Opening statement, June 2016 Part-Session
Strasbourg, Monday 20 June 2016

Dear colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Once again, I am obliged to open our part session on a sad note. Terrorism continues to hit our citizens and our institutions. All of us were shocked and outraged by the recent deadly attacks in Istanbul, Turkey, Orlando, the United States, as well as the most recent attack on police officers in France.

As Europeans, we have to condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms and stand united with our fellow citizens who have been and continue to be affected by these terrorist atrocities.

I would also like to express our solidarity with the family of Jo Cox, UK Member of Parliament, who passed away last Thursday after a brutal attack. She was a victim of a terrible crime fueled by hate. We must strongly condemn this attack and stand up against hate!

I would like to ask you to observe a minute of silence.


Dear colleagues,

The recent attacks are deplorable acts of terror, intolerance and hatred. Our response must be to uphold our democratic values and freedoms.

Terrorism seeks to destroy our way of life by instilling fear and propagating hate. We must not fall into the trap of terrorists. We must not allow this barbarism to triumph over democratic values and liberties.

Upon my election as President of the Assembly, I proposed launching an initiative to mobilise politicians, important actors in society and ordinary citizens against terrorism, and the hate and fear that terrorists seek to create. Today, shortly before 1 pm, we are going to launch officially a hash-tag initiative #NoHateNoFear.

I invite all of you to join me at 12:50 h in the Assembly Chamber to take a symbolic photo with the #NoHateNoFear banner.

A #NoHateNoFear stand has been put in place outside the Chamber and I encourage you all to visit the stand, have your picture taken and express your solidarity with the victims of terrorism. We must show an example and send a clear message to our voters: we shall not give in to fear and hate!

Dear colleagues,

We may be living in difficult times, but not all news and developments are bleak.

I would like to welcome in our Chamber Ms Nadiya Savchenko, our colleague and member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly. A month ago, she was released from detention and returned to Kyiv. Last week, two more Ukrainian citizens sentenced in Russia were pardoned and returned to Ukraine. We should welcome this positive step too.

Madam Savchenko, this house of democracy is now also your house and we look forward to your contribution to the work of the Assembly.

Your release – as well as the release of Mr Afanassiyev and Mr Soloshenko – demonstrate that diplomacy can help resolve even the most complex problems and I would like to encourage Ukraine and Russia to seize this opportunity to intensify diplomatic efforts in search of a peaceful solution to a major conflict and crisis that has repercussions throughout Europe and beyond.

It is particularly important that all sides fulfill their commitments to implement a credible ceasefire in the East of Ukraine, release all hostages, organise free, fair and democratic elections according to international standards, also in areas outside the control of the Ukrainian authorities and - finally - return to Ukraine the full control of its international borders.

Dear colleagues,

In addition to the release of Ms Savchenko we have seen other important releases of political prisoners and I would like to welcome the release of the Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. As you know, the release, earlier this year, by the Azerbaijani authorities of a large number of political prisoners was a very positive step. With this new release, we see the continuation of this positive trend that we must support. We should continue to engage in a constructive political dialogue with the Azerbaijani authorities, so as to help them fulfill their international commitments in the field of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Dear colleagues,

Three weeks ago, an Assembly delegation travelled to Greece to visit reception centers for refugees in and around Athens as well as on the Island of Lesvos. I am grateful to the Greek authorities and the Greek delegation to the Assembly for efficiently organising this visit within a short timeframe. The visit was a moving experience for me and - I am sure - for all those who participated.

Today, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Malta and Spain – as well as other frontline states, and countries of transit and destination – must cope with a disproportionate share of Europe's responsibility to care for refugees and asylum seekers.

During our visit, we could see for ourselves that Greece was doing what it could to provide sufficient reception places. But Greece – and other countries – need more of our support because providing for refugees and asylum seekers is a European responsibility and a European response is needed. This responsibility must be shared more fairly between European States, which must meet their obligations on resettlement and relocation.

Tomorrow, we will hold a debate on the situation of refugees at risk and hear the report of the Assembly delegation that travelled to Greece.

The address to the Assembly of the Prime Minister of Greece, Mr Alexis Tsipras, on Wednesday will also be an opportunity to discuss how Europe could better support Greece as well as other frontline states and countries of transit and destination.

Today is World Refugee Day and an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to international refugee obligations and standards. Providing for refugees and asylum seekers is our legal duty and, as parliamentarians of the Council of Europe, we must ensure that every person arriving on European soil benefits from the same protection regardless of the country they arrive in. Our task as Parliamentarians is to take this message back home and remind our governments of their responsibilities and obligations.

To symbolically mark World Refugee Day, may I invite you to leave an electronic message at the stand of our Ad Hoc Committee on the situation of refugees in Greece which is located outside the Assembly Chamber. I visited the stand this morning before the start of our part-session and left an electronic message. I encourage you to visit the stand and do the same.

On World Refugee Day we have to be realistic. The refugee flow is not going to dry up while instability on Europe's Southern borders increases.

There are no easy solutions. More co-ordination is needed among European states, and between Europe and the United States, to address the root causes of the current refugee crisis. We need to strengthen our efforts to build a functioning government in Libya and to stop the fighting in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. We have to provide a lot more assistance to bolster security and development in sub-Saharan countries like Gambia, Nigeria, Eritrea, and Ghana.

These are costly and politically challenging programs, especially at a time when xenophobic nationalists and populists are fanning public resistance to immigrants and refugees. But, we cannot be the African ostrich that puts its head in the sand if we want to tackle the root causes of refugee flows.

Dear colleagues,

I have said on a number of occasions that populism is a threat to our democracies. Populism seeks to undermine the dynamic of a competitive and open political debate.

Populism is often a consequence of a rigid and stagnant democratic system that provokes public disillusionment in difficult times, especially, during an economic crisis.

Counteracting populism is a serious challenge which requires a realistic and genuinely European response. It should be one of the priority activities of our Assembly. I shall concentrate on this issue within my activities as President.

Dear colleagues,

As I am drawing my introductory remarks to a close, allow me to share with you some general impressions from visits that I have made to our member states. Since January, I have been to Azerbaijan, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria and Estonia and I had meetings in the EU Institutions in Brussels. In these countries I could see the important role the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly are playing.

The aim of our Assembly is to contribute to the implementation by all member states of the ideals, principles and standards of the Council of Europe. Our role is to provide support and advice to governments and parliaments so that they can strengthen their countries' democratic institutions, uphold the rule of law, protect human rights, and seek peaceful solutions to the conflicts that divide them.

No member state is perfect – there is always room for improvement as shown by our own reports as well as by the Reports of the Secretary General on the State of Democracy, Rule of Law and Human Rights in Europe.

At the same time, we should acknowledge that there are many ways to build strong and vibrant democracies, efficient systems of human rights protection, strong and independent judiciaries, and also deep-rooted rule of law cultures in our societies.

Each society should work in its own way because we should also recognize the uniqueness of culture, history and experience.

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago expressed skepticism over institutional models being transferred from one country to another, arguing that customs would resist such imitation. Trying to alter the attitudes of the individuals by imposition may make people think that they are wrong, which could be interpreted as an attack.

In other words, our role is to help; not to impose.

Ultimately it is up to the leaders, the authorities and to the citizens themselves to find the best models that would correspond to their needs and situation.

Dialogue must be a favoured tool to achieve this. We have to work together with our member states: we have to listen and talk, share thoughts and ideas, put recommendations forward, suggest solutions.

The Assembly must play to the full its role as a pan-European forum for political dialogue among democratically elected members of parliament from the Organisation's 47 member states.

We must keep open the communication channels with our interlocutors and explore all possibilities for dialogue offered by parliamentary diplomacy.

Because, I firmly believe that our common interests in protecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law, both at national and international level, are stronger than the issues that divide us.

We must shoulder our responsibilities to address – in a frank, open and committed manner – the difficult points and disagreements that exist among us. In this context we should not ignore our vocation to be an Assembly of 47, not 46.

We must work together to resolve our disagreements so as to continue building a Europe without dividing lines, thus realizing the dream of our Founding Fathers.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is a big week for Europe, we have the elections in Spain but also the issue of Brexit. The people will decide!

Thank you for your attention.