Opening statement at the Conference of chairpersons of committees of foreign affairs of national parliaments
Sofia, Tuesday 9 February 2016

Honourable Speaker of Parliament,
Deputy Secretary General,
Distinguished colleagues and guests,

Allow me to thank our Bulgarian colleagues for organising this Conference, for their warm welcome and hospitality.

It gives me a special honour and pleasure to be here with you today because this is my first major international activity as President of the Assembly and I am delighted with the possibility to visit Sofia, the capital of the country that currently chairs the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If I were to define the mission statement of the Council of Europe, I would probably not be able to come with a better proposal: "Building democratic security based on European unity and co-operation".

Indeed, sixty-seven years ago, the founding fathers of the Council of Europe assigned an important mission to our Organisation: achieving a greater unity between European states for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles of individual freedom, political freedom and the rule of law, which are their common heritage and on which true democracies are found.

During the sixty-seven years of our history, we have managed to build a common Pan-European legal space based on the principles of human rights, rule of law and democracy covering the whole European continent.

As pioneers of European unity, we pursued our mission after the fall of the Berlin Wall, opening up our doors towards the East in order to help new democracies rebuild strong institutions respecting human rights and complying with the rule of law. This was the starting point of a process of building a Europe without dividing lines. 

History has taught us that mature democracies do not wage war with each other. The key word is mature.

But by moving too quickly to create democracies without doing the hard work to create institutions to protect the rights of minority groups – work that can literally take generations – it will be more likely that the most ruthless thugs seize power in the territories concerned.

Our achievements are recognised Europe-wide and reflected in a number of our own texts. In this context, let me refer to the 2009 report by one of my predecessors – Jean-Claude Mignon – on "the future of the Council of Europe in the light of its 60 years of experience".

The conclusions of this report are clearly relevant today: our achievements are great, but so are the challenges we are facing. Our mission is far from being complete.

Seventy years after the end of World War II, 40 years after the Helsinki Final Act and 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is still not at peace within itself.

The process of reconciliation and Pan-European unification started in 1989, but cracks have appeared in the last few years. "Frozen" and "burning" conflicts, especially on our Eastern borders, represent a real threat to Europe's unity and stability.

To this, we must add the many challenges that undermine our fundamental values - democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

There are numerous issues, but I would like to highlight three which I believe have to be addressed as a matter of utmost priority.

First, international terrorism constitutes a fundamental, multi-faceted danger.

In our times, both state and non-state enemies will seek more asymmetric ways to challenge our countries and our allies. When they fight us conventionally, they are defeated in days or weeks. However, when they fight unconventionally, by employing terrorism or guerrilla tactics, our traditional response mechanisms may not be that effective and our societies and institutions have to adapt to better defend themselves.

Second, the refugee crisis, which has triggered much debate about European identity and values.

Third, the wave of left and right-wing populism, rising nationalism and the erosion of democratic principles and human rights affect our cohesion and our capacity for joint action.

These challenges and threats interact, fuelling and exacerbating each other. They have a global dimension and affect all of us. No country alone can find an effective response.

Dear colleagues,

It is my strong belief that the Council of Europe has the necessary strength, capacity and tools to address these challenges.

Our strength – is our unity around our values and it is very symbolic that the Bulgarian Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers has chosen this idea as a motto for its activities.

What unites us are the values, principles and ideals that form our common heritage – democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

These values and principles are the cornerstones in the foundations of a Europe without dividing lines.

A Europe based on the understanding that we have common interests which are stronger than divisions and that we have to pool our efforts together in order to be a solid and successful global player.

A Europe of states with

  • solid democratic institutions built on the principle of political pluralism and checks and balances;
  • independent judiciary that guarantees the respect of fundamental human rights and freedoms  and of the rule of law;
  • free and vibrant civil society and media immune from outside interference.

A Europe based on mutual respect and dialogue.

A Europe of democratic security and co-operation.

Ladies and gentlemen

Our today's conference is an opportunity to reaffirm our political commitment to building democratic security in Europe as well as to discuss action – by the Council of Europe and our Member states – in the face of the challenges we are facing.

We are democratic and open societies and we have to be aware of the threats to our security, stability and institutions. Therefore, we have to find means to protect ourselves.

We must not forget that we have to be militant democracies and we have the legal basis for that.

The Council of Europe standards – our conventions and the so-called "soft law" instruments – as well as the numerous reports and Resolutions by the Parliamentary Assembly on the various aspects of democratic security will – I am sure – provide a lot of food for thought for our discussion and we are looking forward to listening to the presentation by the Deputy Secretary General in order to put things in a broader context.

Allow me also to remind you of the Conclusions of the European Conference of Speakers of Parliament, held in September 2014 in Oslo, which reaffirmed – at the highest political level – the commitment of Europe's Parliaments to focus on what unites us: the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law enshrined first and foremost in the European Convention on Human Rights whose 65th anniversary we celebrated last year.

On 15-16 September 2016, the Speakers of Europe's Parliaments will meet again in Strasbourg and I am confident that our debates today will provide a lot of interesting background ideas for their discussions.

Finally, I cannot but welcome the idea of our Bulgarian colleagues to follow up within the framework of this conference on the idea of organising a new Council of Europe Summit. You will remember that the Assembly launched this idea in 2009, in the report on the future of the Council of Europe which I referred to in the beginning of my presentation.

The Secretary General of the Council of Europe called, in the 2014 report on the State of Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Europe, for a Council of Europe Summit devoted to Democratic Security. The Assembly backed this idea in the Sofia Declaration adopted by our Standing Committee in November last year and our Political Affairs Committee has been seized to prepare a report on this issue, so as to make a substantive contribution to the preparations of the Summit.

Therefore, our today's discussion will help us move one step further towards the concretisation of this idea.

Thank you very much for your attention.