50 YEARS AND 104 SESSIONS FOR BUILDING A GREATER EUROPE WITHOUT DIVIDING LINES
"The Committee of Ministers' first session was opened on 8 August 1949 by Robert Schuman, who was representing France, the host country. We'd decided to work in English alphabetical order and Belgium was the first country on the list, so Paul-Henri Spaak took the Chair. At that first session, the original 10 founding States of the Council of Europe invited three new countries - Greece, Turkey and Iceland1 - to join them " recalls one of the first members of the Council of Europe's staff, who was on the scene when the Organisation was set up, between May and August 1949.
This historic meeting was held in Strasbourg's town hall, and thousands of local townspeople gathered beneath its windows to hail the birth of a new Europe, freed at last from the troubles which had come close to destroying it. Even more - some 25 000, according to eye-witnesses - answered the European Movement's call and turned out amid the flags and bunting to cheer the Council's founding fathers, including Winston Churchill, Paul-Henri Spaak, Robert Schuman, Ernest Bevin, Carlo Sforza, and Edouard Herriot, who had all come to attend the opening sessions of the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly2. The mood in Place Kléber, where the swastika had flown just five years before, was delirious.
That month of August 1949 saw the realisation of a project which political leaders set on rebuilding their shattered continent had worked out during the second world war. One of those who pioneered it was Winston Churchill who gave the plan a first public airing in his Zurich speech of 19 September 1946, when he hailed a "remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene, and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and as happy as Switzerland is today." To that end, he said the aim should be to "build a kind of United States of Europe" and suggested that "the first practical step should be to form a Council of Europe."
His words caught the mood of European public opinion, which responded with instant enthusiasm. Intense diplomatic activity followed between 1948 and 1951, and Europe's basic structures were established by treaties signed in Brussels (Western Union, 17 March 1948)3, Paris (European Organisation for Economic Co-operation, 16 April 1948 )4, Washington (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, 4 April 1949), London (Council of Europe, 5 May 1949) and Paris again (European Coal and Steel Community, 18 April 1951).
All of these initiatives can be traced back to a historic congress held in The Hague from 7 to 11 May 1948 and attended by a thousand delegates from some twenty countries, including several dozen ministers or former ministers, numerous parliamentarians, academics, philosophers, artists and writers5. Under Winston Churchill's chairmanship, the participants adopted a series of resolutions spelling out what became, a few months later, the first tasks entrusted to the Council of Europe. Disregarding the old political divisions, the congress gave enthusiastic, broad-based backing to the first steps taken towards European co-operation by France, Britain and the three Benelux countries, which had signed the Brussels Treaty just a few weeks before as a prelude to working together on economic, social and cultural issues, and on collective self-defence.
It was within the limited context of the Western European Union that negotiations got under way on giving Europe the parliamentary assembly called for by the Hague Congress. Such an assembly was unprecedented in the field of international relations, which in the past had always been an exclusively government affair, and led to a debate opposing the United Kingdom and its partners. While Paris, The Hague, Brussels and Luxembourg wanted an assembly with extensive powers, London favoured a formula based strictly on intergovernmental co-operation and a consultative assembly made up of government-appointed parliamentarians. After lengthy discussion, a compromise was agreed in Brussels on 28 January 1949: there would be a Council of Europe comprising a ministerial committee, which would meet in private, and a consultative body, whose meetings would be public. This removed the last obstacles and, on 5 May 1949, ten countries6http://cm.coe.int/intro/ signed the treaty establishing the Council of Europe at St. James's Palace in London. Strasbourg, a city martyred by the two world conflicts that had ravaged Europe in less than fifty years but at the same time symbolic of the definite mood of reconciliation that characterised the second half of the twentieth century, was chosen as the site of the new organisation.
The central aim assigned to the Council of Europe - "to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and facilitating their economic and social progress" - was ambitious. To enable it to accomplish this aim, the Council was given very broad powers, in so far as it was to achieve such unity "by discussion of questions of common concern and by agreements and common action in economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal and administrative matters and in the maintenance and further realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms"7 . As a result of the Brussels compromise, however, there was no longer any question of drawing up a constitution or merging sovereignties to achieve the "economic and political union" called for by The Hague delegates. This was why, in answer to an appeal issued by Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950, on 18 April 1951 the six countries most in favour of integration - Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany – signed a treaty setting up the European Coal and Steel Community. It was to mark the start of a series of other "Community" treaties, signed in 1957 in Rome (European Economic Community), in 1986 in Luxembourg (Single European Act), and in 1992 in Maastricht (European Union), which established in the European Union as it is now.
Dedicated to defending and strengthening democratic pluralism and human rights, to finding shared solutions to the social problems faced by its member states, and to fostering a sense of the continent's multicultural identity, the Council of Europe got off to a flying start, and the twelve countries gathered together in Strasbourg in August 1949 were soon joined by Iceland in 1950, Austria in 1956, Cyprus in 1961, Switzerland in 1963, and Malta in 1965. The Federal Republic of Germany joined in two stages - first as an associate member (with the Saarland) on 13 July 1950, and then as a full member on 2 May 1951. The Saarland withdrew, following its return to Germany in 1956.
As the Organisation's central body, the Committee of Ministers had three main concerns throughout the 1950s: setting up the structures which the Council needed to function effectively8, finding solutions to the agonising problem of refugees9, and trying to initiate harmonious and fruitful co-operation with the various organisations which were helping to shape western Europe (Council of Europe, European Communities, WEU, OECE, NATO)10. In its efforts, the Committee stayed faithful to the ideals which had guided the architects of Europe from the outset, staunchly refusing to underwrite the fait accompli policy which Stalin had been pursuing since Yalta. In Resolution (55) 35, adopted at its 17th session on 13 December 1955, it emphasised:
" - that security for all cannot be achieved on the basis of the present division of Europe;
- that the reunification of Germany on the basis of free elections is necessary;
- that any new security arrangement for Europe with the USSR which does not include this reunification will be inadequate and dangerous, since the establishment of a European system of security and the reunification of Germany are contingent upon each other;
- that the creation of a united Europe remains indispensable".
At the same time, it brought in the major instruments which were to provide a basis for the Council's work. The first of these was the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted in Rome at its sixth session on 4 November 1950, barely eighteen months after the founding of the Organisation. "This convention which we are signing is not as full or as precise as many of us would have wished. However, we have thought it our duty to subscribe to it as it stands. It provides foundations on which to base the defence of human personality against all tyrannies and against all forms of totalitarianism", declared Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister, on that occasion. The convention, which came into force in 1953, met the requirement, laid down in Article 3 of the Statute, that "every member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms".
Repeatedly strengthened by protocols in the meantime, the convention differs from all the other international instruments in its field by having effective control machinery, which entitles any individual claiming to be the victim of violation of one of his or her rights under the Convention to appeal to a supra-national court against the government of his or her country of residence. The present two-tier system comprises the European Commission and the European Court of Human Rights, established in 1954 and 1959 respectively. The Committee of Ministers plays a special part in the process; when a case examined by the Commission of Human Rights is not referred to the Court, the Committee of Ministers may be required to confirm, by a two-thirds majority, whether or not the convention has been violated. It is also responsible for making sure that the Court's judgments are properly enforced. So far, it has succeeded in this role, not only by making sure that any compensation awarded to successful petitioners is actually paid by the state found guilty of violation, but also in some cases by making sure that the state in question modifies its domestic legal system and/or administrative practices so that further violation of the same right may be avoided11.
Four years after adopting the European Convention on Human Rights, at its fifteenth session (19 December 1954), the Committee of Ministers acted on a wish already voiced by the Assembly on 7 September 1949, when, on 19 December 1954 in Paris, it opened the European Cultural Convention for signature. This vast framework convention provides an organised basis for dialogue and co-operation, involving not just member states, but European states outside the Council too. For example, the Holy See and Monaco, although not members of the Organisation, are signatories to the Cultural Convention, and many countries, including Spain, Finland, Poland and Russia, applied the Convention before joining, in some cases long before. Education, higher education and research, culture, heritage, sport and youth policy are some of the important and varied sectors covered by the text.
These two "heavyweight" conventions are not the only basic texts which make the Council's role in Europe such a vital one. The Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers were together behind another pioneering and major initiative, which came to fruition on 12 January 1957, when the European Conference of Local Authorities saw the light of day. As Jacques Chaban-Delmas, first president of the conference, put it in his opening address, this was "the first time in the history of the democracies that the representatives of local authorities have been invited by members of parliament, with the consent of governments, to express their opinion on how they might take part in institutions which are still being organised".
In January 1994 the Conference became the "Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe" (CLRAE), with a Chamber of Regions and a Chamber of Local Authorities. Alongside the Parliamentary Assembly, it is the second pillar enabling member states' elected representatives to become involved in the work of the Organisation and is responsible for giving the authorities closest to the people of Europe an effective voice. CLRAE initiatives have led to the adoption of several important texts, including the European Charter on Local Self-Government (1985), the Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation (1980), the Charter on Regional and Minority Languages (1992) or, more recently, the draft European Charter of Regional Self-Government, which was approved by the CLRAE in June 1997 and is currently being examined by the Committee of Ministers.
Finally, on 18 October 1961, the European Social Charter was opened for signature in Turin. Designed as a pendant to the European Convention on Human Rights, the charter, which defends 19 rights including the right to strike and the right to social protection, possessed no equivalent enforcement machinery. Mr. Barbozo-Carneiro, Chairman of the Governing Body of the International Labour Office, pointed out what made it special when he said of the draft text in 1958: "To the idea that man does not live by bread alone has been added the idea that liberty without bread is a vain word... Thus the Council of Europe has sought to bring to the definition of the rights of man a sound and humane solution, giving their proper place to economic and social rights." In the late eighties and early nineties, when the European scene was changing radically, an ambitious programme to revitalise the charter was launched. A protocol, adding four new rights to the original nineteen, was adopted on 26 November 1987. The supervision system was simplified and strengthened by the 1991 amending protocol and the 1995 protocol introducing a collective complaints procedure. A further decisive step was taken when the revised Social Charter was opened for signature on 3 May 1996, which combines the Charter and its protocols in a single text including no less than 30 fundamental social rights.
Since the early 1960s, the Council of Europe has thus had all the main instruments which - up-dated and adjusted when necessary - allow it to do the job assigned to it. Over the years, a system of regular meetings of specialised ministers has also become established and is designed to help member states work together across the whole intergovernmental spectrum. The ministers of education and the ministers responsible for family affairs were the first (in 1959) to adopt this formula, which now exists in nearly all the areas where the Organisation is active: justice, heritage, regional planning, environment, sport, culture, social security, health, youth questions, etc.
So, little by little, a network of relations and co-operation has grown up between governments, leading to the preparation and adoption of nearly 170 conventions designed to bring national legislative practices into line with one another and with the Council's standards. These agreements are supplemented by the many resolutions and recommendations which the Committee of Ministers addresses to member states. While lacking the legal force of conventions, these texts still play a vital role by defining European positions on problems common to all the countries of our continent.
In the case of questions which call for more technical answers and interest only some of the member states, the Ministers rely on partial agreements. This - the "variable geometry" approach to Europe - was first discussed on 2 and 3 August 1951. Forty-two years later, on 13 May 1993, the system was extended to include enlarged partial agreements, open to states outside the Council too. There are now 12 such agreements, often playing a major role. They include the Council of Europe Development Bank, which replaced the Resettlement Fund for National Refugees set up in the 1950s, the 1959 Partial Agreement in the Social and Public Health Field (which led to the creation of the European Pharmacopoeia in 1964), the Cooperation Group to Combat Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (Pompidou Group) set up in 1980, the EURIMAGES Fund set up on 16 November 1988, and the European Commission for Democracy through Law ("Venice Commission"), which was established on the initiative of the Italian government on 5 May 1988, before becoming a separate institution on 10 May 1990.
The first fifteen years of achievement and steady growth, which gave the Council a solid footing on the European scene and saw its membership rise from 10 to 18, were followed by two more difficult decades, characterised by alternating crises and successes, misgivings and hopes. The Greek military coup of 21 April 1967 brought the first major crisis. The colonels' autocratic regime deported some 70 000 political opponents and openly defied the Organisation's democratic principles. The Committee of Ministers reacted firmly under its successive chairmen, Michel Debré, Willy Brandt and Aldo Moro. Threatened with imminent expulsion, the colonels decided to act first and took Greece out of the Organisation - a move noted by the Committee of Ministers on 12 December 1969. Five years later, on 28 November 1974, when the military regime had fallen and Greek democratic liberties had been restored, it invited Greece to rejoin at its 55th session, on 28 November 1974. That same year, another crisis - still unresolved today - erupted between Cyprus and Turkey.
Greece's readmission heralded the arrival of two further members, following the disappearance of western Europe's last two dictatorships. Portugal, where the Salazar regime had been toppled during the "Carnations Revolution" in April 1974, joined on 22 September 1976, and Spain, freed by the death of Franco, followed suit a year later, on 24 November 1977. Liechtenstein's accession on 23 November 1978 left the Council with 21 members, and they made common cause in traversing the ensuing period of doubt and difficulty which affected the entire European process until the mid-eighties.
The dramatic changes in the East, which began in the Soviet Union with Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985, provided fresh impetus. While the European Community started working on the Single Act, the Committee of Ministers decided to make closer East-West relations one of the Council of Europe's main goals. The successive French and German chairmanships played a crucial preparatory part in the process: under Roland Dumas, Resolution (84) 21 on the political role of the Council of Europe, adopted at the 75th session (21-22 November 1984) gave the Organisation a new political impetus; at the 76th session (25 April 1985), Resolution (85) 5 on co-operation between the Council of Europe and the European Community provided a basis for closer working relations between the two bodies, while Resolution (85) 6 on European cultural identity paved the way for progressive reconciliation of the two halves of the continent through cultural co-operation. In the meantime, at Hans-Dietrich Genscher's invitation, an extraordinary ministerial session had been held to assess future prospects for East-West co-operation.
While the political situation in various parts of central and eastern Europe evolved with breath-taking rapidity, the Council of Europe took the first step towards admitting Yugoslavia, which, at the time, was leading the way in the transition to democracy and a market-led economy, by inviting it to sign the European Cultural Convention (81st session, 26 November 1987). At the same session a new basic instrument (European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment), aimed at protecting human rights by means of an innovative approach centred on prevention, was opened for signature.
Over the next two years, the Council of Europe welcomed San Marino and Finland as its 22nd and 23rd members, on 16 November 1988 and 5 May 1989 respectively. At the same time, it continued with its strategy in favour of rapprochement with central and eastern European countries (in particular with the creation by the Parliamentary Assembly in early 1989 of "special guest" status, to enable parliaments of non-Member European states were able to take part in Assembly proceedings). At the 84th session of the Committee of Ministers, which marked the Council's 40th anniversary, the Ministers reaffirmed their desire for "open, concrete dialogue" with the Socialist countries. One month later, on 8 June 1989, the Assembly granted special guest status to Hungary, Poland, the USSR and Yugoslavia, making it possible for Mikhail Gorbachev - the first Soviet leader to do so - to come to Strasbourg on 6 July and expound his concept of the "common European home".
When the Berlin Wall came down on 9 November, events began to move even more quickly. In the space of three months, two historic sessions of the Committee witnessed the arrival of Hungary, the first "eastern" country to join, and Germany's first appearance on the Council scene as a reunited country (Rome, 6 November 1990), followed by Czechoslovakia's admission in the wake of the "velvet revolution" and the USSR's accession to the European Cultural Convention (Madrid, 21 February 1991). Subsequent sessions were marked by further new arrivals, and the Council's membership grew to 40 within six years12. To help the new members to draw on the Organisation's expertise in making the transition to democracy, the Committee of Ministers set up a series of co-operation and assistance programmes - Demosthenes, Themis and Lode - in key areas where reforms were needed to help them become fully part of the European democratic area.
Meeting in Vienna on 8-9 October 1993, at the instigation of President Mitterand and Chancellor Vranitzky, the Heads of State and Government confirmed and amplified this policy of openness and extension: "The Council of Europe is the pre-eminent European political institution capable of welcoming, on an equal footing and in permanent structures, the democracies of Europe freed from communist oppression". They gave it three new tasks: reforming the machinery of the European Convention of Human Rights to ensure its effectiveness, organising the protection of national minorities and taking action to defeat intolerance, racism and xenophobia. The Vienna Summit thus wanted the Council to become both stronger and larger, while remaining true to its essential mission - helping to create a vast area of democratic security spanning the whole continent.
In accordance with this policy of welcoming countries where the transition to democracy is more difficult, in the hope that membership of the Organisation will have a positive impact on the transition process (an approach sometimes referred to as "therapeutic accession"), from 1994 onwards the Parliamentary Assembly and Committee of Ministers phased in two procedures for monitoring how far member states respected the commitments they had made. Both monitoring procedures, the one (that of the Parliamentary Assembly) public and based on a country-by-country approach, the other (that of the Committee of Ministers) confidential and theme-based, taking in all member states, have the same aim. They are intended to ensure that all member states, through a process of critical and constructive dialogue and, where appropriate, participation in cooperation and aid programmes, succeed in attaining the high level of democracy and respect for human rights that must be guaranteed to all citizens of a Council of Europe member state. Such an objective may appear to be a risky enterprise, but its importance is crucial for the 765 million Europeans whom the Organisation now embraces (particularly with the accession of Russia in 1996)!
Having had its pan-European role confirmed, the Council is also engaged in dialogue with the other European organisations - particularly the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) - its aim being a more effective pooling of energies. Contacts are being made, and action is being taken to ensure that the various initiatives complement one another, and observer status has been used to associate some of the main non-European countries (United States, Canada, Japan) with the Council's work. With the OSCE, heir of the Helsinki Conference, which declared that respect for human rights was a vital factor for stability in Europe, it is now helping with the huge task of rebuilding Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a view to its joining the Council at some future date.
With the European Union, the Council has recently launched joint programmes for Albania, the Baltic States, Russia and Ukraine, and the two organisations introduced the "quadripartite dialogue" procedure for regular consultation in the late eighties. The same spirit of close co-operation underlies the Council's active support for the European Union's initiative for a Pact for Stability in Europe. Concluded in Paris in March 1995, the Pact is intended to promote good neighbourly relations in central and eastern Europe. It has led to the signing of important agreements between Hungary and Slovakia and, in 1996, to the treaty between Hungary and Romania.
Thus, by prioritising an approach based on preventive diplomacy and multilateral efforts (via international organisations active at European level), the countries of Europe have so far been able to keep the explosive situation of minorities in central and eastern Europe under control and avoid a repeat of what happened in the Balkans (and in particular in former Yugoslavia) and the Caucasus. The adoption on 10 November 1994 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities stands out in this context as the first legally-binding international instrument regarding minorities.
The Council of Europe's principles and methods have been thoroughly put to the test since 1989 and have come through with flying colours. Thanks to the flexibility of its means of action and its working methods, and on the basis of enhanced co-operation between the Committee of Ministers, the Organisation's keystone, and the Parliamentary Assembly, which both reflects national viewpoints as well as providing an effective impetus for action, the Council has managed to evolve while retaining its identity. While embodying de Gaulle's vision of a Europe extending from the Atlantic to the Urals, it has remained true to the mission given it by Churchill - that of uniting all the peoples of our continent in the sharing of values which are their common inheritance. Indeed, this was the fundamental message of the Council of Europe's Second Summit (Strasbourg, 10 and 11 October 1997), which culminated in a Final Declaration laying the cornerstone for the unity of the wider Europe. Symbolised by a "family photograph" showing the 46 Heads of State and Government who attended the summit as the top political representatives of nearly every country in Europe13, such unity is based on the solemn reaffirmation of "our attachment to the fundamental principles of the Council of Europe - pluralist democracy, respect for human rights, the rule of law - and the commitment of our governments to comply fully with the requirements and meet the responsibilities arising from membership of our Organisation."
In refocusing the Council of Europe on its fundamental values, which have become those of the whole of Europe, and in identifying three new key areas of work (social cohesion, safety of citizens, democratic values and cultural diversity) that will complement the Organisation's main field of excellence (democracy and human rights), the Strasbourg Summit laid the foundations on which to build the Council of Europe's own specific contribution to the new Europe which has been developing ever since the "big bang" brought about by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, the Heads of State and Government have shown their determination to adapt the Council of Europe to its new functions and its enlarged membership base, by initiating a structural reform process. This reform process, entrusted to a Committee of Wise Persons chaired by Mario SOARES, which submitted proposals14 , should give a new lease of life to the Organisation which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary by welcoming its 41st member State, Georgia (27 April 1999), as it enters the 21st century.
The current year 1999 marks the Council of Europe's celebration of its 50th anniversary but is most of all the year when the "logic of warfare", practised to the ultimate undoing of the Serbian people by Slobodan Milosevic since he gained power, demonstrated the magnitude of the challenges still facing European unification in general and the Council of Europe in particular. The Committee of Ministers has responded to the situations of conflict that persist especially in the Balkans and the Caucasian region, and to the difficulties of some member states in honouring their commitments, by confirming the validity of the policies pursued over the last ten years for the institution of a "new European order" capable of bringing peace and prosperity to the entire continent. Accordingly, in welcoming Georgia as the 41st member state on 27 April 1999 and in adopting the "Budapest Declaration for a Greater Europe without dividing lines" a few days later, it shaped the course which will enable the Council of Europe to achieve the unity of all European countries in due time. By mobilising the Organisation's vital forces alongside the United Nations, the European Union and the OSCE in the mammoth undertaking represented by the creation of a democratic, multi-ethnic Kosovo in a South-East Europe liberated from its suicidal impulses, it makes a pledge for a 21st century in which a rationale of co-operation and multilateral dialogue will have finally prevailed over power relationships and "reasons of State", for a Europe that will have been wise enough to learn from earlier centuries.