Speech delivered at the 128th Session of the Committee of Ministers
Elsinore, Friday 18 May 2018

To be or not to be Europe

Chairman, Ministers, Ladies and Gentleman,

It is thanks to the Danish Chairmanship that we meet in such an historic and fascinating location.

Elsinore Castle stimulates us to trace a link between Hamlet and Europe, but the parallel is not new.

1919, at the end of the First World War it was Paul Valery who spoke of the "European Hamlet" with words full of gravity. He situated the modern day European Hamlet looking at the millions of ghosts "on a vast terrace of Elsinore stretching from Basel to Cologne, touching the sands of Nieuwpoort, the marshes of the Somme, the chalk of the Champagne, the granite of Alsace…"

Almost 100 years on, we approach the 70th anniversary of the Council of Europe and we face the same dilemma. For Europe, as for Hamlet, the question is: To be a real community of States or not to be a real community. To be an active subject in the political arena or to be a passive object, a simple battlefield.

Before the First World War, Europe was the centre stage of the world, but it let nationalism pull it to pieces. Europe lost its status, and its weaknesses set the stage for the rise of fascism and national-socialism.

However out of the ashes of the Second World War came a realisation of the importance of unity, and in 1949 the birth of the Council of Europe. Unity was again the motivating force after the fall of the Berlin Wall, "a common European home", as expressed by Mikhail Gorbachev when addressing the Parliamentary Assembly in July 1989.

Where however is this unity today? We see divisions in Europe opening up like tectonic plates moving one against the other: nationalism and protectionism, populism, democratic crisis, corruption, cultural and religious divide, terrorism and even war and conflict between European states.

These difficulties must not frighten us. Our continent has sufficient resources to overcome them. But we have to keep our priorities clearly in mind.


Allow me to express my opinion on these:

The first is clearly defined in Article 1 of our Statute: "The aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members". Are we really working, day and night, to achieve this greater unity or are we just registering divisions and centrifugal tendencies with passivity and resignation? The history of the Council of Europe is a success story of increasing unification of the entire continent. It has not been easy and compromises have been necessary to achieve this goal. But we did it, and a stronger unity between our countries has led to better protection of the lives and rights of our citizens through our convention systems. If our unity is weak, so are our convention systems and the protection of human rights are put in danger.

We have to do our utmost to keep united. We have inherited a community of 47 member States from our predecessors and we cannot leave a divided or smaller community to the next generation. This would be an historical failure and a betrayal of our mission in Article 1 of the Statute.

The second is that we have to concentrate on our core mission, which is defending human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Defence issues or solving military conflicts is clearly outside of our mandate. This does not mean that we have to be indifferent in front of war and atrocities. On the contrary: we have to build "peace through law" and through all possible ways, old and new, and we have to denounce loudly human rights violations. Here our role is to protect individuals rather than governments, and if the Council of Europe does not focus on its core mission, who else can do this job? People are waiting for clear words on how to protect human rights in front of the new challenges arising from artificial intelligence, modern slavery, and so forth. If we exhaust our energies through our internal quarrels, how can we respond to these important expectations?

The third is that we have to implement what unites us. Europe is more than the sum of its 47 parts; it is a way of living together, a common heritage, a collective legal area, a shared human rights haven and a home of culture, which, for the moment, still remains a beacon for the rest of the world. Therefore we have to implement our Convention systems and promote a stronger European culture. 

This can be done through education and raising awareness. The Assembly is currently making a contribution to this by promoting the establishment of academic networks such as for the Istanbul Convention, the anti-corruption Conventions and the Bioethics Convention.

These and all the 222 treaties of the Council of Europe each have a history. They make up our European DNA and help to keep us united.

Chairman, Ministers,

The Council of Europe with its Parliamentary Assembly has been referred to as "the conscience of Europe".

Paul Valery wrote almost a hundred years ago:

"An extraordinary shiver ran through the marrow of Europe. She sensed, through all her thinking centres, that she no longer recognised herself, that she was no longer herself, that she was about to lose consciousness - a consciousness acquired from centuries of bearable misfortunes, from thousands of first-rate men, from geographical, ethnic, historical, countless chances."

Let us not lose that conscience or consciousness.