Introductory address on the occasion of the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament
Strasbourg, Thursday 24 October 2019

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Colleagues,

It is a great honour and pleasure for me to welcome you all today to Strasbourg for this European Conference of Presidents of Parliament, which is of particular significance this year as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe.

I am deeply convinced that the reason we are celebrating this anniversary is because Europe and, in particular, our fellow citizens need an organisation like ours. Indeed, our political mission – to build greater unity among European states in order to defend and promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law – is now more legitimate and important than ever. We therefore need to focus on all that we have achieved and establish the main lines of future action for our organisation. The themes chosen for our debates will guide us in our deliberations and, if I may, I would like to briefly introduce them.

In order to have a better idea of how the future will look, we will start by examining the state of our “European Common Home” as it celebrates its 70th anniversary. This home is built on a solid foundation but, given the rapid changes taking place in our societies, it faces many and diverse challenges.

First of all, there are external challenges with the growing question marks over our multilateral co-operation mechanisms. Today, we are witnessing a degree of disengagement in the multilateral implementation of international human rights standards. This is reflected in particular in the challenging of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and in a certain “politicisation” of fundamental human rights issues. In addition, frozen and open conflicts in Europe and at its borders are a considerable obstacle not only to international dialogue and co-operation, but also to our human rights protection system, as conflict-affected territories are “grey areas” in which individuals are de facto prohibited from accessing our mechanisms for the protection of their human rights.

As you are all aware, our organisation has had to face an institutional and political crisis in recent years. Fortunately, we have managed to shoulder our responsibilities. We must now move forward, but we must not forget our commitment to respect for international law, which must be fully reasserted through a frank and open dialogue between all the member states of our organisation.

Then there are the internal challenges to our democratic institutions and mechanisms. Faced with growing inequalities and the marginalisation of certain sections of the population, we are witnessing an erosion of trust in the institutions of representative democracy. At the same time, direct democracy mechanisms, coupled with the exponential advances of new means of communication such as social networks, are increasingly being used or even manipulated by populist or extremist movements.

Lastly, we cannot ignore global challenges such as, for example, digitisation and the ever-growing use of artificial intelligence, climate change and migration. In order to tackle these new challenges, we need to develop a human rights-based approach in order to continue to defend all that we have achieved for the well-being of our 830 million fellow citizens.

In this context, the role of parliaments is absolutely crucial. I look forward to hearing your ideas and proposals on what we can do together to meet these challenges and together write the narrative of the Council of Europe for the next 70 years.

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Dear colleagues,

I now come to the second theme of our debates.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is of particular importance to the Council of Europe and all our member states. This Programme seeks to implement human rights for all, without any discrimination, an objective that our Organisation has always pursued.

The Council of Europe is actively contributing to implementation of this Agenda. Many of our Conventions, such as the Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence against Women, the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime and our Conventions against Corruption, are open to non-member states of the Council of Europe. Accordingly, our normative framework can serve as a model for the development of worldwide regulatory provisions in several areas covered by the UN 2030 Agenda.

Here too, the role of parliamentarians is of particular importance and I am sure that by comparing our respective experiences, our debates this afternoon will enable us to identify good practices and avenues for joint action.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues,

Finally, I come to the third theme of our debates, but it is certainly not the least important. This is indeed a topical political issue, I would even say that it is a matter of some urgency.

Gender equality is one of the fundamental democratic principles: without equality, societies cannot develop in the best possible way, because it is inconceivable, in a healthy and solid democracy, to exclude half of society from decision-making processes and from the opportunity to fully exercise their capacities, to the detriment of society as a whole.

Inequality is expressed in a variety of ways, and sexism, harassment and violence against women are clearly the most subtle of these forms.

Exactly one year ago, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe unveiled a regional study on sexism, harassment and violence against women in European parliaments. The results of this study – which you have all received in your files – are staggering.

What can we do to reverse the trend? There are indeed several avenues, one of which is the Assembly’s initiative #NotInMyParliament. Tomorrow, we will have the opportunity to share our experiences in order to identify common courses of action. I hope that, thanks to the commitment of each and every one of us, the #NotInMyParliament initiative will grow into a real movement against sexism and harassment in all spheres of our societies, with endless possibilities such as #NotInMyOffice, #NotInMyCity, etc.

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Dear colleagues,

Let me conclude these introductory remarks with a few questions.

Before we begin our debates, let us ask ourselves why we have all come here today. What have we brought with us that we want to share and what will we take back home, to our national parliaments, after two days of intensive debates and bilateral meetings?

These questions are very important, because the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament is not only a place for exchanges and meetings but also an opportunity to deliver common political messages and launch joint initiatives.

What can we do to help strengthen the role of the Council of Europe in addressing the many challenges facing democracy, the rule of law and human rights? As you may be aware, we have embarked upon a major project to set up – through dialogue between the Committee of Ministers and the Assembly – a new joint procedure for responding to situations where one or other of our member states fails to comply with their statutory obligations. In order to supplement this work, we need political commitment at the highest level, within our Governments and Parliaments, and I count on your support.

At the same time, our internal procedures and mechanisms will have only a limited impact if we do not have the material resources to support our member states and provide our fellow citizens with the protection to which they are entitled. However, the zero nominal growth policy implemented in recent years has greatly weakened our organisation. As parliaments, we have budgetary responsibilities in our member states and we must therefore give serious thought to this issue in order to provide the Council of Europe with the financial means to fulfil its political role.

Returning more specifically to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, how can we, together, strengthen its political role and the impact of its action? Should we focus on just a few priority issues? Undoubtedly. However, let us not forget that our Assembly represents the voice of Europe in all its diversity and plurality. We must therefore ensure that it continues to be a forum for debate and exchange, without shying away from addressing the most controversial issues, because it is in our Assembly that we can set out the political guidelines for tackling the major challenges of the future. The active participation of all Assembly members in our work is therefore vital to ensure that our resolutions and recommendations receive the widest possible support from European parliamentarians.

Finally, how can we contribute to strengthening dialogue and co-operation on our continent? Let us remember that it was indeed through dialogue and co-operation that we were able to reconcile the continent after the Second World War and to eliminate ideological divisions after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, we must continue to vigorously defend our political role: that of building greater unity among European states in order to defend and promote – together – human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We have been building our Common Home for 70 years now and yet, if we do not show commitment and political will, there is a danger that it will crumble, leaving 830 million Europeans without any multilateral means of redress to protect their rights and freedoms.

I hope that these few questions and thoughts will guide the many bilateral discussions that we will hold during and in the margins of this Conference.

Thank you for your attention.