Queen of the Netherlands

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 25 June 2002

Distinguished members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, it is with much pleasure that I accepted your invitation to address you at this gathering. You have thus offered me an opportunity to express my great appreciation of the important part that the Council plays in Europe.

The city in which the Council is established has for centuries been a point of convergence where Europe’s roads meet. With its historic centre and its famous cathedral, Strasbourg is one of the most impressive manifestations of European civilisation. However, this city and this region also remind us of the nationalistic passions and the resulting fierce conflicts that are equally characteristic of our European past. Nowadays, however, the name Strasbourg primarily calls to mind the process of reconciliation and co-operation that has marked the history of Europe since 1945 – a process that began with The Hague Congress in 1948 and the foundation of the Council of Europe.

The importance of the work that your Council does can hardly be overestimated. The Council of Europe is not only the oldest of the European institutions, it is also the body that links the greatest number of countries. Your Council laid the foundations for the European edifice that was constructed after the war.

European integration is an unusual, indeed unprecedented, form of unification because it was imposed neither by conquest and oppression nor by dynastic interests and royal marriages. Instead, it is the result both of cooperation between equals and of determination on the part of states and peoples. Here, countries are judged not by their size or their political weight, but by the way in which they put the principles of democracy into practice. It is a community based not on power but on law. This unique form of co-operation has never previously existed and can be found nowhere else in the world.

The circumstances in which the Council of Europe was founded were very different from those of today. In 1948, Europe was a continent in ruins. For the second time in thirty years it had been almost razed to the ground in a total war that also claimed unimaginable numbers of civilian victims. It is not surprising that after 1945 the quest for peace prevailed over everything else. Nationalism, which had often riven Europe so deeply, had to be overcome. This Council, and later the other European institutions, were conceived in the light of that quest.

So it was that the envisaged European co-operation and integration came into being, not in accordance with a preconceived plan, but by continuing to steer a common course even in stormy weather. The achievements of this post-war Europe now seem obvious, but we must be aware that they are not the consequence of a fortunate whim of fate or an inevitable historical process; they are the result of the will and conviction of the peoples of Europe and of the imagination, courage and perseverance of the leaders of the day.

European unification, in all its forms, is precious. However, especially because of this progressive integration, the awareness has grown that unity must not lead to uniformity. Europe would not be Europe without the multifaceted expression of its rich diversity. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that the cultural identity and the distinctive character of the different European countries and regions be acknowledged and preserved. The people of Europe would not feel at home in a Europe that did not do justice to this pluriformity. The great Dutch cultural historian and convinced European Johan Huizinga stated that most clearly in a speech that he gave to American students in 1924 when he said: “What we envy you is your unity, not your uniformity. We Europeans feel too keenly that no nation, however prosperous or great, is fit to bear the burden of civilisation alone. Each in his turn is called upon in this wonderful world to speak his word, and find a solution which just his particular spirit enabled him to express. Civilisation is safeguarded by diversity. Even the smallest facets in the many-sided whole may sometimes catch the light and reflect it.”

Therein lies the distinctive task of the Council of Europe, for it not only clearly demonstrates that all the countries represented here form one community, but embodies the national, regional and local diversity of that community. We in Europe are faced with the task of doing justice to the identity of every country, without invoking the dangers of nationalism and power politics. In doing so, we must remain conscious of the mistakes made in the past and reflect on what makes Europe truly Europe – on the values and beliefs that form the foundation of our civilisation.

That is not an easy task, for the words “Europe” and “European civilisation” have no single meaning that is generally accepted. Opinions also differ on where the limits lie of what we consider to be Europe. Still, the founding fathers of our community had a clear idea in mind. Their Europe was not only a political but a cultural concept. Europe stands for a particular civilisation, with its roots in a common heritage, a shared past, centred on Christian and humanist values that are translated into respect for human rights.

That is precisely the field in which the work of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, created by the Council, is invaluable, for this is where the individual citizen can turn directly to an independent European judicial body. Accordingly, the Court’s judgments have great normative value. Countries that are criticised by the Court usually find it most unpleasant – we know about that in the Netherlands from our own experience.

Vigorous debates are held in your Assembly on such issues as human rights, democracy, good governance and the fair treatment of minorities, in order to exchange ideas, convince one another and seek solutions. Here, too, account is rendered for the policies pursued in the different countries of Europe. In that way, your members learn from one another’s experiences and develop a better understanding of one another’s problems and of differences in customs and traditions.

The Council also makes informal recommendations on desirable reforms and advises on procedures to achieve them. The aim is to support the countries of eastern Europe, involving them as much as possible in the process of European integration. The influential Venice Commission plays an important part in the search for political solutions to problems and in drafting legal safeguards for democracy. Very gradually, a European political culture is coming into being, based on the pre-eminence of law.

The Council carries out important work in the fields of education and culture. There is a clear connection between those two areas. It is necessary for the pupils of Europe’s schools to learn about more than just their own language and culture. One cannot do enough to give education in our schools a European dimension and to encourage international exchange programmes for pupils and students. A knowledge of European history is also of fundamental importance.

During the nineteenth century, European states primarily developed their own national identities. Although that was probably inevitable at the time, it entailed a definite limitation. In the course of the twentieth century, the realisation grew ever stronger that alongside the national identity there was also a European identity. We are now increasingly aware that the citizens of Europe belong to several different social networks, each with a character and significance of its own. The Europeans of the twenty-first century are citizens of their community or town, their region, their country, and of Europe. That is why it is most important that the Council is not only active at national and European level, but focuses, too, on local and regional organisations. Representatives of those bodies meet one another in the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, a forum that brings the Council very close to the citizens of Europe.

As a marketplace for ideas, the Council of Europe occupies a special position within the complex of European institutions. The fact that you are members both of this Assembly and of your national parliaments ensures a fruitful interaction between your mission in Strasbourg and in the different countries of Europe. Although the Council’s formal powers are limited, your work is certainly not without consequences. A great moral authority emanates from your discussions and decisions. Accordingly, one might call the Council of Europe’s influence Europe’s quiet strength. A Europe marked by further expansion and rapid change has more need than ever of that quiet strength.

The Council develops and tests the criteria for the rule of law throughout Europe. More and more, it operates as the conscience of Europe. The people of Europe are made aware of that by the frank and open debate in this truly supranational parliament, which finds a response in the forty-four parliaments of which you are also members.

The French writer Joubert said, “The purpose of debate is not to win but to change things for the better.” Anyone observing what has been achieved here in a few decades can see clearly that this conviction has always been the guiding principle of your Assembly.


Your Majesty, the Assembly sincerely thanks you for the honour that you bestow on us by visiting the Council of Europe and delivering that most interesting address, full of profound knowledge of the Council of Europe and its human rights activities. The ideas and proposals in Your Majesty’s wonderful address concerning the human dimension and relating to the education of young people will inspire us in our future work. Thank you again.

I adjourn the sitting for five minutes.