1018th meeting – 20 February 2008
Guidelines for the organisation of future ministerial sessions
Ministerial sessions are important events in the life of any international organisation. This is particularly true for the Council of Europe which does not benefit from regular summits like the European Union. It is therefore all the more important on the political level that Foreign Affairs Ministers be regularly informed of the work of the Organisation and that the Council of Europe, as a pan-European organisation appears in their political diaries.
A. Recommendation No. 13 of the Juncker report
In his report on relations between the Council of Europe and the European Union, Jean-Claude Juncker addressed this question. He underlined on page 27 of his report that:
“Co-operation between the Council of Europe and the EU cannot be strengthened without the commitment of the member states. The Foreign Ministers, and particularly those of the , must involve themselves more in the Council’s work. Although they have heavy agendas, and sometimes too many multilateral commitments, I think it essential that they should attend the Council’s ministerial meetings.”
This led to the following recommendation (Recommendation No. 13) which targets in particular the Foreign Affairs Ministers of European Union member states:
“13. Increased involvement of Foreign Ministers, particularly those of the , in the Council of Europe’s work is highly desirable. They should attend ministerial meetings. They should ensure, in their own ministries and with other specialised ministries, better co-ordination of their countries’ policies in the two organisations.”
B. The level of ministerial participation
It must be acknowledged that the situation is far from satisfactory, if the level of ministerial participation over the last ten years is examined.
Whilst non-European Union member states are almost always represented by a minister or at least by a state secretary, the number of ministers or state secretaries present from the European Union swings between zero and seven, the average being three, and usually from smaller EU countries. During the last three ministerial meetings, the Chair of the Council of the European Union was only represented at ministerial level (secretary of state) once.
The low level of participation at the last ministerial meeting once again called into question the way in which these meetings are organised and how the themes for discussion are chosen.
It should be recalled in this context that the question of the organisation of ministerial sessions has long engaged the attention of the Ministers’ Deputies. Several reforms have been carried out in this area over time. The last one was decided at the end of 2003 and was implemented for the first time on the occasion of the 114th Session in May 2004. This latest reform reduced the number of ordinary ministerial sessions per year from two to one, with the argument that this would have a positive impact on participation. Experience has shown, however, that this is not the case and in addition an imbalance has been created in the calendar of the Committee of the Ministers, which is detrimental in particular for the chairmanships which change in November.
Two reasons are often put forward to account for the absence of ministers at ministerial meetings:
Firstly, the agendas of ministerial sessions are often taken up with questions that Foreign Affairs Ministers do not regard as warranting their attendance, but rather in the remit of other ministerial departments, such as the Ministries of Justice. Without a political agenda requiring their presence in the discussions and decision-making, the Foreign Affairs Ministers are not prompted to participate in the sessions.
Secondly, the ministerial sessions compete with other commitments both at the national and international level. Among the meetings at political level in other international bodies, in particular the meetings organised regularly between the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the European Union tend to retain their attention as a matter of priority.
A. The content of agendas – topics chosen for discussion
In the light of this assessment, thought should be given to means of regenerating the content and the interest of Council of Europe ministerial sessions, which remain a unique forum of encounter for European Foreign Affairs Ministers at the pan-European level.
In this context it must be noted that the choice of topics is fundamental. As it is for the chair to steer the political agenda, organise the discussion and, more generally, the ministerial session as such, the outgoing and incoming chairs should have the initiative for proposing subjects, in close consultation with member states, in particular the country representing the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and with the Secretary General. The involvement of the EU Presidency would ensure the largest possible participation of Foreign Affairs Ministers of European Union member states. The final decision on the topics for the draft agenda is to be taken by the Deputies.
Experience has shown that the number of topics for discussion needs to be limited to one or two in order to concentrate the discussion and allow sufficient time for it. This does not prevent ministers from discussing outstanding issues on which no consensus has been found during the preparation of the session.
In order for ministerial sessions to attract the interest of ministers, political topics of current concern and of some urgency on which a discussion at the pan-European level of the Council of Europe would be of added value should be chosen for discussion. The range of activities conducted by the Council of Europe, their relevance and impact on the European scene certainly allow for such interesting political topics to be identified, as Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker noted in his report on Council of Europe-European Union relations:
“All the subjects dealt with at the Council of Europe have basic connections with human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and are thus fields of action with pronounced political connotations, which need consistent monitoring.”
B. Reviewing the format of the sessions
It would also be useful – if the subjects to be discussed are to have strong political connotations – to rethink the format of the session so as to allow for concrete results to emerge from these discussions at the pan-European level. Materially, this reorganisation could be carried out according to the following scheme:
- The session should be a one-day meeting starting with an informal part.
The “fireside chats” that take place at present on the eve of the ministerial sessions could thus be replaced by informal discussions where the Foreign Affairs Ministers would have the possibility to address a political topic of current concern directly linked with their mandate and in a strictly pan-European frame. The discussions would lead to the preparation of conclusions by the chair.
Participation in the informal discussions would be decided on a case-by-case basis by the chair following consultations with member states.
During the informal discussions, the theme retained would be introduced by the chair. Again, depending on the topic, the practice of inviting a leading personality to introduce the theme of discussion or voice some personal sentiments could possibly be maintained.
- The agenda of the formal ministerial session would include:
- institutional matters linked to the handover of the chairmanship (stocktaking of the achievements of the outgoing chair and presentation of the priorities of the incoming chair);
- general or specific topics which ministers would like to raise during a statement which would be limited in time;
- items requiring a decision at the ministerial level following the work carried out during the six-months' period of the outgoing chairmanship, which would be dealt with without debate (they would be included in the list of decisions and would only be discussed at the specific request of a member state).
The chairmanship should be informed, in due course, should the ministers wish to intervene during the formal session so as to arrange the speaking time appropriately.
Written contributions containing more detailed statements by the ministers or communications by those delegations not represented at ministerial level could be distributed during the formal session.
As in the past, a Communiqué prepared by the Deputies would be adopted by the Ministers on the work of the Organisation at the end of the formal session.
- As far as the schedule is concerned, two options are possible:
· either to start with the informal discussions in the late afternoon, followed by a dinner for the ministers hosted by the chair. This pattern, which was successfully followed for some years in the past, could as appropriate be adjusted in order to transform the dinner into an informal working dinner. Another alternative could be to have an informal working dinner only. Interpretation in the two official languages of the Council of Europe would then have to be provided during this informal working dinner in order to secure the active participation of the ministers in the discussion. The formal part of the ministerial session would take place the following morning.
· or to have the informal discussions in the morning from 11.00 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by an informal working lunch and the formal part of the session in the afternoon.1
These flexible arrangements concerning the format of the sessions – including the sequence of formal session and informal discussions – would be decided on a case-by-case basis for each session by the outgoing and incoming chairs, in consultation with member states.
C. Specialised Committee of Ministers meetings
In addition to the regular annual meetings of the Committee of Ministers, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs could, exceptionally, in accordance with Article 14 of the Statute, decide to nominate alternate ministers to act on their behalf if questions of a more technical or legal nature need to be discussed at the political level. For example, issues linked to the Court of Human Rights or Court judgments could be discussed in the context of a ministerial meeting involving the Ministers of Justice of member states.
This would allow the Council of Europe’s action to be given a higher profile in the capitals, with the political decision makers most directly concerned, and would also produce a better synergy with the different “specialised” Councils of the European Union. A topic for such a meeting could be what steps should be taken in case Protocol No. 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights cannot enter into force.
This would also give effect to the 2nd part of Recommendation No. 13 of Jean-Claude Juncker, which reads as follows:
“They [the Foreign Affairs Ministers] should ensure, in their own ministries and with other specialised ministries, better co-ordination of their countries’ policies in the two organisations.”
and which is made more explicit in page 27 of the report:
“Their ministries should also ensure, with other specialised ministries, that their countries’ policies in the legislative, educational, social and cultural fields are better co-ordinated within the two organisations, having due regard to the ways in which they differ from, and complement, each other. The Council of Europe’s Conferences of Specialised Ministers would also provide a good opportunity to extend the scope of the collective reflection process by involving, in addition to the European Commission, representatives of the relevant PACE and EP committees.”
D. Organisational aspects
Apart from issues such as timing, participants and topics, thought should be given to other aspects of how the session is organised to make it attractive to Ministers of Foreign Affairs. A number of measures could be taken to encourage them to attend, such as a personal written invitation from the chairs to their colleagues.
In case the option of an informal working dinner would be retained, it would be important to select a venue which reflects Strasbourg’s reputation for its tradition of hospitality. The venue could be for example the “Palais des Rohan”, the “Hôtel de Ville” or one of the museums in Strasbourg. The dinner could be hosted by the chairs of the Committee of Ministers, possibly together with the Minister of the host country of the Organisation. The dinner should be open only to ministers and the Secretary General and preceded by a photo session. Other possibilities for photos to be taken could be associated with the session, such as a treaty event.
In case the option of an informal working lunch would be retained, due to time constraints, the above arrangements would not be feasible. An alternative solution would have to be found, which could be to organise this lunch at the Palais de l’Europe.
1 In the light of the communication factor, it is in practice very difficult, in some cases impossible, for ministers who do not have access to official aircraft, to arrive in the morning for a one day session and to leave the same evening.