Løkke Rasmussen

Prime Minister of Denmark

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Mr President, Mr Secretary General, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to stand here today in the heart of Europe and in the halls of the Parliamentary Assembly, as many leaders of Europe have done before me. Almost 70 years ago, 10 nations took the first step to form the Council of Europe. Denmark was one of them. Since then, both Europe and the Council of Europe have come a long way.

Today, 47 member States constitute one of the most important institutions created in Europe since the Second World War. For decades, the Council of Europe has protected and promoted the core values of Europe – human rights, democracy and the rule of law – with great success. The Europe of today is a better Europe – much better. None of us is able to predict the future, but we are obliged to learn from the past.

Throughout its history, Europe has been the cradle of democracy and a centre of enlightenment. But as we all know, it has not always been a continent of peace and freedom. In fact, no continent on earth has produced as much conflict, suppression and man-made devastation within the last 2 000 years as Europe. Yet, on the ashes of the Second World War, true leaders and visionaries wanted to ensure that the darkness of war and prosecution would never again haunt Europe; and, to uphold the peace, the European Convention on Human Rights was born.

The Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights are true jewels. It is our job to make them shine.

Today, the principles of the Convention still constitute the moral and legal guidelines of our European family. The standards of human rights are higher than in any other region of the world. We continue to pursue even better protection of the rule of law standards – standards against which we measure the success of our societies. We must cherish this legacy given to us by the leaders of the past, but we are also obligated to future-proof the solutions of the past and make sure that they fit the challenges of our time.

My ambition is clear. I want to hand over an even better Europe to my children and grandchildren – a Europe where democracy, human rights and the rule of law are upheld as the core values and guiding principles for our everyday life; where no one is exposed to torture or degrading treatment; where prejudice does not taint human relations; where equal opportunities for women and men flourish; and where our children are raised to become the democratic citizens of tomorrow. This requires international co-operation and binding legal rules based on the broad support, ownership and commitment of member States and the people of Europe.

Denmark is – and always has been – a strong supporter of the European human rights system. This is the exact reason why the main priority of the Danish chairmanship will be the continued reform of the European human rights system. An effective human rights system is a benefit for all of Europe. That is why we need an ongoing, honest and open debate about how we ensure the relevance and effective functioning of the Convention system, building on the successes we have achieved and confronting new challenges as they arise. And there are challenges, right now and when looking into the future.

First, there is the significant challenge of inadequate national implementation, particularly in relation to serious, systemic and structural human rights problems in some States. Let me give an example that has given rise to a heated discussion in Denmark. In recent years the Court has clearly identified the problems that several member States face in their prison systems. It has also advised what measures are necessary to solve them. Yet the problems remain in several countries. This is unacceptable not only to the people who are serving their sentences in those prisons, but also to the countries that actually do live up to the minimum standards under the Convention. It is simply not fair that countries such as Denmark end up housing foreign criminals because of the poor prison conditions in their home countries.

Secondly, there is a challenge concerning the interpretation of the Convention. The question has been asked as to whether the Court goes too far in its interpretation and leaves too little room to the national democracies. It is no secret that we have had such discussions in Denmark too. We have seen cases where it has been considered a violation of the right to family life when hard-core foreign criminals are deported to their home countries – decisions that I honestly cannot understand and that do not resonate with the general public’s understanding of human rights.

Questions related to the Court’s jurisdiction and authority are sometimes perceived as an unpatriotic swipe at human rights and the Strasbourg Court. That could not be more wrong; it is quite the contrary. If we care about human rights and preserving the authority of the Court, we must also be able to discuss the difficult questions, openly and honestly. If not, we risk losing public support for human rights and – this is important – we risk losing support more broadly for international co-operation, which would be one of the biggest failures that our generation could produce.

Thirdly, the challenge of the Court’s caseload remains a serious problem. Today, applicants with potentially well-founded complaints regarding serious violations of human rights have to wait for years for their case to be resolved. This is unacceptable.

We have to deal with these challenges together. Together we must remain committed to continuously improving the Convention system, and to taking the necessary steps to ensure its relevance and effective functioning. We need a system that is tougher on countries that do not fulfil their human rights obligations. At the same time, we need a system that does not interfere too much in countries that take human rights seriously. There are indications that the Court is moving in the right direction, and that is very positive. We must support and encourage this development. Important results have been achieved: the efficiency of the Court has been improved; the need for more effective implementation has been emphasised; and, above all, the principle of subsidiarity has been strengthened.

In order to ensure the continued positive developments, in April Denmark will host a conference for ministers in Copenhagen to adopt a political declaration that gives new impetus to the ongoing reform of the Convention system. The process started in Interlaken in 2010 and has continued in İzmir, Brighton and Brussels, and it provides an important opportunity for member States to set the future direction towards a more effective, focused and balanced Convention system – a vision that I fully support. The Convention system was never intended to replace our national institutions in the first place, or to act as a court of fourth instance. Not only is it practically impossible for 47 judges in Strasbourg to handle appeal cases from more than 800 million people; it also risks making the Convention system less relevant, instead of making it an embedded part of our national systems. The system should empower national authorities to do their job.

We should not forget that the member States are the primary protectors of Convention rights. In doing so, they should be given reasonable room for manoeuvre – a margin of appreciation – subject, of course, to the supervision of the Court. This constitutes the concept of shared responsibility. With Protocol No. 15, subsidiarity will move into the text of the European Convention on Human Rights itself. This signals an important step forward towards a better balance between the national and European levels of the Convention system. A key priority for our chairmanship is to ensure that Protocol No. 15 comes into effect. Since we initiated our campaign, eight member States have ratified, but six have not. We encourage those remaining member States to follow suit.

I see absolutely no contradiction between believing passionately that human rights are important and at the same time believing that some decisions that relate to human rights are more appropriately decided at national level. The way forward is to reform in order to preserve, while maintaining focus on the core pillars of the Organisation: human rights, democracy and the rule of law. For a system of shared responsibility to work, there must be an ongoing dialogue between member States and the Court. No one has an interest in a Convention system that is perceived as out of sync by member States or the broader public. This requires an effort from all sides. The Court must listen to member States and their concerns, but as member States we must also communicate more clearly and directly with the Court, explaining our concerns and positions, including on sensitive and difficult issues. Ladies and gentlemen, we hope for the support of all relevant actors in the Council, including the Parliamentary Assembly, in addressing these important issues.

Seventy-one years ago, the late Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed a great vision. He said that “we must recreate the European family in a regional structure… and the first practical step will be to form a Council of Europe.” That vision became reality. Churchill and his fellow European leaders wanted to reform Europe and make it shine in order to replace darkness with light. They succeeded. Today we need to ask ourselves how we can ensure that the universal rights of the past will continue to be our guidelines in the future. History has taught us that the best way forward is an open-minded and constructive dialogue on the challenges we face and an ambition to make progress. With necessary and clever reforms, we can strike the right balance, and by doing so we will enhance the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights are true jewels. It is our job to make them shine.

Our vision is clear. The tracks have already been laid out and now we must move forward. We hope for your support in doing so. Thank you very much for your attention.


Thank you, Prime Minister, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have questions to put to you. I remind them that questions must be limited to 30 seconds and no more; colleagues should be asking questions, not making speeches.

The first question is from Mr Vareikis of Lithuania, on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Mr VAREIKIS (Lithuania), Spokesperson for the Group of the European People’s Party

As the President said, I am from Lithuania, a Baltic State. Prime Minister, 25 years ago your country was the most active promoter of integrating that region into the European structure. It was a geopolitical idea from Denmark. What kind of geopolitical ideas have you now? Are you promoting the integration of some other regions into Western Europe as soon as possible, as you did for us a quarter of a century ago?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

Thank you for that question. I think I should stick to a short answer. Our approach is still exactly the same as it was years ago. I am truly a believer in an integrated Europe. I represent a small country with an open, market-oriented economy and we have gained all our prosperity through interaction with our neighbouring countries. That is exactly why I think we should put more emphasis on solving these challenges, which are common challenges. It is also why we should put more effort, especially in the European Union, into securing our external borders, because if we do so we can continuously work towards a more open and integrated Europe.

Ms STRIK (Netherlands), Spokesperson for the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group

Prime Minister, you mentioned the importance of an effective human rights system. Do you agree that independent interpretation and application of the Convention by the Court is a crucial condition for that? In several member States, we are now seeing the concerning results of the loss of independence of judges. Can you ensure that your proposals refrain from putting any form of pressure on the Court? What concrete measures do you propose to solve the practical challenges that you referred to, such as lack of compliance or implementation of case law by member States?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

I can assure you that I am a total believer in an independent judicial system. That is why we have engaged so much in this discussion. It goes without saying that the Court is challenged by a heavy caseload, which is a problem that we have to solve, as I mentioned in my speech. Among many problems, I draw your attention to the fact that some member States have not embedded the Convention in their own national judicial systems. That is a crucial point of interest. It is why the whole idea of shared responsibility and a closer dialogue between the Court and member States is so crucial.

Mr HENRIKSEN (Denmark), Spokesperson for the European Conservatives Group

It is good to see you here today, Prime Minister. On behalf of my group, I have two questions. First, will you kindly inform the Assembly how far the Danish Government has got in its approach of securing the endorsement of a different interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights to make it easier for member States to deport criminal immigrants, as well as securing member States’ right to a national agenda in legal and immigration matters? Secondly, will you give your assessment of the development of the human rights situation in Russia and Ukraine?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

In addition to what I mentioned in my speech, I can tell you that we recently facilitated a high-level expert conference in Kokkedal, a city close to Copenhagen. We invited member States for an open and constructive debate on key issues. Thirty-nine member States took part, which I interpret as a clear commitment from member States to moving forward. It is our intention to move forward with negotiating; hopefully, we will adopt a declaration in April or May in Copenhagen. Our ambition is to adopt a political declaration that takes stock of the current reform process, proposes new measures to strengthen the Convention system and provides guidelines for further reform work.

One of our many ideas is to make it easier for member States to intervene in cases before the Court and argue their case. That is a specific priority for us. Just this morning I had the opportunity to discuss with the President of the Court what we are doing. I see absolutely no conflict. Everybody is eager to protect the human rights system, but we have to solve different challenges at the same time. They include not only the Court’s caseload but the fact that, as I mentioned, we should give greater room to manoeuvre to those countries that actually fulfil their human rights obligations.

That leads me to a short answer to your last question. Without going into details, let me say that it is obvious that we are faced with the reality that human rights are violated in some member States in some specific areas. On Ukraine, the human rights of all people in Crimea must be secured, in accordance with the relevant Council of Europe instruments, particularly the European Convention on Human Rights. All parties must display constructive engagement with that, and I express my full support for the Secretary General in his endeavours. Let me add to that by saying that Denmark is very much engaged in Ukraine and has taken the lead in promoting good governance and the rule of law there. As I have said, there are still challenges linked to that.

Mr BILDARRATZ (Spain), Spokesperson for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (interpretation)

Prime Minister, some years ago Denmark decided to undergo an institutional reform and I would like to know about its effectiveness, especially in terms of the identity of democracy; we are even talking about changing constituencies. You always affirm that one has to look after people from the closest institutions. So how, 10 years later, do you assess the result of the institutional reforms? After the Gothenburg Agreement, and in the new social plan, is it possible to complement the social policies that you pursue with the new social pillar created by the European Union?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

I am not convinced I am answering the right question, but I can reflect on the social pillar. Being Prime Minister in what I regard as a well-functioning social nation with a long tradition of providing equality and opportunities, I think this European debate about social cohesion is of great relevance. It was a good and important step forward that we had this meeting in Gothenburg a couple of months ago, where we agreed in principle about social guidelines. We now have to implement these ideas. In order to do so, we need a fully fledged strategy, because this is also about competitiveness, closing the skills gap and labour market reforms – it ain’t easy. The most important signal I could give today would be to say that we cannot ensure this only by a decision taken in Brussels or in Strasbourg; each nation State has a responsibility here and there is some homework to be done. I am proud that in Denmark we have a long tradition of bringing all the social partners to the negotiating table. Most recently we have adopted tripartite agreements, which will perhaps serve as an example to be followed in other countries. If we do not solve problems that are close to people, where we are talking about the challenges linked to migration or unemployment and, in particular, youth employment, we will lose the support of the people. This is indeed an important question, and I thank you for drawing my attention to it.

Mr CROWE (Ireland), Spokesperson for the Group of the Unified European Left

Prime Minister, the European Union has established the Permanent Structured Cooperation – PESCO. My party, Sinn Féin, opposed the creation of PESCO, because we believe it will further militarise the European Union, which is unnecessary, and will create a European army, which is unwanted and dangerous. For those reasons, and because it would undermine Ireland’s policy of neutrality, we campaigned against Ireland’s involvement in PESCO. Denmark has opted out of PESCO, an approach I very much support. Can you explain the Danish people’s particular concerns about joining this European military alliance?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

I am afraid I will disappoint you a bit, because personally and politically I am in favour of Europe taking greater responsibility in this area of security, given the new security situation in our neighbourhood. For legal reasons, Denmark cannot participate in this, because we have a legally binding opt-out on European Union defence policy. We would need a referendum if we were to opt in instead of opt out, and I do not think this is the time for referendums. So you cannot interpret the fact that we are not joining PESCO as a signal that Denmark is against this idea; we are a core member of NATO. The new Administration in the White House and the security situation in our neighbourhood, about which I will not go into details, mean it is obvious that Europe must pay more attention to this area. Given that Denmark is a NATO member and a member of the European Union with this legally binding opt-out, my priority is to ensure that we do not copy and paste capacity within the NATO framework and within the European Union framework; we have to make sure that the European strategy creates real added value to what is already going on in NATO.

Ms GAMBARO (Italy), Spokesperson for the Free Democrats Group

Prime Minister, we appreciate your strong commitment to human rights and the Council of Europe’s core values. How do you think the Council of Europe could bring all member States together into a common place where human rights are respected in the same way?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

I do not think there is an easy answer to that question. A lot of hard work is being done and we should continue what is already going on – meetings such as this one, with a conversation and dialogue such as this one. Again, I refer to my first intervention and this whole idea of bringing not only experts but politicians together in an open-minded dialogue about how we should create and protect the best possible European human rights protection system. All of us need to speak out when we see violations of human rights. I will stick to that; it would be nice if I could invent some shortcut, but there is no shortcut – we just have to continue the hard work. I admire the job done in this body, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. If we look in the history books, we see they are full of concrete examples of people who have gained freedom and had a much better life due to interventions from members of this body. You should take this as a strong signal to continue what you are already doing.


That was the last question on behalf of the political groups. We now continue with the speaker’s list, and we will have groups of three questions.

Ms DURANTON (France) (interpretation)

Out of 175 States ranked, Denmark has for several years been No. 1 on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. Congratulations on that. How do you explain that situation, and how could Denmark help other countries to make progress in combating corruption?

Mr HOWELL (United Kingdom)

It was highlighted in the press recently that Denmark pays millions of krone annually for mistaken arrests and detention. Would you like to comment on the Danish justice system and the country’s preparedness to deal with terrorism?

Mr SCHWABE (Germany) (interpretation)

The debate on the Council of Europe’s human rights mission is not new. The Court has been discussed, and we need to look at what has happened. One of the Assembly’s most important tasks is to protect the European Court of Human Rights, and we have to meet that challenge. What can the Committee of Ministers do to better support the Court?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

First, I will give a short response to our colleague from the United Kingdom. I think you will find the answer in Denmark’s very well-functioning judicial system. That leads me to my answer to the last question. It could hopefully serve as an example for others to follow. That is why I am so engaged in the idea of shared responsibilities between the national and European level, so that we can at the European level concentrate our resources and energy on countries that are really challenged.

Ms Duranton asked about Denmark’s position with regard to corruption. There is a national and an international angle to the answer. On a domestic level, you will find the answer in the transparency of Danish society. Denmark is a small country, with only 5.8 million people, and it is very well organised. A couple of years ago we made structural administrative reforms, emphasising efficiency at the municipal and regional levels. The smallness of our country, the fact that our system is so well organised and perhaps also the fact that Denmark is an equal society in comparison with other societies are the reasons behind the fact that we are No. 1 on that list, which I am proud of. That also gives us an obligation to reach out at an international level. We have done so and will continue to do so. The fight against corruption is a fight in favour of personal freedom and the possibilities of taxpayers and people in our societies.

Mr De BRUYN (Belgium)

I would like to express my appreciation for the plans by the Danish chairmanship to hold a conference on the theme of “Private and family life: achieving equality regardless of sexual orientation” as an adjunct to the meeting of the PACE Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination in Copenhagen in March. On other fronts, there have been serious setbacks to the rights of LGBTI people in some European countries, particularly in Chechnya, Azerbaijan and more recently in Turkey. What steps does Denmark, as chair of the Committee of Ministers, consider can be taken by the Council of Europe to address those issues?


In your speech, you mentioned the lack of implementation of the Court’s rulings, but what concretely does the Danish chairmanship plan to do about that? What is its concrete proposal? Will that be part of the Copenhagen Declaration that the Prime Minister plans to get approved by the end of the Danish chairmanship?

Ms SCHOU (Norway)

One of your priorities for the chairmanship is to stimulate the involvement of children and youth in democracy. I fully support that goal. Education on democratic citizenship and human rights is a prequisite for upholding and strengthening the European human rights system in a future Europe. What is your main initiative to strengthen the involvement of children and youth? Is the European Wergeland Centre a central part of that goal?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

Thank you for three very important questions. I apologise that I will probably not be able, within the time I have, to answer them in detail.

The first question was about LGBTI+ people. Fighting in favour of tolerance and protecting minorities’ right to live their own life is probably the most important thing. That is basically what Europe and civilisation is all about. That is a key priority for Denmark, not only in relation to our chairmanship but in many other areas. I am proud that Denmark has been chosen to facilitate WorldPride and the big European sport event related to it in a few years’ time.

Even though we have come a long way, we still have challenges – perhaps not so much in our legal system, but among people. If we want to promote equal opportunities for everybody and the right to live your own life, it is not only about political initiatives and new legislation. It is also about continuing dialogue and debate. That is going on in this very body, and I very much support that. I encourage you to continue to voice public criticism when countries systematically violate the human rights of LGBTI+ persons – for instance, by banning Pride events.

To my colleague from the Danish Parliament, Mr Søndergaard, I say that, yes, there is a lack of willingness in certain countries. I am not in a position here to point the finger, but I just mention the very obvious fact that there is a challenge that we have to face if we want a more efficient human rights protection system in Europe. That is among the things that we are going to discuss in the lead-up to the meeting in Copenhagen. I discussed with the President today the whole idea of how we can secure the embedding of the Convention in national judicial systems. That is among the answers to that question. We have to follow that up and find ways of including it in our final declaration.

Children’s education and gender equality are among the five priorities of our chairmanship and, as Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess mentioned yesterday, together with this Assembly, we will organise a conference in Copenhagen focusing on good practice and inclusive policies on family and private life for same-sex couples. We will facilitate a seminar entitled “Democratic culture: from words to action” in April in Copenhagen. That will be based on the Council of Europe toolbox for teaching democratic citizens. I totally agree that everything starts in childhood and we should give our youngsters – the next European generation – the tools with which they can act and live in a democratic society. That is also a way to avoid radicalisation, to ensure integration and to understand that people can be different; we have just discussed the LGBTI question but others could also be mentioned. It is a way forward to overcome these differences among people.

Ms HOFFMANN (Hungary) (interpretation)

Illegal immigration and parallel societies resulting from that phenomenon constitute a serious risk to security and a major challenge to European societies. We need a strict and systematic immigration policy, such as Hungary and Denmark have applied, to protect European citizens. Through what means could you successfully reduce illegal immigration so as to guarantee citizens’ security?

Mr ZINGERIS (Lithuania)

Thank you Prime Minister for your broad and concise answers. I have two tiny questions. One is related to this Assembly. In 1960, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, led by the chair of the Danish delegation, Madame Lowzow, passed a resolution on not recognising the occupation of the Baltic countries. How will we preserve her memory? She was a prominent figure in European life who died in 1986. We need such Europeans to be remembered as examples.

Ms De SUTTER (Belgium)

We have heard you pleading for reform of the European human rights system. You want to make it easier for member States to intervene directly in Court cases and call it “shared responsibility”. But can you address the fear that this could risk the deterioration of the human rights system, leading to the belief that human rights are not universal but subject to the subsidiarity principle, which could lead to cherry-picking?

Mr Løkke Rasmussen, Prime Minister of Denmark

The principles are universal. There is no discussion about that. I thank Ms De Sutter for raising that question because it gives me an opportunity to emphasise that. I put absolutely no question mark over the fact that human rights are universal, and in this pan-European context. We should discuss with an open mind how to establish the best system to ensure that these rights are fulfilled and that people are protected in reality. In that discussion, it is a fact that there is a severe case load right now. We should try to solve that problem. One way, among others, is to engage the national level more. That is the original concept: human rights should be implemented at national level. But in reality, if you look at member States, you will see clear differences between them. Some member States produce many cases to the European Court, some produce fewer. You cannot just conclude that the countries with the big backlog of cases are necessarily the ones with the biggest problems. It could also be linked to the fact that, at national level, for technical reasons or owing to tradition or whatever, they do not take the Convention into account in the proper way.

If there is closer working between the national level and the Court and – excuse my bad English – we could teach these countries better to integrate or implement the Convention, we could avoid cases at European level. We could then move our focus to the cases where we have severe problems. It is crucial to state that the rights are universal but there is shared responsibility for ensuring that they are fulfilled in reality.

To my Lithuanian friend, may I say that I am fully aware of the remarkable role Marie-Antoinette von Lowzow played in history, when your country did not have the same freedom and democracy that it has today. I am very grateful to you for bringing her name up. You asked about how to preserve her memory, but you did exactly that by drawing the attention of the Assembly to her many achievements, one of which was her work on the resolution about the situation of the Baltic States under the Iron Curtain.

Finally, I come to the big question raised by Ms Hoffmann. I fully agree that in order to ensure social and cultural cohesion in Europe, we have to find ways to solve illegal migration to Europe. There is no quick fix. We need to implement a fully fledged strategy and, among many other things, we need to protect our external borders much better than we do today.

Protecting our external borders is not the whole answer, however, as we cannot solve our problems just by raising fences. We should give more impetus to reaching out to the countries of origin and the fight against the root causes, and that is why I find it very promising that in the past few years we have developed our policy towards Africa. We are not yet there, but we have developed the policy on – this could be labelled in many different ways – this more-for-more attitude. We must close a win-win deal with the Africans, giving them better access to trade with Europe, even more support in capacity building and promoting good governance, humanitarian assistance, investment in infrastructure and so on. On the other hand, they should promise that we can return illegal migrants to their countries of origin. Right now, we are taking small steps in that direction.

We could do more and we could work much faster if more countries were devoted to this. I am proud to say that I represent a country – I think there are only five, six or seven in the world – that fulfils the UN recommendation on aid, at 0.7% of GNI. I call for other countries to do more, because if we take a long-term perspective and look at the demographics, it goes without saying that unless we create hope for the future among young Africans there will be pressure on Europe. In the short term, there are many things you can do. We have done a lot in Denmark. We have strengthened our own policy, and I am proud to say that in the past year we received the lowest number of asylum seekers and illegal migrants that we had had in the past nine years. Much could be done at a national level, but if we really want to solve the problem we need a totally new partnership between Europe and Africa. That would be my answer.


We must now conclude the questions to the Prime Minister. On behalf of the Assembly, Mr Rasmussen, I thank you most warmly for your address and the answers that you have given to the questions.