Prime Minister of Belgium

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

said that it was an honour to be invited to address the Assembly. He thanked the President and the members of the Assembly for that invitation. Both he and the President were champions of the European case. It would soon be time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome. It was therefore good to be in Strasbourg, the symbolic birthplace of European co-operation. He was glad to have heard the debate on child victims, as this was an issue of importance in Belgium. Children were often vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Member states had been preoccupied with child victims elsewhere in the world, but victims also existed in European homes. This was why Belgium was happy to see that the Council of Europe was working on the draft protocol on the protection of the child.

The European Union had a commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights and was opposed to all forms of violence and terrorism. There were many different institutions within Europe, but only one Europe. He was glad to hear that the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development had all expressed their anger at recent assassinations of journalists. All these institutions were different in dimension; for instance, the Council of Europe covered almost the whole of the continent. They also had different methods: integration was essential for the European Union, intergovernmental co-operation was important for the other two. Their objectives were all to reinforce the work of each other at the very foundations of civil society.

The task of the Council of Europe was to be a guardian and promoter of human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. The European Union was more concerned with governance in the overall context of globalisation. The main aim of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was to increase security, and it worked on a global scale.

The Council of Europe had an essential mission as the founding institution. Security without freedom had little value. Member states should ensure that three requirements were met. First, there was the fundamental importance of human rights and especially the work of the European Court of Human Rights. Member states should be respectful of the Court’s rulings. This could be time-consuming but would reinforce the report’s authority. Secondly, there needed to be a commitment to respect the spirit as well as the letter of the Court’s ruling, and to take account of the other bodies of the Council of Europe. Thirdly, measures needed to be set up to ensure the Court was able to operate within its present work load. There were 89 000 outstanding cases which together threatened to overwhelm the Court. It was important that Protocol No. 14 should be improved to ratify the way in which the Court functioned. He congratulated the Group of Wise Persons on yesterday’s report.

The Warsaw declaration indicated a clear way forward. The Council of Europe was dedicated to this essential mission. Through these methods, everyone present needed to support the objectives of human rights, democracy and the rule of law and spend less time on peripheral issues. An enormous task still remained. Human rights and democracy were continually being challenged. It was essential to concentrate on ensuring cultural and religious diversity in Europe.

The Council of Europe was particularly well equipped to listen to the voices of citizens. Members who sat in the Council of Europe had a double mandate to represent citizens at their national parliament as well as the Council of Europe. They were therefore in an ideal position to represent the views of European citizens.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe played an important role in promoting local democracy. At its next ministerial conference in the autumn, it would continue to pursue this mission.

There were also areas peripheral to the Council of Europe’s central mission which were nevertheless of significance. These areas, which included emancipation and empowerment, could create circumstances favourable to the protection and promotion of human rights. Examples of Council of Europe programmes in such areas included youth education and the promotion of tolerance and social cohesion. It was important, however, for the Council of Europe to concentrate on its key areas of responsibility.

The Council of Europe’s other peripheral responsibility was to engage in healthy and constructive co-operation with other international organisations. Cultivating coherence of action between international organisations was desirable, but absence of progress in one body should not preclude work in other bodies on other topics. In the course of its 2006 presidency of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Belgium had gained valuable experience on this issue. The 2005 Warsaw declaration had also expressed the importance of co-operation between international organisations. The political will to dissolve conflicts should be demonstrated.

Tomorrow, the Parliamentary Assembly would be discussing the subject of Kosovo. The next few weeks and months would prove crucial for Kosovo. The contribution of several institutions, including the Council of Europe, would be needed to help resolve the situation. The aid provided by the Venice Commission had been greatly appreciated.

The Council of Europe and the OSCE needed to pursue greater co-operation to face joint challenges. These challenges included preventing terrorism, eliminating human trafficking, promoting tolerance and non-discrimination and protecting minorities. Belgium had made a contribution to the improvement of relations between the OSCE and the Council of Europe in recent years, including through high level meetings held during 2006. By adopting the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Union had taken on board the core values of the Council of Europe. The European Union and Council of Europe were together preparing for the moment when they would make up the constitutional face of Europe.

He fully supported the Juncker report, which had made several recommendations relevant to the Council of Europe. It had made mention of several joint European Union and Council of Europe programmes. One laudable example was the establishment of a reliable judiciary in the Balkans.

In terms of the negotiation of the memorandum of understanding between the European Union and the Council of Europe, European Union member states were in an ambiguous position. This was because they formed a majority within the Council of Europe. The memorandum of understanding would form a foundation for the promotion of human rights and freedoms, in the cause of promoting pan-European unity. It had the potential to improve co-operation between institutions and to help embed the European Neighbourhood Policy. He hoped that negotiations would be concluded satisfactorily soon.

Much had been said within the Parliamentary Assembly about the risks entailed in the establishment of a European Union Fundamental Rights Agency. Close examination of the rules under which the agency would be established should reassure those who were sceptical. The Fundamental Rights Agency would act only within community law, and its actions would be geographically circumscribed. The agency had the potential to promote education, gender equality and intercultural dialogue within Europe. It would promote co-operation between the European Union, the Venice Commission, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe and the Human Rights Commissioner.

His speech had concentrated on the Council of Europe’s central mission and its relationship with other organisations. It had been said that the Council of Europe was undergoing an identity crisis, but he remained optimistic. The OECD, the Council of Europe and the European Union had been born in the aftermath of the Second World War, while the OSCE had been established during the 1970s in order to help finish the Cold War. Since 1989 the European continent had undergone radical change. This change had occurred in a context of worldwide upheaval, and institutions had to adjust accordingly. The task of European institutions was to defend tolerance and equality, in order that democratic values would win the day. This would take substantial effort.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

thanked Mr Verhofstadt, and said that the Prime Minister had given a comprehensive view of Europe, which attested to his firm commitment to Europe. Council of Europe members sometimes found it hard to understand why it was easier to take a decision to set up a new agency, at significant cost, than to provide the €100 million needed by the Council of Europe. Significant costs were also incurred by the European Parliament moving between its two headquarters. Attention should be paid to the important contribution made by the Council of Europe. The European institutional architecture was very important and Mr Verhofstadt had been correct to draw attention to the dual mandate of members of parliament who were part of the Council of Europe. He called Mr Frunda to take the floor.

Mr FRUNDA (Romania)

Prime Minister, you confirmed your country’s commitment to European values. Can you inform the Parliamentary Assembly of the stage of ratification by Belgium of four conventions open for signature and ratification at the Council of Europe summit Warsaw in 2005? Those are the Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism, the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, the Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds of Crime and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.


Thank you. I ask members to stick to thirty seconds because many of you want to ask questions. Mr Verhofstadt, would you like to answer?

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium

Most of those conventions are now being discussed in parliament. On the Framework Convention, there is a discussion between the federal government and the competent communities about the definition of a national minority. Once they have come to a conclusion, ratification will follow.


Thank you. I will allow supplementary questions at the end and only if time permits. I call Mr Eörsi.

Mr EÖRSI (Hungary)

I compliment the Prime Minister on his speech and assure him that all liberals in the Chamber were very proud to hear such a good liberal speech.

I am jealous of you, Prime Minister, because you were ahead of me in referring to a United States of Europe. I am sorry that I was not the first to do so. In the short time available, can you elaborate a little on this wonderful idea?

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium

You are right, Mr Eörsi, to say that you were not the first to use those words. It was Winston Churchill, a British citizen, who first used the term “United States of Europe”, in a paper on the future of Europe. Like you, I think that it is necessary to take forward political integration in the European Union. The EU is not only a common market or an economic market; it is certainly not an intergovernmental organisation. The EU has to be more than that; it has to be a political union. That is why I used the idea of a United States of Europe, comparing it to the United States of America, not in substance but on the basis of the political idea.

As you know, in the 18th century the United States was created with a constitution. That was fundamentally changed in 1787 following the Philadelphia convention, which introduced the qualified majority rule. In 1787, there were 13 states in the United States. One of those, Rhode Island, was a rough state and was against everything. I make no comparison with anyone; I am talking only about the United States in 1787. In that year, the United States changed the basic rule of unanimity to a qualified majority rule, and from then on it was sufficient to have nine states in favour a new rule for it to be adopted. Unanimity of 13 states was no longer required.

So, from the time of the Philadelphia convention, one could say that the United States changed from being a loose confederation to a political federation. We must take the same step. The big problem is that we are talking only about the future of the constitution. I would like us to reach a consensus in the coming year. We should forget the whole constitution and consider only one article: abolishing unanimity in the Union and putting the qualified majority rule in place. That would resolve the big problems that the Union is facing. Perhaps that could be the basis of a declaration of Berlin that the German presidency is preparing.


Thank you. Allow me to say that I could not agree more. I call Baroness Hooper on behalf of the European Democratic Group. I hope that she agrees, too.

Baroness HOOPER (United Kingdom)

I thank the Prime Minister for his speech. Although he did not refer to the wider world outside Europe, including the troubled region of the middle east, I wish to ask his views on Turkey’s membership of the European Union, given that Turkey has a pivotal role to play in the middle east because of its geography, history and its established democracy, and given that Turkey was a founding member of the Council of Europe and continues to be an active member, especially in the Parliamentary Assembly.

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium

I am in favour of Turkey entering the European Union and the European community, just as I am in favour of Balkan countries entering. The best way to deal with conflicts and problems in Europe is to enlarge the European family because that will improve stability and guarantee peace inside and outside the European continent. In parallel with that, we must deepen the European Union. It will be impossible to have a European Union including Turkey and with 32 or 33 members – for me, there could be 35 or 40 member states – if we do not have several constitutional rules to guarantee that the Union can function well. We must continue both enlargement and the deepening of European institutions by way of a European constitution. If there were a unanimity rule along with further enlargement, we would reach a point at which the process would be blocked.

A state or political institution that cannot function because of the unanimity rule will disappear. At the end of the 18th century, Poland disappeared because such a rule meant that decisions could not be taken. We must enlarge and have Turkey as a member in the future, but that must be done properly by applying the Copenhagen criteria and the acquis communautaire. We must also reach a conclusion on deepening the Union and making its functions smoother.

Mr MANZELLA (Italy) (interpretation)

said that the state of relations between the Council of Europe and the European Union was an important consideration. The inclusion of the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of Nice in the European Union constitution was an issue. He asked Mr Verhofstadt what he thought about the meeting of countries that had already ratified the constitution in Madrid. He also asked about the Berlin declaration of 25 March.

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium (interpretation)

noted that Italy would attend the meeting in Madrid. It was good for members of the European Union family to meet in order to decide a course of action. There was a tendency to hear too little from those who had ratified the constitution and too much from those who had not. He hoped that the declaration on Europe would express the determination of all European Union leaders to continue the amazing adventure of uniting the European Union. The declaration on Europe was not a solution to the problem of the constitution but it could be a first step to finding a resolution.

Mr IWIŃSKI (Poland) (interpretation)

thanked the President.

(The speaker continued in English) Given the quality of your longstanding public activities and the fact that you are one of our most experienced European leaders, it would be particularly interesting, with reference to what Mr Manzella said, to know more clearly your position on the future of the so-called European constitution. Do you think that the ambitious plan of Mrs Merkel could be implemented? If not, to what extent do you think that the situation could have a detrimental effect on the functionality of many international institutions on this continent, including the Council of Europe?

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium (interpretation)

said he hoped a solution could be found to the impasse on the constitution. He was very aware that people were saying that parts of the constitution should be dropped. However, this was a dangerous exercise. People would want to continue dispensing with parts of the constitution and, in the end, not much would remain. The best way forward would be to be more ambitious and to look at what could be added to the constitution. In the 1950s, there had been a similar crisis over the future of the European Union. The French National Assembly had refused to countenance the European Economic Community. In response, the founding fathers of the European Union had gone ahead with the Masséna declaration of 1955. This had established a European economic community rather than the European defence community initially envisaged. It was interesting to read the Masséna declaration. The declaration had not yet been implemented, but it mentioned all kinds of joint policies, including social and employment policies.

Mr GROSS (Switzerland) (interpretation)

said that Mr Verhofstadt was in the right forum. There had been a resignation over the Convention on Europe.

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium (interpretation)

said he would not resign. Elections would be held on 10 June. Not even the opposition was asking him to resign.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

commented that he would wait for the result of the elections.

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium (interpretation)

said it was important to strike a balance over the constitution. People were certainly trying to drop important parts of it. Those who wanted to make the European Union a more political federation should come out and say this openly in order to counter the views of those countries that had not ratified the constitution nor submitted it to their electorate. Those countries where the electorate had rejected the constitution had at least had the nerve to put it to their public. Other countries were hiding behind France and the Netherlands.

Mrs MITREVA (“The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”)

Belgium is one of the founders of the EU and is committed to enlargement. My country earned the status of candidate in 2005 but is awaiting the start of negotiations. The perception is that the current situation in the EU – l’état des choses – is creating new conditions for candidates and is slowing down the noble process of unifying Europe. Don't you agree, Mr Prime Minister, that danger lies in delaying?

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium

That danger exists but, as I have said, I am very much in favour of bringing all the Balkan countries into the European family. That is the only good way of stabilising the situation. Putting those countries into the EU is better than putting 10 000 troops on the ground.


Thank you. There are three members remaining on the list and I would like to get all of them in. I call Mrs Becerril Bustamante.

Mrs BECERRIL BUSTAMANTE (Spain) (interpretation)

said she wished to withdraw her question as it had already been answered.

Mr MOTA AMARAL (Portugal) (interpretation)

said he had noticed that Mr Verhofstadt’s speech had not mentioned illegal immigration, and how illegal immigrants were treated and deported. He mentioned the operation of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union.

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium (interpretation)

said it was important to distinguish between those who were political refugees and those who were not. If the Geneva Convention were abused, its acquis would be lost. He supported countries in favour of applying the Geneva Convention in the strictest sense. It was necessary for the European Union and the Council of Europe to begin a debate on legal migration. The system was being abused because migration for economic reasons was not being allowed.

Mrs FETLIŃSKA (Poland)

Mr Prime Minister, your state is known for its good organisation and its friendly attitude to not only its own citizens, but to immigrants. A large number of people want to settle in Belgium. What are Belgium’s future plans towards immigrants?

Mr Verhofstadt, Prime Minister of Belgium

As I have said, I am in favour of a good policy on migration. We have taken a number of initiatives, and we will open our labour market to new member states of the European Union in the middle of 2007.


That brings to an end the questions to Mr Verhofstadt. I thank him most warmly on behalf of the Assembly for his address and for the answers he has given to questions. It is always inspiring when politicians have profound convictions, because without conviction one cannot convince. I believe that we lack leaders in Europe who stand for the important new architecture of Europe. We need a strong European Union, and it is necessary for the Council of Europe to add value to that.