Speech by Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe

      Congress Plenary Session

      17 March 2010 at 3pm, Strasbourg

      Embargo until delivery / Check against delivery

      Dear members of the Congress,

      I thank you very much for the invitation to speak to you today. This is a very important occasion for me. This speech, is the last one in the presentations of my plan to reform the Council of Europe to internal stakeholders, following my speeches to the Ministers’ Deputies, the Parliamentary Assembly and the staff of the Council of Europe. As you may know, I have also been discussing these issues with a number of member states’ governments and external partners, starting with the European Union and the OSCE.

      In a way, my first speech to the Congress may seem late – we are no longer preparing a reform – the work has already started. On the other hand, I know that the Congress did not wait for my election to engage in a review of your work, organisation and activities.

      I know that your own reform efforts date back to June last year, when your Bureau debated a report by my compatriot and former President of the Congress Halvdan Skard. The general direction of reform, as I understand it, is to stop the Congress from dispersing its resources among too many activities, and to focus on a core of clearly defined political priorities.

      I would like to reiterate the message which the acting President of the Congress, Ian Micallef recently delivered to the Committee of Ministers. He stated that the Congress fully intends to play its part in being a real driving force for the Council of Europe. As he put it: “We have the will and the determination to play a key role in bringing about the improvements that you are seeking in this Organisation”.

      This is fully in line with the underlying philosophy of the reform process of the Council of Europe as a whole, and I am looking forward to pursuing our reform process together in the weeks, months and years to come. Ian Micallef said that we have entered this new era together. I will add that we will work together in this new era.

      In my speech on 20 January to the Committee of Ministers, I said that our organisation has the potential to become “the lighthouse of Europe”. In retrospective, and to keep up with the technological progress, it would probably be better to call it the “GPS” of Europe, but be it as it may, allow me to reiterate the main arguments which led me to make that claim.

      Firstly, we must always keep in mind our independence. Our work on defending common European values is driven by standards and expertise, and not bound by economic, military and geo-strategic considerations.

      Secondly, as we all know and should be proud of it - the Council of Europe is the only European organisation covering the entire continent. The EU, our closest partner, does not do that, even when extended to the candidate countries and associated countries. The OSCE includes non-European countries which may not fully share our views and standards on human rights and on the functioning of democratic institutions.

      Thirdly, and very importantly, the Council of Europe is the only organisation which has the mandate and the necessary tools to effectively and comprehensively monitor the compliance with obligations related to the respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

      Finally, the fact that the Council of Europe is reaching out to all European countries and the fact that the organisation has monitoring tools, presence in the field, parliamentarians from all countries, unique contacts with local and regional governments, close co-operation with representatives of the civil society and NGOs, makes the Council of Europe a unique institution with an exceptional access to knowledge and information.

      It is this knowledge and information - which we already possess but are not always using to the full – which should enable the Council of Europe to anticipate – and help provide solutions for - major societal and political developments which fall within our mandate. This is what I mean by the Lighthouse – or GPS – of Europe – and the Congress has a major role to play in this respect.

      One of the key assets which you bring to the collective added value of the Council of Europe is your monitoring procedure. I fully share your view that, to be effective, this monitoring must be regular, must not be limited to the production of reports and recommendations and must be part of a political dialogue with the different levels of governance in the country.

      I therefore welcome the determination of the Congress to follow up monitoring with targeted assistance programmes, working with the governments and territorial authorities concerned to reinforce local democracy and address situations which are highlighted in the country reports and Congress recommendations.

      Moreover, I should also like to commend the Congress for your role in the observation of local and regional elections as a monitoring tool. In May this year you will be observing very important elections of the Mayor of Tbilisi in Georgia, and we can only regret that you have not received an invitation to observe the local elections in Belarus.

      As you know, one of my key priorities is the reinforcement of co-operation with our international partners, notably the European Union and the OSCE. Since my election, I have had very good and concrete meetings with the President of the Commission Barroso, the President of the EU van Rumpuy, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Baroness Ashton, as well as the two key Commissioners with mandates relevant to Council of Europe work, Viviane Reding and Cecilia Maelstrom. I believe that we have never had such regular, high level and substantial relationships with the European Union, and I am determined to make sure this remains the case.

      The efforts of the Congress to revise its relations with its international partners to make them more effective are therefore very welcome and fully in line with our overall efforts. I particularly welcome the recent signature of a revised co-operation agreement with the EU Committee of the Regions.

      You are also expanding your co-operation in the Euro-Mediterranean region and you took part in the recent creation of the Euro-Mediterranean Regional and Local Assembly in which you will participate as an observer. I welcome these new and important models for co-operation with our immediate neighbours.

      However, I will also be very clear that our member States are facing a very difficult financial situation in all and this is mirrored in the Council of Europe. All initiatives must be assessed against the background of this situation - which I believe is unlikely to improve in any immediate future. That is why we are under continuous pressure to make decisions – sometimes very difficult - on our priorities.

      This brings me to the order of business of your plenary session this week. The 18th Plenary Session of the Congress will feature debates on the role of local and regional authorities in implementing human rights and implications of the Copenhagen Summit on climate change for territorial authorities.

      You will also discuss the situation of territorial democracy in Albania, Iceland, Portugal and Switzerland, as well as a report on the observation of the recent municipal elections in Azerbaijan. Also on the agenda are the Utrecht Declaration on good local and regional governance, women in politics, minority languages and intra-regional transport.

      This is a very broad and a very ambitious agenda. I will stop here because you have much to do and the time is short.

      The Congress is making a very important contribution to our overall work on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is on the local level that a great majority of people get in contact with these Council of Europe values, usually in a very direct way. If we want to have our citizens on board in our endeavours to further promote Europe as a space of stability, security and freedom, the local level is not only a good way to start – it’s the right way to start.

      The reform initiated at the Congress level and the overall level are not aimed at making us do less, but at helping us to do better. The fact that Norwegians – Mr Skard and myself – are involved in both cases is probably coincidental, except, perhaps, for our natural proclivity for pragmatism, born out of climatic and geo-strategic particularities of our country. The bottom line is that the room for improvement is the biggest room in the world, and this is the philosophy which underpins my mandate as the Secretary General of this organisation.

      On that note, let me also extend my congratulations to you Mr. Andreas Kiefer on your election as new Secretary General of the Congress. I look forward to our co-operation and assure you of my full support in your important mission ahead.

      Dear friends,

      It is at the local level that we learn that no nation is born a democracy. It is also at the local level that we experience that democracy must be a universal right and that participatory governance, based on the will of the people, is the best path to freedom, growth and development.

      You come here to Strasbourg to share with friends and colleagues all your experience and knowledge of how local and regional democracy work and to discuss the challenges which lie ahead. I am sure you will leave with more experience and more knowledge to work for better governance throughout all of Europe.

      Thank you for your attention.



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