President of the French Republic

Speech made to the Assembly

Monday, 4 May 1992

Mr Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, Mr President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Madam Secretary General, ladies and gentlemen, I addressed your Assembly ten years ago. The distance covered since then is measurable: you have expanded, in keeping with a continent rediscovering its unity; you bring together representatives of all Europe’s peoples, and I appreciate the honour given to Strasbourg and to France in siting the new Human Rights Building here.

You were good enough to invite me to lay the foundation stone for this building, and I did so a few minutes ago. I congratulate Sir Richard Rogers, to whom we owe this project. I also wish to say how proud all Europeans feel today at seeing a monument built to which current events give particular significance, a monument bearing great hope and promise.

We are in a quite unparalleled situation. Peoples in the West, having fought one another for a long time, are now co-operating and building together an even stronger community, while the peoples of central and eastern Europe, hitherto denied both liberty an identity, are awakening and asserting themselves.

On the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of your Organisation, you had just welcomed the twenty- third member state, Finland. Democratic Europe was being reborn. It then appeared complete, but our joy could not be complete because there was the other Europe. I recall having then expressed our refusal to resign ourselves to that split.

I also recall that in July 1989, you agreed to receive Mr Gorbachev and on that occasion instituted special guest status with this Assembly. That was a symbol, and events have proved you right.

You have played a crucial role in making the values and ideals you represent more and more tangible and real. Does anyone need reminding that your Assembly was at the origin of the European Convention on Human Rights – I say this not for your benefit, but for outsiders – which has served as a constant reference point throughout the long years of division and suffering? It now constitutes one of the cornerstones of the edifice you have built and has been supplemented, since its entry into force in 1953, by ten additional protocols.

This Convention derives exceptional strength and its unique character from the supranational control mechanism set up to ensure the implementation of these rights, a system unique in the world and which now bears the hopes of the new nations of Europe.

I am personally very attached to this work. It was at the Congress of the European Movement at The Hague in 1948 – just count up the years! – where I was present, that the project for a Convention on Human Rights was conceived. I voted in favour of its ratification on 31 December 1972, and on taking up my present responsibilities I was determined that France should recognise the right of individual petition provided for in Article 25.

In that same year, 1981 – need I recall? – the French Government put before parliament the bill to abolish the death penalty. As a result, France was one of the first signatories of the sixth protocol.

More recently, in November 1990, I was keen for France to adopt, as soon as it was open for signature, Protocol No 9, extending to individuals the right to submit cases to the European Court of Human Rights, a right hitherto reserved to the Commission and to states.

Not only the Convention, but also the European Court of Human Rights and the case-law it has built up over the years, remain outstanding instruments for the protection of the rights enshrined. However, this remarkable system is in danger, to use the expression employed by the Swedish Chairman of the Committee of Minsters on 12 September 1991, of falling victim to its own success.

The figures speak for themselves: 2 273 cases are pending before the Commission, 1 408 of which have not as yet been examined; 59 cases are pending before the Court, of which 35 have not yet been examined. And yet the Court, which gave only 7 judgments in 1981, handed down 71 in 1991. So the new member states form central and eastern Europe which are ratifying or will ratify the Convention – which represents in their eyes, as you know, a great hope – risk subsequently having to wait five or six years before the first case concerning them is concluded, owing to the backlog of work facing the Commission and the Court.

Reform is necessary, for paralysis must be avoided. France is supporting and encouraging the efforts being made, just as it is in favour of a sizeable increase in the resources and staff of the Commission and the Court, the creation of chambers, and an increase in the number and duration of sessions. This is also why we in France wished to make a substantial contribution to the construction of the Human Rights Building whose foundation stone was laid a few minutes ago.

The Council of Europe can be, more than ever, the place where people speak of cultural brotherhood rather than antagonisms, of exchanges rather than ethnic rivalries, a place for dialogue and a meeting of minds. We must help ensure that the expression “rule of law” achieves its full meaning. Indeed, that is one of its most exalted tasks.

In our western countries, where there is something of a tendency to rail against regulations, we often forget the ills that can be caused by the absence of, or inconsistency in, the law. Our goal is to foster throughout Europe the establishment of law protecting persons and property, and not tolerating anarchy, or privilege, or subservience to the state, a delicate balance as you may imagine, with respect to which the work you do will serve as a reference framework for the peoples who wish to join us.

Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen, it is necessary to further broaden the scope of the law so as to encompass new realities, advances in knowledge, and especially the social, legal and ethical consequences of developments in the biomedical sciences.

You are working on an outline convention on ethics. France fully supports this work. It is itself currently preparing legislation on this matter.

The council has also taken judicious initiatives in the field of education: training for young people, teacher training, exchanges between schools and universities.

Please let us continue to enrich this heritage. I do not doubt that you will be equal to these demanding tasks. I wish to pay tribute to those who are involved in this work, notably the Secretary General, who devotes so much energy to extending your influence. I am also very happy to welcome today on the first occasion he holds this office, the man you have just elected President, for he himself is the bearer of several of our cultures.

The fact is that our continent is taking new shape before our eyes. It is happening around us. Some people regard the plethora of institutions inherited from the history of the past half-century of institutions inherited form the history of the past half-century as cause for concern, perhaps even as harmful. But since we are not starting from scratch we cannot arbitrarily fix a single framework within which all the changes to come on our continent will develop.

Each authority naturally tries to formulate an overall view which underlies its approach, and through which it seeks to enhance the importance of its own role; that is quite understandable. In the longer term, however, it will no doubt be necessary to simplify, to regroup. In the meantime, and for a long time to come, your task will be to ensure the most harmonious transition possible from one European order to another, giving substance to the set theory which I have called for. For this we could start with three principles.

The first is that each institution which is currently playing a part in establishing this greater Europe should develop to the full its own specific areas of competence. Let us take the example of security. Things are advancing well in the context of the CSCE. We shall be meeting in Helsinki, and France intends once again to help consolidate and renew this process, particularly with respect to the code of conduct between states, the prevention and peaceful settlement of conflicts, and crisis management.

Economic prosperity is of course the business of the European Community, but that Community has other aims; it also does a great deal for its external partners, especially through association agreements.

Likewise, the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are assisting in the rebuilding of central and eastern Europe.

Where then, does the Council of Europe’s path lie? Its present widening is a prelude to its renewal; I almost said its deepening. It would be a serious mistake to see the Council of Europe as a sort of specialised agency. When Churchill spoke of the United States of Europe, it was the Council he was thinking of.

Europe, today, is in need of a forum where a permanent, organised dialogue in conditions of equal dignity can be established between all the states making it up. I have called this future construction, perhaps to idealistic as yet, the Confederation. All imaginable criticisms immediately rained down. What is it exactly? We do not know what shape it will have! What will its powers be?

For me, it was very simple. Before we get enmeshed in the jungle of legal debate or the struggle for influence, it is simply a place where all the countries of Europe possessing democratic institutions could not only meet, but in addition could together establish permanent institutions equal in dignity, with spheres of competence no doubt less circumscribed than those, for example, of the European Economic Community, but touching on everything that enters into the everyday life of our citizens.

Where is Europe? What is Europe? Where can it be found?

Here, ladies and gentlemen from the countries of central and eastern Europe, now blessed with freedom, having won back your national and cultural identity, you are taking part in these international assemblies. You are the first delegates of one Europe coming to meet up with the other Europe. Where is this meeting taking place? Here in the Assembly, and that is a clear indication of its nature.

You are already a centre of impetus, a framework in which initiatives are taken. You do not confine yourselves to just being what is called a forum. You envisage joint action. You deal with vast and vital issues, the environment in particular, a field in which you carry through tangible projects: the Bern Convention on the protection of wildlife and natural habitats in Europe, European Diplomas for the regions most progressive in nature conservation, numerous campaigns to raise awareness in the context of your Naturopa project.

Thought could usefully be given to extending such action to fields which are, by nature and destination, pan-European. One can think of transport and communications, but also of many other subjects, so closely linked we are by lives increasingly similar to each other’s, so dependent we are upon one another, so vital is the active participation of all if Europe is to be united.

Above all, you base your work on the imprescriptible values which constitute the very essence of our heritage.

The second principle is to organise – and this will be more difficult – the sharing of work in a complementary way among the big institutions that are responsible for the transformation and the political, economic, technical and cultural shaping of Europe. This enterprise has of course already begun, but it needs to take a more methodical turn. There is already organised co-operation between the CSCE and the Council of Europe; there are numerous exchanges between the different organisations, but how are we to advance in a more ordered fashion?

There must be no formal hierarchy between the institutions, nor too rigid a framework for their action. Overlaps are inevitable; they may even be useful. So let us show flexibility and adaptability. From this very week on there will be twenty-seven states in your Organisation, since Bulgaria’s accession is announced within a matter of hours. By the end of the year you will number thirty states. How many will it be later? We do not know. Forty perhaps... Let us stop there!

Regular sessions at the highest level, properly prepared and within the framework of a precise agenda would have great political and symbolic value and would constitute an exceptional practice. Why not, for example, have the heads of states and governments of the Council’s member states meet every two years, alternating with the CSCE meetings? One advantage – quite secondary – would be that I would have the opportunity to come back here.

At the same time there could be more frequent sessions of the Committee of Ministers. Perhaps they do not already have enough to do? They will have to think about it. Your Parliamentary Assembly would naturally be a powerful lever for this new effort.

As for the specialised ministerial conferences, which have established a very regular practice of consultations in technical fields, they lead to achievements that are worth recalling. It was true of the revision of the European Social Charter in Turin in 1991 and, more recently, the harmonisation of penal law and computer law standards, the establishment of the Architectural Heritage Support Fund, and the support for European film-making through the Eurimages project. The list will grow longer, and it will be an excellent way of covering all human activities.

The third principle to be observed – should it really be necessary to mention it – is equal dignity between all member states. This is an essential factor because there is scarcely an institution where this applies to the weakest or newest member, the least well-organised – even though it will not always remain so – the country emerging from a bloody crisis, weakened by a power that has denied its identity for too long – I shall not name countries, but there are many which could appear on this unhappy list. I affirm here and now that such countries possess equal sovereign dignity to those which founded Europe several decades ago in the aftermath of the second world war, and whose peoples are now among the most prosperous on our continent.

I have already had occasion to point to the risks we would run if riches, wealth, influence, the means to act, the financial resources were all concentrated in a small group of states, which all the others would be tempted to join at all costs, without preparation or a common plan of action.

When I ventured to warn them, not so long ago, I was confronted with a tendentious interpretation of my remarks, as if I were rejecting the contribution of any European country whatever. This is not what I think at all. I simply wanted to say that enlarging the Community without preparation and without a common plan would be acting as if the countries which are at present net contributors to the Community were prepared, or able, to do more, or as if the countries in question were able to bear the extremely severe constraints of Community membership without seeing their identity vanished and their assets immediately acquired by foreign firms.

We need to prepare ourselves! We need to plan for the coming years so that we can come together once more and finally bring about this confederation that I look forward to. Let us not throw away this opportunity!

In the meantime, states must meet and work together without the question of differences in status arising at the outset.

This is why I thought, and said, that the Council of Europe could be one of the crucibles – and if it is ambitious and succeeds, the crucible – of this confederation which seems to me so necessary.

In any event, the need exists and can only increase. The best way forward is to conceive and, above all, to put into practice, this confederal approach without which nothing can be constructed.

Ladies and gentlemen, you know in the case of each of your countries, just as I know in the case of mine: the fight for democracy is never over. Some nations are tom between contrary aspirations; nationalism may go beyond legitimate love of one’s country; sectarianism is reappearing, that is to say expressing itself in rejection of others; there are threats of exclusion; fragmentation is gaining ground on unity. The history of this last half-century – perhaps more – perfectly explains these movements in Europe.

It will take some time yet before each nation, having recovered its identity, can boldly embark upon the next phase, which is to extend a hand and discover how we can unite, on foundations that I cannot imagine.

It is true that ethnic groups, communities, sometimes even factions, as if blinded by their new-found liberty, confront one another when they could be seeking the common ground of peace. Peace then vanishes, and with it prosperity. Compromise is called appeasement. Claims that are quite easy to settle in a democracy become sources of intractable conflict. It soon becomes impossible to use the vocabulary of ordinary political language, and the law of the jungle seeks to impose itself.

We stand in great need, in most urgent need, of common rules. They have already been defined. Now they must be put into practice. Europe, freed of these serious violations of law, must offer friendship and assistance to those who still need it.

If Europe has something to say to the world, it is that there is no inevitability in this sequence of events; it can be broken by attachment to fundamental principles, those very principles which are your raison d’être.

Will Europe, bruised by so many fratricidal wars, find fresh grounds for hope in this reference, which we have enshrined in the very Statute of your Organisation, to the spiritual and moral values that are the common heritage of these peoples and underpin the primacy of law on which all true democracy is founded?

There can be no mistake, for these principles are clear. Nor can we escape them. Once they are established, the way will be open for everyone to participate in the common task.

“The greatest danger threatening Europe”, wrote Husserl in 1936, “is weariness”. So, ladies and gentlemen, let us never grow weary. In order to act we need courage, determination, imagination. I hope, and I am determined to believe, that here in this very place these are the qualities that will flourish so that, together, you will be capable of making that great hope a reality.

I therefore urge you to do so. Incarnate a little more each day the great idea of a greater Europe. (Prolonged applause).

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

Mr President, believe me, it has been an enormous pleasure to have you with us today. Your reflections will certainly be a great inspiration in our current work.

In order to thank your, and so that you will always remember how much our Assembly, how much the Council of Europe, need France and its President, and how much they count on them, my colleagues have asked me to award you the pro merito medal, with which we like to honour our most distinguished friends.

I should like to add a personal note, to say how happy and moved I am at being the person to hand you this souvenir on behalf of the Assembly.

We are, you and I, Mr President, among those who have devoted their political work to the abolition of privilege. However, there is one privilege which, I believe, could legitimately give us pleasure today. I was a member, a very long time ago, of a small group of Spanish children who were able to complete their schooling at the French lycée in Madrid, just at the end of the second world war. So I was able, despite the dictatorship then holding sway in my country, to learn about the principles of the French Revolution updated by the values of the Resistance: liberty, equality, fraternity, secularism, democracy, human rights.

Thanks to France I therefore had the privilege of becoming European long before the rest of my compatriots. I had the privilege of fighting long before the others for those values that are the essence of the Europe which we love, which we desire and at the heart of which we nearly always find the ideas, and even the hand, of France.

Once again, thank your, Mr President and, above all, we hope to see you again very soon. (Applause).

(The President of the Assembly rose and presented the President of the French Republic with the pro merito medal). (Applause).