposition from 10 or more members to it being debated.

In my opinion, the oral amendment meets the criteria of Rule 34.7.8.

Is there any opposition to the amendment being debated?

I do not see [any].

As that is not the case, I ask the Rapporteur to support the oral amendment.

You have the floor, Mr George PAPANDREOU.

Mr George PAPANDREOU

Greece, SOC, Rapporteur

12:01:24

Yes, very simply, we felt that this would be a good compromise. It is quite in rule, in accordance with the Statutes and the existing situation in the members of the Council of Europe and I think it is something which, as we try in this report, to bring as much unity in this room.

Thank you very much. 

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:01:49

Thank you Mr Rapporteur.

Does anybody wish to speak against the oral amendment?

I don't see – the Committee is obviously in favour, Mr Zsolt NÉMETH?

Mr Zsolt NÉMETH

Hungary, EC/DA, Chairperson of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy

12:01:59

The Committee is in favour.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:02:01

Thank you so much.

Now I shall put the oral amendment to the vote.

The vote is open.

The vote is closed.

I call for the results to be displayed:

The oral amendment is adopted.

We will now proceed to vote on the draft recommendation contained in Document 15609 as amended.

I inform colleagues that a two-thirds majority is required for this recommendation.

The vote is open.

The vote is closed.

The results to be displayed:

The recommendation is adopted.

Congratulations.

(Applause)

I interrupt our meeting for a second so that we can welcome the President of the Republic of Ireland. Please remain in your seats.

His Excellence, Mr Michael D. HIGGINS, President of Ireland. [In French in the original speech.]

(Applause)

Dear Colleagues,

May I now welcome in our chamber, His Excellency the President of Ireland, Mr Michael D. HIGGINS.

Dear president may I say: Dia dhuit Uachtarán Higgins, in your own beautiful language. ["Hello/God be with you, President Higgins." said in Irish]

We are extremely honoured that you are joining us today at a time when your country Ireland is successfully presiding over the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers.

I also welcome Mr Thomas Byrne and also welcome Mrs Higgins. Be our guest.

Mister President,

I already had the privilege to visit you recently, your country, and to be received at your place in the margins of the Conference of the Ministers of Justice.

Being in Ireland made me really appreciate one of the priorities of the Irish presidency, which is called fáilte, which is again in your beautiful language, but which stands for fostering a Europe of welcome, inclusion, and diversity.

Mister President,

Today we are also saddened that your country is currently grieving, following the tragic explosion in the village of Creeslough in County Donegal last Friday that killed 10 people. At this very moment when your thoughts are at home with the families and loved ones of the victims, your presence amongst us is particularly appreciated.

Let me therefore express to you a message of solidarity with the Irish people, and our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims on behalf of our Parliamentary Assembly.

Mister President,

Your presence here today is highly appreciated by us all and demonstrates the commitment of your country, one of the 10 founding members of our organisation, to the Council of Europe's core values.

This is especially significant today when European and global security and stability are undermined by the illegal and provoked and unjustified war of aggression by the Russian Federation against our member State Ukraine. A vicious violation of international law and the atrocities committed by its military against Ukrainians are shocking and require a decisive response.

This war has highlighted the crucial importance of the founding principle of the Council of Europe. The pursuit of peace can only be achieved through justice and international co‑operation.

Sustainable peace must be anchored to the fundamental values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. It must be preserved to effective mechanisms of multilateral co‑operation based on respect for these fundamental values.

Dear Mister President,

Throughout your life you have campaigned for human rights and for the promotion of peace and democracy in Ireland and many other parts of the world.

If I may, I would like to take this opportunity to recognise and acknowledge your efforts, your work, and your personal deep commitment towards these values.

Your wise thoughts and your deep experience are, therefore, of great value for us.

Therefore, I invite you, Mister President, to share your wisdom with us today once again.

Be welcome, and may I invite you and give you the floor.

Thank you very much.

Address: His Excellency Mr Michael D. HIGGINS, President of Ireland

Mr Michael D. HIGGINS

President of Ireland

12:08:07

If I may President, with your permission, just in my own language say:

A Uachtaráin, Président Kox, A Chomhaltaí den Tionól Parlaiminteach, Members of the Parliamentary Assembly,Tá áthas an domhain orm gur bronnadh an deis seo orm chun labhairt libh inniu. I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas ó chroí a ghabháil leat. Présidente, as ucht bualadh liom ar an gcuairt a thug tú le déanaí ar Bhaile Átha Cliath nuair a sheol tú comhdháil thábhachtach idir Airí Dlí agus Cirt faoi fhoiréigean teaghlaigh, gnéasach, agus ar bhonn inscne i gcomhthéacs an Uachtaránach Éireannach ar Choiste Airí Chomhairle na hEorpa. Ba bhunghníomh é Dearbhú Bhaile Átha Cliath, a tháinig as an gcruinniú áirithe sin, san obair leanúnach atá ar siúl chun cosc agus deireadh a chur leis an bhfoiréagan in aghaidh ban, rud atá mar thosaíocht ag Uachtaránacht Éireannach reatha Chomhairle na hEorpa

Translating immediately, may I just say President, I took the opportunity to say in our own language, the Irish language - which is the language spoken in the area where the great tragedy has taken place and which has been represented in parliament amongst others. I deeply appreciate, as President of Ireland all those expressions, including your own, and those of the Assembly which I will convey tomorrow to the different families as I meet them.

Dear President, Mr Tiny KOX and the members of the Parliamentary Assembly,

I am very delighted with the opportunity to speak to you. I want to express my appreciation for the opportunity during the Irish Presidency of the Committee of Ministers to be able to speak to you. I was very much pleased to meet the President and the Secretary General recently in Dublin. I think that was on the occasion, where again, under the auspices of the Irish Presidency, a very important seminar took place very much dealing with violence against women – which is a priority of the Irish Presidency of the Council of Europe. And it ended with the Dublin Declaration, which was very important. Again, I think that under the Presidency, there has been a very important seminar on the effectiveness of the Council of Europe at the Human Rights Centre of Galway University, under the title Lighting the Shade: Effective Application of European Convention of Human Rights in Areas of Conflict in Europe and that was very valuable.

It is just seven years since I had the honour of addressing members of the Parliamentary Assembly before. That was a time of grave geopolitical fractures, but it was too, I have to say, a moment of the brightest hope. Agreements had been reached in New York and Paris that year on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 provided us with a model for the building of a sustainable future for humanity and for our planet.

I address you today when we are challenged not to allow the shadows under which we are currently living to defeat what are and remain our best hopes – agreements which have an intergenerational support, particularly among young people. Those agreements are built on foundations that include the crucial importance of multilateralism – a multilateralism which is at the heart of the values on which all of our global institutions are based, including the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Multilateralism is today under extreme pressure – we might even say in crisis, with adherence to its values very fragile. Indeed, the killing of civilians, which we have mentioned, President, is an indication of that.

In such moments, I believe that we must reflect on what multilateralism demands of us and what should inform it. Perhaps, if we are to recover it. If we are to have genuine multilateralism, then we must be willing to have a fully participative discussion on the universality of human rights. This is not assisted by any hubris, it requires dispelling the notion that human rights are a uniquely European invention. We must recognise that, for many people throughout the world, their experience of European intervention in their lives has been far from positive, indeed [were] involved in the suppression of human rights.

The sources of human rights are much more diverse than the valuable European rationalist sources might suggest. If we are to achieve an effective, universally supported system of multilateralism, we must recognise that there have been many different efforts at transcendence towards rights in human history and many codifications of rights. I think, for instance, of the Codes of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia in 1750 BC, codes which have served as a model for establishing justice in many cultures and have influenced laws established by Hebrew scribes, including those in the Book of Exodus. That admondition having been acknowledged, we can be proud of what was achieved by enlightened minds in Europe. In this context, the Council of Europe’s great achievements of the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Social Charter. And these are best seen, as part of a much longer, deeper historical instinct across all human civilisations to establish and respect fundamental rights in a manner which might apply across our different cultures.

This wider vision, one beyond any hubris, is important if we are to speak authentically to people across all parts of the world on what are the common values which we might share, to enable a wider vision of how our global future can be managed sustainably, and now urgently, in response to climate change and its consequences.

The Council of Europe – this distinguished institution to which we owe so much debt – for its role in Europe’s moral and cultural reconstruction after the devastation of the Second World War, has provided an essential legal framework for the building of peaceful societies. Its highlighting of the fundamental principles of pluralist democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, as well as its setting of standards in human rights through the European Convention on Human Rights system, in particular, have been key achievements, confirming the common goal of a freer, more tolerant and just society in Europe.

The objective of peace – I am proud to say – was an Irish contribution to the Charter in 1949. Only yesterday did we mark the International Day against the Death Penalty. Now 37 years since Protocol No. 6 to the Convention, which abolished the death penalty in peacetime, entered into force. The Convention’s framework, which we must consciously and proactively nurture as an indispensable component of the architecture of stability, peace and trust, built on this continent over the decades, is a legacy and a resource of profound ethical significance.

One of the great benefits of the Council of Europe is its wider membership than that of the European Union. Europe is not best described as a ‘bloc’. The Council of Europe demonstrates the importance of reaching out to our shared responsibilities, to social, economic and ecological rights that can offer cohesion, fulfilment and sustainability. There are, however, may I suggest, some basic rights which have been neglected in the global and regional discourse. I may give the example of freedom from hunger. Surely the most important right that any of us must have is the right to be free from starvation, and undoubtedly the highest security threat facing us is hunger. Yet today we find ourselves, once more, in the position of another grave hunger crisis, one of cataclysmic proportions. We see horrific, preventable scenes of famine and severe malnutrition across the Horn of Africa, a region that has endured devastating hunger three times in three decades. And that is responsible for 0.024% of emissions. Suffering the most and least responsible. On the previous two occasions, the world said – when details of the famine were reported to the United Nations by Mary Robinson – that we as a global community must never let it happen again. For we as a global community have the capacity to anticipate and prevent regional and global famines, giving meaning to the phrase “never again”. Yes, it is in relation to global hunger and the threat of famine. It is important that we reach all the humanitarian targets that are needed immediately –which we have agreed in order to tackle the shortages and save lives.

This, however, is insufficient. We need to look at the structural factors contributing to food insecurity and do so from a rights-based perspective, dealing with issues such as debt. Twenty-nine of the countries on the edge of collapse into debt; 16% on surfacing debt and 6% perhaps on public health. We must address monopolistic control of production and distribution of staples in food. For food insecurity is contributing to, and exacerbating, conflict. It is a moral choice between tolerating monopolistic economics at international level and the supporting right to survive.

Our world, I suggest, must address issues of sufficiency in a different and sustainable way. In relation to what we have just heard this morning and over the weekend, and for a while now, there must be no impunity in any circumstances for breaches of international and humanitarian law. Ours, and the Council’s, purpose must be to achieve, in our democracies, conditions of peace. If we enter into and accept a time when it is impossible to talk of the aspiration to peace, then the Council of Europe, and indeed us all, will have failed.

I do think multilateralism is the principle we rightly invoke as an alternative to unbridled multilateralism, but it is a principle which must be tested for institutional adequacy. The Council of Europe has achieved much in its history, but cannot afford to be complacent about the challenges that remain ahead. It is appropriate, I suggest, to ask if the architecture which is available in current diplomacy can deliver on the original aims of the Council of Europe or indeed of the Charter of the United Nations.

It is a painful reality that the architecture and institutions underpinning multilateralism have proved to be fragile, weak, and, I have to say, occasionally not fit for purpose. If we can identify shortcomings, should we not then press for reform? Just as, given its dysfunctional consequences, we cannot continue to have five permanent members with a veto on the United Nation's Security Council continue to prevent and obstruct the consensus of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Council of Europe too must be willing to look at its architecture, the architecture necessary for effectively tackling such as how it communicates with the European street.

In this context, I welcome the guidance which the very eminent members of the High Level Reflection Group chaired by my predecessor as President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has suggested on the future of the Council. I strongly support its 30 recommendations across five themes. And so too – what is very valuable – is the work of the Parliamentary Assembly Ad Hoc Committee chaired by senator Ms Fiona O'LOUGHLIN. On the proposals for a fourth summit and discussion on the future of governance in the Council of Europe, I think the Council of Europe has played a critical role in the encouragement it has offered to us in Ireland and the hope it offered.

Máire Mhac an tSaoí, one of our State’s first female diplomats, and the first woman to serve as Permanent Representative in Strasbourg, described the Council of Europe as "a stage in international progress unimaginable before the last war". Again, Seán MacBride, a person who identified strengths and weaknesses to the Council from the very beginning said, "It is, in my view [that this is] one of the most important and constructive developments that have taken place in Europe. [...] Unlike many other attempts at world organisation, it relies rather on moral, ethical, social and economic forces than upon military measures".

Both Máire Mhac an tSaoí and MacBride recognise the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the crucial role which its Commission and Court would play in setting standards. Despite the moral authority of these legal institutions, we live in a world where the legitimacy of both the European Court of Human Rights and the Convention on Human Rights continues to be undermined. Let me take this occasion to state Ireland’s view very clearly: the European Convention on Human Rights must remain the cornerstone of human rights’ protection across Europe. To those who suggest that there is some tension between the principles of parliamentary democracy and the international protection of human rights, I respond unequivocally, that parliaments flourish in an environment where rights are vindicated, upheld and promoted, not where they are delayed, judged or even rejected. The reality of human rights, of course, extends ever further, and it is within the realm of social and economic rights that we, in recent times, have witnessed grave threats to security by policies and decisions that were far removed from the values of the European Social Charter, that landmark document that affirms how human flourishing entails the effective enjoyment of social rights, as well as civil and political ones.

There were times, and there will be again when the Council of Europe is the institution that is called upon to fill a vacuum, to make a response. The report of former Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr Thorbjørn Jagland, The Impact of the Economic Crisis and Austerity Measures on Human Rights in Europe was such a moment. His report is a damning indictment of austerity policies that were forced upon the citizenries of Europe without consideration as to human consequences in order to maintain an under-regulated European banking sector, an approach that had serious implications for human rights. His report concluded: "People’s rights are [...] threatened by the impact of the economic crisis and growing inequalities. [...] European societies have suffered the effects of the recent economic crisis, which has deeply affected social cohesion in many member States, and which may eventually threaten both the rule of law and democracy." Any widening gap between principles of the Council of Europe and the European Union, its courts and its members' policy must be seen for the threat that they are to the rules and the effective indication of human rights. This paradigm that was imposed that trumped human rights contradicted everything in the spirit of the Council of Europe, and particularly the values that were expressed in the European Social Charter. We must ask why the Charter was invoked when social welfare was being cut and public services slashed across Europe in the name of austerity more than a decade ago. The crisis of legitimacy and competence on economic and fiscal matters, a crisis which has fuelled the democratic crisis we continue to see unfolding, not just in Europe but around the world, has precipitated the great loss of trust now manifesting itself. 

Seven years ago, I said as a parliamentarian, "Parliamentarians, must recover their ground; parliamentarians are accountable".  Yet the OECD informs us from their research that only 40% of European citizens trust their national governments, and an even lower percentage is reported among poorer and younger citizens.

There can be little doubt that social media is a key driver of this declining trust, with its capacity to spread misinformation, but I believe that this alarming trend, which points to an ongoing democratic crisis in Europe, has been fuelled by the continuing failure to critically acknowledge the consequence of reliance on a narrow economic paradigm that has resisted regulation, facilitated monopolistic tendencies and has widened inequality, that has advocated austerity policies that have proven to be ruinous to social cohesion, and that has been facilitated by an institutional inertia – something that has enflamed citizen cynicism. Achieving a vibrant democracy requires that we engage citizens meaningfully, inclusively, comprehensively in an understanding and commitment to human rights – a literacy of human rights. That is why I would like to see associations of the Council of Europe in every stage, associations supporting the United Nations delivering the debate and the options and the discussion to the street.

We need to anticipate challenges before they become crises and indeed before they become disasters – and use all the tools available – traditionally and currently, to us. How remarkable it is that in recent times we, given our European intellectual heritage, have enabled a neglect of philosophy to test our assumptions and indeed anthropology to inform us on diversity and difference. These disciplines have had the potential to offer us so much to our present difficulties and circumstances in understanding and anticipating the crises of our contemporary times, including those sourced in ethnic, linguistic or historical bases. I do put forward today the case for a return to the use of tools such as anthropology as a means of promoting a deeper understanding of diversity and cultural difference, and indeed anticipating – as I have said – potential conflicts.

The concentration of corporate power, the growing realm of the unaccountable, and private isolation and alienation go together. We need to defend the public world, including the space of discourse and access, be able to speak and listen to each other in conditions of respect and discourse courtesy. As public sector broadcasting has increasingly disappeared or become unregulated, we have seen an erosion of public accountability in the media. Likewise, the failure to establish any effective form of regulation over misinformation and abuse on social media has created a further lack of accountability in public commentary.

In tandem with these trends, we continue to see a further monopolisation of media and social media companies. We see, and are allowing, an increasing concentration of ownership in key digital and media companies – and indeed in a similar way as to how we experienced the dangerous consequences of monopolisation in the production and distribution of essentials such as grain and fertilisers, we now see it in the media. We need to seriously reflect – I suggest – on the consequences of unregulated control of the spaces for public comment by a very small number of owners, owners who by not accepting responsibility or regulation are facilitating a culture of unaccountable comment far outside the normal boundaries or restraint of political and social commentary.

What we are witnessing in Ukraine, following the illegal and immoral invasion by its powerful neighbour, is an imperialist action. It represents a failure on so many levels. It is fundamentally also the consequence of a failure of democracy. When Russia was admitted as a member of the Council of Europe in 1996, the path chosen was one of a journey to democracy. It is a path that is contradicted by all of the recent events with their awful human consequences for which, as I have said, there must be no impunity.

The response of the Council of Europe was understandable in its excluding Russia as a member. However, that does not, nor should it, mean a permanent exclusion from the Council of Europe or of hope that the Russian population of 144 million people, along with all the other peoples, will not return again to enjoy the necessary protection of the European system of human rights protection.

There must not be – I repeat – any impunity. In order to rebuild peace, the response of the Council must be, while reaffirming its founding principles, one that reinforces the strength and efficacy of the instruments available to it. The egregious breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights being witnessed at present, and the significant political, financial and practical challenges this situation has brought to the Council of Europe, creates an opportunity to progress issues which may have been held in abeyance or stasis for some time. An opportunity for the Council of Europe to assert a renewed commitment to its values. Yes, the first challenge we face, as Assembly members are acutely – you are so aware, I know, from my meetings with the Secretary General and President –  is how to end the appalling return of our continent to war, of an arms race as the outcome, creating and deepening grave geopolitical fractures that carry disastrous human consequences. The challenge of upholding human rights and the rule of law, while upholding and promoting democracy, must always be a core raison d'être of the Council. This requires that there must be – as I have said – no impunity for human rights violations. However, to do this effectively, we need to set out a longer-term vision of the Council’s role in a post-conflict Europe and how that role might fit within the wider multilateral and institutional architecture. We should revert to the Council’s fundamental strengths in rebuilding peace, notably the bedrock that is the European Convention on Human Rights. It must now be re-invoked, extended, bolstered and re-asserted, and resourced, become part of the discourse of the European Street.

In doing this, I firmly believe that we must focus on the indivisibility of human rights, on all their dimensions. We need to commit to what might be a wider definition of comprehensive security in Europe and thus constitute a European step towards a universal human rights-based approach to security – a security that includes the rights to live free from food insecurity and which includes all of the rights of participation. The universality of human rights is based on the recognition, after all, of the common humanity of all. This principle, our common humanity in all its dimensions, must be our bedrock. Any review of the Convention framework – I think –  must incorporate additional basic human rights, such as the right to a clean environment, which is linked to the right to be free from hunger. It is a reality that both climate change and hunger are driving conflict – we currently have 64 conflicts on our planet – and will continue to drive future conflicts. Responding to climate change and its consequences has slipped down the rank of prioritised global policy issues over the course of the pandemic and the war, and it has done so at our peril.

An under-recognised strength of the Council of Europe has been its emphasis on the role of culture in nurturing democracy. For us Irish, a nation attached to the preservation of an ancient Gaelic language, once prescribed, the adoption of the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is just one example. It was an important step towards the recognition of cultural rights throughout Europe.

And while I am proud to say that from the beginning, Ireland was among the first to acknowledge the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, we must acknowledge that for us and all members there is also the test of efficacy in delivering remedies and adequacy of response.

As of January 2022, dear friends, 47% of the leading judgments handed down by the Court over the past ten years are still pending implementation. There are 1 300 leading judgments pending overall. This is addressed by the distinguished group that you will be discussing. For example, more needs to be done in my own country with regard to the protection of minority groups, in particular Travellers. In its most recent Assessment (2021), the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, within the ambit of the Framework Convention on National Minorities, concluded: "There is still a substantial shortfall in the provision of accommodation for Travellers […], many Traveller sites are in an inadequate condition […], criminal justice legislation, housing provides for inadequate safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction, [… and] evictions are carried out in practice without the necessary safeguards".

And this is not about governments, may I add. This is about the public accepting rights and the rights of minorities. These findings indicate the distance that we in Ireland still have to travel on the issue of Traveller equality and full participation in Irish society. What our publics require now is not just acceptance of recommendations of the Commission or decisions of the Court, but better effectiveness of resolution and remedy. The failure to remove the source of the original complaints is, after all, to undermine the legitimacy of the Council of Europe's architecture.

The European Court of Human Rights, which I will visit later today, played a pivotal role in advancing LGTBI rights in my own country, Ireland. This is epitomised in the case "Norris vs. Ireland" in 1988 – David Norris is a friend of mine –  in which Irish Senator David Norris successfully charged that Ireland's criminalisation of certain homosexual acts was in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This case marked the turning point for LGBTI rights in Ireland, and would go on to lead to the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation in 2015. But it had to come to Europe having been in fact unsuccessful in the domestic [legislation] in courts. While significant strides have been made in that important area of human rights in recent decades, they are not uniformly in place across our Union; neither is the provision and legal response to violence against women. I am pleased that both Ukraine and the United Kingdom recently became the 36th and 37th States respectively to ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, recognising, as it does, violence against women as a fundamental violation of human rights.

Turning nearer to home, the European Convention on Human Rights is essential to the effective functioning of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, which has brought peace on our island. The unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and the fundamental importance of the human rights’ provisions of that Agreement, require an approach that ensures the Convention continues to be fully implemented in Northern Ireland regardless of Britain’s exiting the Union. Progress on post-conflict legacies in Northern Ireland is crucial in order to meet the legitimate needs and expectations of victims and survivors, to uphold the rule of law, and to contribute to broader societal reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process. And victims from all sides are in agreement that granting impunity to those guilty of crimes is simply not acceptable. The proposed summit meeting of the Council, which I support – which I think the intellectual group suggested – can provide a unique opportunity for leaders to recommit to the Council’s first principles and set a new longer-term vision for The Organization. In doing so, all member states must reaffirm their commitment to the principles and values of Europe as enshrined in the Statute and to the implementation of the rights and freedoms. I personally think that not only in Europe but really a movement to try and establish, if you like, basic rights in the basic essentials of life would be such an important new development – universal basic rights.

I think this requires to take unconditional obligation of the Contracting Parties to the Convention to abide by the final judgements of the European Court of Human Rights. Speaking of the European Court of Human Rights, may I take this opportunity, to pay tribute for his work at the Court of its outgoing President, Robert Spano, and to warmly wish every success gach rath agus beannacht [in Irish] to its President elect, Ms Justice Síofra O'Leary, the Court's first Irish and first female President.

The Council of Europe’s system of human rights protection is explicitly linked to the maintenance and support of democracy. This key point is emphasised in the 2001 report of the Evaluation Group on the European Court of Human Rights which states that: "Democracy lies at the heart of guarantees protected by the Convention. It upholds pluralist democracy by securing core principles. […] It promotes the rule of law, which provides the essential framework for effective political democracy". And if Europe is to fulfil or recapture the vision of its founding fathers, then the Europe we build must be founded on respect for basic human rights, including economic and social rights, and respect for the rights of minorities, migrants and refugees. If we allow these rights to be diluted by the rhetoric of prejudice and fear, we risk undermining the moral legitimacy of our various positions on the world stage. This in turn will weaken, and perhaps is already weakening, our influence and capacity to act in response to the very real threats to these values.

So, as to our future Council of Europe, a key task will be the optimal calibration too of the interwoven relationship between the trinity of Council structures – that is to say, the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Secretary General – to ensure the effective delivery of human rights. This relationship was identified by Seán MacBride in the early years of the Council as potentially problematic. It is not quite resolved in a satisfactory, agreed way yet. The Council's unique range of institutions, standards and tools must be better deployed to improve human rights, rule of law and democratic conditions in any affected region. For example, we must significantly enhance opportunities for civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, academia and others to engage and co-operate directly, regularly and meaningfully with the Council of Europe’s statutory and non-statutory actors on issues related to human rights protection in areas of conflict and contestation.

It is important at a time of deep conflict which we are experiencing to refer – as I have said – to the value of culture and to recall what we share in it. There are deep historical and cultural connections between us all. For example, even between the peoples of Russia and the peoples of Europe, ones that can serve as a basis for future contacts and dialogues with Russia in better times. We must remain open to such a cultural dialogue. This is a moment – I suggest dear friends – for the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly members to engage with vigour in the public space on behalf of human rights, a human rights literacy, within their parliaments, between their parliaments and publics. It is not a moment for yielding in any sense to the intimidations of any new populisms or ancient hatreds based on fear. It is a time to make the case for solidarity, protection and possibilities favourably.

European citizens, and those who have joined us, and also who are joining us, will join us, must share a belief in a moral Europe that confronts shared challenges together in an open, inclusive, equitable form of multilateral engagement. Such a Europe must be open to the full diversity of the planet we share, and its vulnerabilities and its differences, in efforts at transcendence and achieving sustainability, and its responsibility to future generations for biodiversity.

So, let us work together to give effect to this aspiration with authenticity, become indeed the conscience of Europe that the Council’s principles espouse, one with a moral weight borne, yes, of often painful experience, but one too which can offer a beacon of hope for an emancipatory future, not for all the citizens of Europe but for our world. Go raibh míle maith agaibh. Beir beannacht. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:45:54

Thank you very much, President Michael D. HIGGINS, for what I would call your grand lecture on the Council of Europe and its place in the multilateral architecture that we all need so direly in these so difficult and challenging times.

You have agreed, Mister President, to answer some questions from our Assembly.

I would propose that we first take, together, the five questions on behalf of the political groups. If we do not spend too much time, then we can add some other questions.

We first take five questions from the political groups, then you respond, Mister President, if you agree.

The first question comes from Ms Marina BERLINGHIERI, from Italy, on behalf of the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group.

Ms Marina BERLINGHIERI

Italy, SOC

12:46:45

Thank you, President.

Your Excellency, President Michael D. HIGGINS,

You made it clear we are going through difficult times, and we need to move towards a situation where we abandon the idea of economic and military competition, moving towards a global alliance, which better defines the needs of a multilateral world, where we can move towards shared solutions. President, could you give us some idea of what prospects, what roads forward the Council of Europe might follow with a view to strengthening its role or, more specifically, to enhance the multilateral role you talked about, thereby creating an alliance based on peace, human rights and democracy?

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:47:29

Thank you, Marina.

Next question comes from Ms María Valentina MARTÍNEZ FERRO from Spain and she speaks on behalf of the Group of the European People's Party.

María.

Ms María Valentina MARTÍNEZ FERRO

Spain, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group

12:47:39

Thank you, and welcome to this Assembly of the Council of Europe, Mr President HIGGINS.

Ms María Valentina MARTÍNEZ FERRO

Spain, EPP/CD, Spokesperson for the group

12:47:47

I will ask my question in Spanish.

I know you speak Spanish, as well as the two official languages of your own country, Irish and English.

You've set us an excellent example today of how we can learn together in an intelligent way, something inherent to multilingual societies.

I would like to know how you've managed to achieve that in Ireland, in particular using education, I think we in Spain could learn from that.

However, I have a question on behalf of my group.

Since there is ongoing dialogue between the Irish and UK authorities, what can the Council of Europe do to provide extra support for your efforts towards a rapid and definitive agreement?

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:48:30

Thank you, Ms María Valentina MARTÍNEZ FERRO. [Said in Spanish]

The third question on behalf of the political groups is from Mr John HOWELL from the UK. Mr John HOWELL speaks on behalf of the European Conservatives Group.

 

Mr John HOWELL

United Kingdom, EC/DA, Spokesperson for the group

12:48:40

Thank you, Mister President, for attending the funeral of Queen Elizabeth.

If you and I can reach agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol, how inherently strong do you think the relationship between our two countries is? And what do you think that would mean for tackling the complacency that there is here, within the Council of Europe, together?

 

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:49:05

Thank you Mr John HOWELL.

The fourth question on behalf of the political groups comes from Ms Ingvild Wetrhus THORSVIK from Norway, on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

You have the floor.

Ms Ingvild Wetrhus THORSVIK

Norway, ALDE, Spokesperson for the group

12:49:20

Thank you, Mister President,

Digital technologies play a central role in the functioning of our societies. They offer new opportunities for our democracies, but they also pose new risks to human rights.

Under the current European data protection framework, the Irish Data Protection Commission is tasked with ensuring that the biggest technology companies comply with European data protection rules, as these companies are headquartered in Ireland. However, the Irish Data Protection Commission has been publicly criticised for lax or insufficient enforcement against said companies.

My question is: What are the Irish authorities doing to ensure that Ireland has an independent and effective data protection regulation, and which mechanisms will be put in place to ensure its proper functioning?

 

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:50:03

Thank you so much Ms Ingvild Wetrhus THORSVIK.

The last question on behalf of the political groups comes from your compatriot Mr Thomas PRINGLE from Ireland. He speaks on behalf of the Group of the Unified European Left.

Mr Thomas PRINGLE.

Mr Thomas PRINGLE

Ireland, UEL, Spokesperson for the group

12:50:16

[in Irish] What are your views on the differential treatment of refugees from Ukraine and the treatment of those from other countries by member States of the Council of Europe, including Ireland?

I would like to take this opportunity, if I may, to thank you for your kind words in relation to the terrible tragedy in Creeslough last Friday. That meant a lot to the people of Creeslough and Donegal to know that people were standing with them and at their time of need, so thank you for that.

Ireland has suspended the operation of the Council of Europe agreement on the abolition of visa for refugees while we hold the presidency of the Council of Europe. Do you believe that is an appropriate measure in response to the refugee crisis caused by the war in Ukraine?

Thank you.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:50:57

Thank you Mr Thomas PRINGLE.

Mr President,

We have communicated already the themes of these five questions, so they are quite different, but I'm quite sure that you are able to give a comprehensive reaction to this.

You have the floor.

Mr Michael D. HIGGINS

Ireland, President of Ireland

12:51:12

In relation to the first question, in relation to the future of Europe, the remarks I made stressed the importance of the street. I think parliamentarians are very important, and parliamentarians are just... Sometimes I'm regarded as the first point of criticism. But I think there is a need for a transparency in policy making, a transparency in discussion and in discourse. I think, therefore, we should have really been speaking about the derechos humanos or human rights, whatever, that we should really be speaking about having, as I said, associations of the Council of Europe that are able to give details to schools of what discussions are going on, about both your committees and your plenary sessions.

The second question from my compañero de España is in relation to... to mark a dear friend from Spain, I should say that first if I'm allowed the question on language. The issue in the Irish case remembers that our language had been proscribed, not allowed to be spoken for quite a while. It became of huge importance in relation to the establishment of our state.

Our issue now is not knowledge of the language but is an issue of getting people to use it. This is expanding among the younger in particular.

One time, I think, it might have been, we were talking about compulsory Irish. People resorted to say it was a kind of an authoritarian, conservative agenda. It doesn't carry that any more. It's very cool to speak Irish now among young people. You'll find it in clubs and cities and so forth. That is important.

But the important part about it as well is to have a complete, to have a commitment to it. Our European Minister sets the great example to everybody in the use of Irish. But it's very important that at the levels of public service, particularly the senior levels, it be used as much as possible.

To our friends in the United Kingdom, it was an honour to attend the remembrance service in Belfast when I had an opportunity of exchanging words with King Charles III, whom I knew as Prince Charles and with whom I had many good conversations. I think, really, as indeed with Queen Elizabeth II, who in fact, both their family, have had a deep concern that the peace would sustain in Ireland, and had patience and events that we shared, in particular when I returned, the first Irish head of state to return the visit in 2014, replying in response to her visit in 2011, was enormously helpful.

The atmosphere, I think, the truth of it is, that there's the same amount of investment between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and Ireland and the United Kingdom. Our people are regularly in contact with each other. I think the atmosphere at present is beginning to look more positive in relation, and I'm very pleased with that, as will everybody, both people who are workers and business people and whatever, and I'm quite hopeful.

In relation to our friend from Norway, in relation to technology, when I was teaching sociology I was speaking about it for like the social impact of technologies was a very old topic when we were teaching.

But you've asked me a very specific question. I want to answer very directly.

I think the independent commission in relation to privacy in digital might have been slow in getting off, but as we saw in the report from government, there's an increase in both staff and about 23 million in resources. The result has been, in fact, that the total number of fines is about 650 million. There have been fines against Facebook, against Meta, and another 60 different warnings sent out and so forth.

I think it has gathered force, and it will benefit from from the new resources. [Speaks in Irish]. I'm a former Minister for the Gaeltacht with a responsibility for the Irish language and Gaeltacht. I just think what is important about the tragedy and why I will be going there tomorrow is that it's very much a small community. Literally, anybody who is lost and anybody who's injured will be known to everybody else.

I think it is something we will move past, and I think that the Irish community all over the island are responding.

I might say in relation to the previous question I was asked, one of the warmest messages I received yesterday was from King Charles, who sent me a very long message and apologies. We are... As President of Ireland, may I acknowledge all of the people who have sent messages expressing their solidarity with the people of Donegal.

I didn't answer Mr Thomas PRINGLE's question, I'll answer it like this. We had a directive which has allowed us... We have 50 000 Ukrainians, shortly it will be 60 000. That is under the temporary directive. But I assure you I am very well aware that we have to learn too from our experience in direct provision. It is very important that we in fact treat all migrants. I think in many ways why you can say that we have obligations that arise from proximity, but those obligations and relations, because it is our neighbours, shouldn't in any sense take from our international obligations into any refugee from any circumstance of conflict.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:57:15

Thank you Mr President.

Sorry for interrupting you because you still have the need to give this most important answer.

We can take three more questions, because then we are running out of time.

The first question will be from Ms Fiona O'LOUGHLIN, then from Mr Lőrinc NACSA, and then from Lord George FOULKES.

Ms Fiona O'LOUGHLIN from Ireland.

Ms Fiona O'LOUGHLIN

Ireland, ALDE

12:57:37

Fáilte romhat ar ais ['Welcome back' in Irish]

You're very welcome back to these hallowed halls where indeed you made your mark as a former member.

Our sympathy and our solidarity go with you and through you to the people of Creeslough as you travel to sympathise with them.

Thank you for your very insightful and inspirational words and for your reference to the high level group report.

We here at the Parliamentary Assembly absolutely believe that there is a political imperative for a reaffirmed, renewed, reinforced and strengthened Council of Europe. And that should be done through a fourth summit.

We also believe that we need to look at a new generation of human rights.

Can I ask you what themes you think that we should prioritise to make the Council of Europe more relevant and more responsive to those that we serve, and of course the citizens that we represent, and to add to the beacon of hope that you mentioned.

Go raibh maith agat ['Thank you' in Irish].

 

 

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:58:42

Thank you very, Fiona.

Now I give the floor to Mr Lőrinc NACSA.

Mr Lőrinc NACSA

Hungary, EPP/CD

12:58:50

Thank you, Mr President.

Mr President, I'm right here behind you.

Thank you for your speech.

The cost-of-living crisis, aggravated by the war in Ukraine and the energy sanctions, hits hard also on our continent and economies and makes it inevitable for the European decision-makers to revise plenty of our previous strategic decisions. In light of today’s economic and political challenges, how do you assess the perspectives of green transition in Europe, with particular regard to the role of the non-renewable, but still necessary, fossil and nuclear energy production?

Thank you very much.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

12:59:27

Thank you so much.

Now the last question comes from Lord George FOULKES from the United Kingdom.

Lord George FOULKES, the floor is yours.

Lord George FOULKES

United Kingdom, SOC

12:59:34

Can I, as a Scotsman, join in the warm welcome to you President Michael D. HIGGINS.

This very afternoon in the House of Lords, we're debating the second reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

It's going to be opposed by people on all sides because of the threat it poses for conflict between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

What could you in Ireland do to try and make sure that this kind of conflict does not take place?

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

13:00:03

Thank you Lord George FOULKES.

Mr President,

Again three quite different questions. I have to ask you to answer as short as possible, but the floor is yours.

Mr Michael D. HIGGINS

Ireland, President of Ireland

13:00:15

Alright.

May I just say first, in response to Ms Fiona O'LOUGHLIN's question, I think it's very important that that ad hoc committee came from the Assembly itself. The questions affecting the efficacy of the Council of Europe and the possibilities for the future of the Council are not technical. They are more than technical, in a way, they are about, how, as I have said, the triumvirate can in fact interact with each other. I do think that it would help enormously to make for example the school system and the need in relation to communications. I think the idea of having advocacy groups explaining and relating to people of all ages is very very important.

And the difficulty about it is that those of us who spent our lives – it's 53 years since I first stood for election, unsuccessfully – but those of us who believe in democracy in many cases must value parliaments, but parliaments are not simply, you don't prepare parliamentarians. Parliamentarians are hearing and listening and representing. And that's why your approach it was so important.

In relation to our dear friends from Hungary, I think that we must remember when Ireland joined today's United Nations one of the areas in which it distinguished itself was in work against non-proliferation. And I have to say, when I was an active parliamentarian myself, I opposed very much the extension of nuclear capacity anywhere. I think, as well as that, we cannot go on and replace our discussion with others with threats of militarism. And there is a report in the European Union on the future of Europe. The future of Europe is not simply to be a military site, and I think that it's very very important that we... However we have to deal with immediate things now, and, as I said so, do so without impunity. But we mustn't lose our perspective.

I do think too, with relation to the question of the future of Europe, this tension between the European Union and the Council of Europe must be ended. What I have said in my speech, you can draw a very clear conclusion, is that when it comes to a clash between economics in the narrowest sense and human rights, economics trumps human rights. That's where we all have to speak out and simply say. That's why I believe, if we could imagine in relation to dealing with these issues of famine and hunger, even issues in Europe in relation to poverty, if we had a flow of universal basic services, you could then speak about the extras after that. But this is a, I very much share the view, that weapons expanded particularly in the nuclear, the invocation of a possible use of nuclear weapons in response is a whole terrible new idea to sink to.

I think in relation to the legislation that is before the House of Commons, I couldn't tell you, you know I am a non-executive president, and I'm reminded occasionally by our people about that, but I'm very careful about all of that, but I would say, I did say to it, about it, it is whether you are, wherever you come from in the United Kingdom, or wherever it is, you benefit from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Anything that interferes with the European Convention, damages not only us in Ireland, it damages people in the United Kingdom, it damages people in Europe.

I do think it is incredibly important. That's why. And indeed our friends in the United States, in Canada, in Australia and others, are very very well aware of the stress that we place on the Convention on Human Rights as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

But equally I do think it is a just reporting of what is on the ground available to everyone. Anyone who has some relative who's been killed, murdered, anyone who has been injured, from whatever part of Northern Ireland, none of them want a blanket immunity given to those who are responsible. And I do think, I think we need to get to a better place. Half my family lives in England, I'm one of the admirers I think that for example the British national health service was one of the great achievements of humanity. And we benefited from it, everybody benefited from it, and my hope is that we all get to a better place. I think it is possible.

As a head of state, dealing with the head of state, I might say relationships are excellent in relation to understanding, and I pay tribute to Her Majesty Elizabeth II the second for the knowledge that she amassed, the care that she had, the gestures that she made, and indeed, that King Charles III is making. I think this will all be very very helpful and may permeate through all the ranks of politics.

Mr Tiny KOX

Netherlands, UEL, President of the Assembly

13:05:57

Mister President,

May I thank you for all the words of wisdom that you have shared with us and the answer that you had given to our questions. I think we appreciated it all very much.

I wish you a good continuation of your visit.

Once again, bring our condolences tomorrow to the families and to beloved ones of those who died in this this catastrophe.

Once again,thank you very much for your grand lecture. We will reread it, and we will study it.

Thank you very much.

The sitting is closed at 1:10 p.m.