Inaugural speech
Strasbourg, Monday 27 January 2020

Dear Colleagues, Dear Members of Parliament,

I would like to thank you all from the bottom of my heart, for placing your trust in me, for giving me this honour and also for setting me a challenge. I hope I am up to the task of earning your trust. In any case, I will do everything I can, with the whole team, to deserve it.

You do me a great honour. Let me explain why: I am Belgian, as many of you know. It should however be noted that the first-ever elected President of our Assembly was a great Belgian, Mr Paul-Henri Spaak, he was one of Belgium's finest statesmen and also one of the founding fathers of our institution and of Europe itself. Unless I am mistaken, it seems to me that one day he said: "if I have to choose between a perfect Europe and a better Europe, I will choose the better Europe, because the perfect Europe does not exist, but the better Europe we can create ourselves". I do indeed think that this is something that suits this Assembly well, namely that, at all times, every day, every week when we work together, we must try to make a better Europe for the 830 million citizens in the 47 member states of this Assembly.

I am going to be a full-time President. I should therefore like to thank certain people, three women: the President of my Party, the President of the Belgian Senate and my group leader in the Senate. Three women who all three decided to give me the flexibility and freedom to be your full-time President. I must also thank someone else: my wife, Sophie, she too has given me the freedom to be able do so. This will be recorded in the written report: Sophie, I adore you.

Having said that, let's get back to the matter at hand.

I hope that this will be translated in the right way; it's not about following like sheep, it's about getting back to business.

Ladies and gentlemen, Madam Secretary General, Ambassadors, President of the Committee of Ministers, Mr Ambassador of Georgia to the Council of Europe, Mr Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly, and all of the 85 staff members of the Secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly, my fellow Members of Parliament.

They say it takes two to tango, Madam Secretary General, I say: it takes three to dance. Why? Because in the Council of Europe we are not two, we are three. We are the Committee of Ministers, we are the Secretary General, and we are the members of the Assembly. We have proven in the recent past, we will continue to do so this week, and next week you will do so in the Committee of Ministers, that we can achieve important results if we work together. So, yes, it takes two to tango, but here it takes three to dance. And if I were to translate this into a kind of political language, then I would say, we are going from dialogue into “trialogue”.

So, I would like to ask the Georgian Presidency of the Committee of Ministers, and all of you in the Committee of Ministers, as well as yourself Madam Secretary General, and we in the Assembly, to look and see how we can institutionalise this trialogue. Why? Because it has already given results, it will continue to give results this week, and it will give more results next week. And I believe that, whatever we do of substance in the Council of Europe, at the end of the day it needs to be the result of all three of us working together, not just one of us, but all three of us.
This is why I believe that today we need to work together on this complementary procedure. Not because it will be a procedure to sanction a country, but because it will be a procedure that will allow a country that strays too far from our principles to get back on track: this is what it is all about.
It also means that the three of us should cherish, protect and uphold all the Conventions, all the Protocols and European Conventions on Human Rights that exist. We should do this together. It is not solely the responsibility of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe or the Commissioner for Human Rights. Neither is it the sole responsibility of the Committee of Ministers. Nor is it just our responsibility as a Parliamentary Assembly. It should be the joint responsibility of all of us.

And so, yes, there are more than 200 Conventions and Protocols, not only the European Convention on Human Rights. And if I had to mention just one, well, I would mention the Istanbul Convention as being an example of what we should defend and uphold at all times. Equality between women and men, gender equality, will be high on the agenda of the coming year, and I am sure the Assembly will agree and follow me on this.

But we also need, dear colleagues, to do new things. I believe that any presidency, any Assembly activity should bring results, and in my opinion the Georgian Presidency is setting a very good example by taking the excellent initiative this coming February, of organising a high-level conference on the connection between human rights and the environment. This is definitely an issue we should address. At the end of the day, we should not let the European Court of Human Rights rule on the basis of connecting human rights to environmental issues without giving them a basis to work on. I believe we should have a Protocol on climate allowing the Court, and giving the Court, a fundamental base on which to have rulings concerning these issues. It will be a controversial one, Madam Secretary General, but we need to do it, because otherwise we risk having some kind of organic jurisprudence growth, going who knows where, with no support from the Committee of Ministers and not supported by the large majority of this Assembly. I know that this is normally something the Committee of Ministers itself does.

Let me again get into the logic of the trialogue. If I may, if I am allowed to do so, next week, I will put on the agenda of the Committee of Ministers a Recommendation that has existed for over ten years in our Assembly. Ten years ago, this Assembly, by more than a two-thirds majority asked you, the Committee of Ministers, to start the procedure on the Protocol concerning climate or environment. I will do so again: I hope you will allow me.

But at the end of the day, I hope that we can do this together: Committee of Ministers, Secretary General, and also us as the Parliamentary Assembly. Why? Because, ladies and gentlemen, Ambassadors, at the end of the day, whatever the result, it needs to be approved by our own national parliaments. For the parliamentary element, it is important for us to have it up front instead of maybe having a problem at the end of the day, so delegates need to support this, among other, very important potential protocols or treaties from the outset.

I also, dear colleagues, will change slightly the way we work and have already had discussions with Mr Wojciech Sawicki, Secretary General of the Assembly. As always, he is firm with me and with all of us, but in the weeks ahead we will discuss how to potentially change the way we work, not only with respect to the trialogue, but also how we work in order to get results. It is not enough to talk, we need results. Politics by results. We need to have a significant impact on the daily lives of the 830 million citizens within our 47 countries. I like to talk a lot, but more than that, I like bringing about results that will really change the daily lives of people.

In this respect, as Mr Boriss Cilevics said at the beginning of the sitting, involving all national parliaments is very important and I would like to pay official visits to all 47 member states. To do so, I will need you, Ambassadors, to assist me on this. I will need Vice-Presidents - to be appointed shortly after this short speech - to help me on this. Why not have some kind of “expedition” to the 47 countries in order to show people how important the Council of Europe is in terms of daily life in each and every member state. We need to do this because we are relevant and we have a lot of impact, only people do not know this. If we are able to show it, then maybe the relationship between the Council of Europe and our national Parliaments will become closer and bring about better results.

Let me end with just one general thought. I will try to capture it in a chiasmus, which, as you know, is a Latin figure of speech. I would like to share the thought "interests divide but values unite". We are all here, mandated by our national Parliaments, but I doubt that we are sent here just to defend our national interests. By their very definition, interests between countries will divide them, because they cannot always be the same. Values, on the contrary, are something that unite us. Because we have all signed the European Convention on Human Rights, we all adhere to the same values. And yes, at some point in time, interests will divide, but at all times values will and have to unite. So, lastly, I would like to concentrate on uniting our Council of Europe, defending, upholding the values written in the European Convention on Human Rights, namely democracy, rule of law, and human rights.

Finally, and I said this a few months ago in this very Assembly Chamber, I do not feel that the Council of Europe is the Council of European countries. My feeling is that we are a “Council of Europeans” all defending the same values. And, although you might think this may sound strange, when we are all equal in the face of these values, it does not mean that we are the same. Being equal does not mean being the same, but it does mean cherishing, defending and upholding the same values. That is what is called unity in diversity. This is what the Council of Europe is all about. This is what I would like to uphold, and this is what I would like to defend. This is, dear colleagues, what I would like to do in the coming two years, to work together with you in order to have results so as to uphold our values, but to have, as I said before, results.

And who knows maybe a Protocol on climate might be one of these. There may be others too. We will give high regard to any initiative coming from the Committee of Ministers, but above all I hope many initiatives will come from you as members of the Parliamentary Assembly.

Thank you, again, for the incredible honour you are giving me. Thank you, again, for the confidence you place in me. And let me end by saying one thing. It is a challenge and I know, because together with the political group leaders we have been through difficult times, but I really would like to end with one word to Ms Liliane Maury Pasquier. She was President of this Assembly at a difficult time, but she has done a remarkable job. She has navigated us through these stormy times and brought us to the point where the three of us, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee of Ministers and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe are able to agree on initial elements of a complementary joint procedure.

In French I would say: chapeau, Liliane! Really: chapeau, Liliane for the way you did this. Vous êtes une grande dame. If after my two years as President of the Assembly, if I get only half as much credit as you, then it will have been a success. Thank you, again, and let us get to work.