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Council of Europe

Council of Europe

A Brief History of the Council of Europe

The Europe that awoke in the days following the Liberation was

in a sorry state, torn apart by five years of war. States were

determined to build up their shattered economies, recover their

influence and, above all, ensure that such a tragedy could never

happen again. Winston Churchill was the first to point to the

solution, in his speech of 19 September 1946 in Zurich. According to

him, what was needed was "a remedy which, as if by miracle, would

transform the whole scene and in a few years make all Europe as free

and happy as Switzerland is today. We must build a kind of United

States of Europe".

Movements of various persuasions, but all dedicated to European unity,

were springing up everywhere at the time. All these organisations were

to combine to form the International Committee of the Movements for

European Unity. Its first act was to organise the Hague Congress, on 7

May 1948, remembered as "The Congress of Europe".

A thousand delegates at The Hague

More than a thousand delegates from some twenty countries, together

with a large number of observers, among them political and religious

figures, academics, writers and journalists, attended the Congress.

Its purpose was to demonstrate the breadth of the movements in favour

of European unification, and to determine the objectives which must be

met in order to achieve such a union.

A series of resolutions was adopted at the end of the Congress,

calling, amongst other things, for the creation of an economic and

political union to guarantee security, economic independence and

social progress, the establishment of a consultative assembly elected

by national parliaments, the drafting of a European charter of human

rights and the setting up of a court to enforce its decisions. All the

themes around which Europe was to be built were already sketched out

in this initial project. The Congress also revealed the divergences

which were soon to divide unconditional supporters of a European

federation (France and Belgium) from those who favoured simple inter-

governmental co-operation, such as Great Britain, Ireland and the

Scandinavian countries.


On the international scene, the sharp East-West tensions marked by the

Prague coup and the Berlin blockade were to impart a sense of urgency

to the need to take action and devote serious thought to a genuine

inter-state association. Two months after the Congress of Europe,

Georges Bidault, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, issued an

invitation to his Brussels Treaty partners, the United Kingdom and the

Benelux countries, and to all those who wished to give substance to

The Hague proposals. Robert Schuman, who replaced him a few days

later, confirmed the invitation. France, supported by Belgium, in the

person of its Prime Minister Paul Henri Spaak, called for the creation

of a European Assembly, with wide-ranging powers, composed of members

of parliament from the various states and deciding by a majority vote.

This plan, assigning a fundamental role to the Assembly seemed quite

revolutionary in an international order hitherto the exclusive

preserve of governments. But Great Britain, which favoured a form of

intergovernmental co-operation in which the Assembly would have a

purely consultative function, rejected this approach.

It only softened its stance after lengthy negotiations. Finally, on 27

and 28 January 1949 the five ministers for foreign affairs of the

Brussels Treaty countries, meeting in the Belgian capital, reached a

compromise: a Council of Europe consisting of a ministerial committee,

to meet in private; and a consultative body, to meet in public. In

order to satisfy the supporters of co-operation the Assembly was

purely consultative in nature, with decision-making powers vested in

the Committee of Ministers. In order to meet the demands of those

partisans of a Europe-wide federation, members of the Assembly were

independent of their governments, with full voting freedom. The United

Kingdom demanded that they be appointed by their governments. This

important aspect of the compromise was soon to be reviewed and, from

1951 onwards, parliaments alone were to choose their representatives.

"Greater" and "Smaller" Europe

On 5 May 1949, in St James's Palace, London, the treaty constituting

the Statute of the Council of Europe was signed by ten countries:

Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom,

accompanied by Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Council

of Europe was now able to start work. Its first sessions were held in

Strasbourg, which was to become its permanent seat. In the initial

flush of enthusiasm, the first major convention was drawn up: the

European Convention on Human Rights, signed in Rome on 4 November 1950

and coming into force on 3 September 1953.

The new organisation satisfied a very wide range of public opinion,

which saw in it an instrument through which the various political

tendencies, and the essential aspirations of the peoples of Europe,

could be expressed. This was indeed the purpose for which it was

founded, as clearly stated in Chapter I of its Statute: "The aim of

the Council of Europe is 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."

In order to achieve its objectives, certain means were made available

to the Council and were listed in the Statute, which specified that:

"This aim shall be pursued through the organs of the Council 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." In accordance with the

compromise reached, the Statute made no mention of drawing up a

constitution, or of pooling national sovereignty, in order to achieve

the "economic and political union" called for by The Hague delegates.

Consequently, the need was soon felt to set up separate bodies to

address the urgent questions arising on the political and economic

fronts. Shortly after the accession of the Federal Republic of

Germany, Robert Schuman approached all the Council of Europe countries

with a proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community, to be

provided with very different political and budgetary means.

The six countries most attached to the ideal of integration - Belgium,

France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of

Germany - joined, and on 9 May 1951 signed the very first Community

treaty. Strengthened by the experience and commitment which had

brought the "Greater Europe" into existence, the "Smaller Europe" was

now making its own "leap into the unknown" of European construction.

Early developments

In the years between 1949 and 1970, eight new countries joined the

founder members: in order of accession Greece, Iceland, Turkey,

Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Switzerland and Malta. In this period, the

organisation gradually developed its structure and its major

institutions. Thus, the first public hearing of the European Court of

Human Rights took place in 1960. These years also saw the introduction

of the first specialized ministerial conferences; by the early 1970s

they had been extended to cover a wide range of areas. The first, in

1959, brought together European ministers responsible for social and

family affairs. On 18 October 1961, the European Social Charter was

signed in Rome: a text which the Council sees as the counterpart of

the European Convention on Human Rights in the social domain.

The Charter came into force on 26 February 1965. It sets out 19

rights, including the right to strike and the right to social

protection, but does not have such effective machinery as the Human

Rights Convention. Nevertheless, it is gradually developing into a

common body of social rights that apply right across Europe.

The same era saw the institution of the Council for Cultural Co-

operation in 1961, which non-Council of Europe member states were

allowed to join from the outset. One example was Finland, which only

joined the Council itself 28 years later. Similarly, the European

Pharmacopoeia was founded in 1964 and the European Youth Centre in


Crises strengthen democracy

The Council of Europe's first major political crisis came in 1967 when

the Greek colonels overthrew the legally elected government and

installed an authoritarian regime which openly contravened the

democratic principles defended by the organisation. On 12 December

1969, just a few hours before a decision would have been taken to

exclude Greece, the colonels' regime anticipated matters by denouncing

the European Convention on Human Rights and withdrawing from the

Council of Europe. It did not return until five years later, on 28

November 1974 after the fall of the dictatorship and the restoration

of democracy. In the meantime, the Cypriot crisis, which broke out in

the summer of 1974 and culminated in the partitioning of the island

after Turkish military intervention, represented a fairly negative

experience for the Council of Europe, whose discreet efforts to broker

a solution, alongside those of the United Nations' Secretary General,

were not crowned with success.

A new crisis arose in 1981 when the Parliamentary Assembly withdrew

the Turkish parliamentary delegation's right to their seats in

response to the military coup d'йtat a few weeks earlier. The Turkish

delegation only resumed its place in 1984 after the holding of free


Greece's return marked the disappearance of the last authoritarian

regime in western Europe. Portugal had made its Council of Europe

debut on 22 September 1976, two years after its peaceful revolution of

April 1974, bringing an end to 48 years of Salazarist dictatorship,

while the death of General Franco in 1975 eventually led to Spain's

accession on 24 November 1977.

The Council of Europe's permanent role on the European political and

institutional scene was sealed on 28 January 1977 with its move from

its provisional premises to the Palais de l'Europe, designed by the

French architect Bernard.

Liechtenstein's accession on 23 November 1978, San Marino's on 16

November 1988 and Finland's on 5 May 1989 more or less completed the

absorption of west European states while the Council of Europe was

already laying the foundations for a rapprochement with the countries

of central and eastern Europe.

A further, critical stage in the Council of Europe's life started in

1985 with the first movements to introduce democracy to central and

eastern Europe. In January of that year Hans-Dietrich Genscher,

Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, invited his colleagues to take

part in an extraordinary session devoted entirely to East-West

relations. This process of reflection, that took account of the trend

emerging in Eastern Europe - in Romania and Poland, and in the Soviet

Union, where Mikhail Gorbachov had just come to power - gave rise to

the notion of a European cultural identity, which became the subject

of a resolution in April 1985. Convinced that unity in diversity was

the basis of the wealth of Europe's heritage, the Council of Europe

noted that their common tradition and European identity did not stop

at the boundaries between the various political systems; it stressed,

in the light of the CSCE Final Act, the advantage of consolidating

cultural co-operation as a means of promoting a lasting understanding

between peoples and between governments. The Eastern European

countries grasped this outstretched hand with enthusiasm.

Rapprochement had at last become not only possible but necessary. The

Council of Europe was naturally delighted by the process of

democratisation set in motion in the East, together with the economic

and social reforms introduced in the name of perestroika. It was the

Council's role and purpose to support this trend, to help make it

irreversible, and to fulfil the expectations of the countries calling

upon it for assistance. Not of course by renouncing its principles

but, on the contrary, by making them a precondition for any form of co-


An antechamber

This became the Council of Europe's guiding principle, as reflected in

the Committee of Ministers' change of course set out in its

declaration of 5 May 1989. The new direction represented both an

achievement and a first step, and was the outcome of a number of

exchanges (the Secretary General's visit to Hungary, then Poland; the

visits by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly to Budapest and

Warsaw, and the visits to Strasbourg of delegations and experts from

the USSR and other East European countries). This new departure gave

momentum to a process that was to continue to accelerate, exceeding

even the most optimistic expectations.

Eastern European countries were now knocking impatiently at the door

of the Council of Europe, that guardian of human rights; the

organisation became a kind of antechamber for negotiating the

transition from dictatorship and democracy, as had previously been the

case with Portugal and Spain.

It is no coincidence that the first address by a Soviet leader to an

assembly of Western European parliamentarians should have taken place

at the Council of Europe. Mikhail Gorbachov chose this particular

chamber - on 6 July 1989 - to put forward a new disarmament proposal

(unilateral reduction of short-range nuclear missiles), to promote the

idea of a Common European Home (non-use of force, renunciation of the

Brezhnev doctrine and maintenance of socialism), and to discuss human

rights (albeit without referring to the European Convention!).

The Council of Europe started to open its gates very carefully. In

1989, the Parliamentary Assembly established the very selective

special guest status for the national assemblies of countries willing

to apply the Helsinki final act and the United Nations Covenant on

Human Rights. The status was immediately granted to the assemblies of

Hungary, Poland, USSR and Yugoslavia and opened the way to the full

accession of the former Soviet bloc countries.

Four months after Mikhail Gorbachov's address the Berlin wall fall on

9 September 1989. This provided the opportunity for the Council of

Europe's Secretary General to state, on 23 November, that the Council

was the only organisation capable of encompassing all the countries of

Europe, once they had adopted democratic rules. This marked the start

of the organisation's new political role.

From the fall of the Berlin wall to the Vienna summit

Referring to his country's accession to the Council of Europe on 6

November 1990, the Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs said that

the event marked the first step in the re-establishment of the unity

of the continent.

Special programmes were rapidly introduced to meet the most pressing

needs and allow the new European partners, both before and after their

accession, to draw on a shared fund of knowledge and experience to

enable them to complete their democratic transition. These programmes

were dubbed Demosthenes, Themis and Lode and focused on the key areas

of reform: how to design new constitutions, bring domestic legislation

into line with the European Convention on Human Rights, reorganise the

civil service, establish an independent judiciary and an independent

media, encourage local democracy. In other words, how to become a full

member of the European democratic and legal community.

On 4 May 1992, Franзois Mitterrand addressed the Parliamentary

Assembly in a session largely devoted to integrating the countries of

central and eastern Europe in the building of a new Europe. Why, he

asked, should all the heads of state and government of the Council of

Europe's member countries not meet every two years, alternating with

meetings of the CSCE? The proposal was adopted at least in part and

Austria, which chaired the Committee of Ministers between May and

November 1993, offered to organise and host the summit.

The summit was held in Vienna on 8 and 9 October 1993 and confirmed

and extended the policy of opening up and enlargement. It also

identified three priorities, starting with the reforme of the European

Convention on Human Rights machinery to make it more expeditious and

effective. This is the subject of the Convention's Protocol no 11. The

Vienna summit also laid great emphasis on the protection of national

minorities, which was to lead to the adoption of a framework

convention less than two years later, and combating intolerance.

Thus with its new-found role of offering a home to all the countries

of Europe willing to opt for democracy, thereby establishing a

continent-wide democratic security area, the Council of Europe has

used the years since Vienna to develop and refine the undertakings

which any applicant country for membership must be willing to accept.

The Council of Europe in an enlarged Europe

The arrival of the Russian Federation in February 1996 meant that the

institution had finally become fully pan-European. Henceforth, more

than 700 million citizens would be concerned in building the new

Europe. The Council's activities are now having to adapt to an

environment that is not only wider and more diverse but also more

complex and less stable. This is changing the nature of its co-

operation programmes.

Support and monitoring activities are being strengthened. More

attention is being paid to what happens on the ground, for example via

confidence measures or campaigns to combat intolerance. New priorities

are emerging such as migration, corruption, the right to be granted

nationality, social exclusion and minorities. The dual machinery for

protecting human rights will be replaced on 1 Novembre 1998 by a

single Court, housed in the Human Rights Building designed by the

British architect Richard Rogers and inaugurated in June 1995.

At the same time several other European or North Atlantic institutions

have been increasing their co-operation with the countries of central

and eastern Europe, offering the prospect of closer integration. The

work under the auspices of the intergovernmental conference of the

European Union and NATO summit held in Madrid, show that European co-

operation will continue to develop.

As it approaches its fiftieth anniversary, the Council of Europe, with

its 41 members, will also be required to clarify how it sees its

future role as a focus for democratic security and the proponent of a

European model of society. A second summit was held for this purpose

on 10 and 11 October 1997. The Strasbourg Summit, held at the Council

of Europe headquarters and hosted by the French Presidency, gave the

40 Heads of State and Government an opportunity to assess the positive

contribution which the Council had made to stability in Europe by

admitting new countries, running programmes to help them make the

transition to democracy and monitoring all its members' compliance

with their obligations. The Summit adopted a Final Declaration and an

Action Plan, fixing the Organisation's priorities in the years ahead,

and gave reform of its structures the green light.

How the Council of Europe works

The Council of Europe comprises:

. a decision making body: the Committee of Ministers

. a deliberative body: the Parliamentary Assembly

. a voice for local democracy: the Congress of Local and Regional

Authorities of Europe

Each of these three bodies, whose function is briefly described below,

has its own Internet site.

In exceptional circumstances, political impetus for the organisation

may come from a summit of its member countries' heads of state and

government. This occurred with the Vienna summit in 1993 and the

Strasbourg Summit in 1997.

The various bodies are assisted by an International Secretariat of

some 1500 officials from all the member countries. They are headed by

a Secretary General whose is elected by the Parliamentary Assembly for

a five year term.

The Committee of Ministers

The Committee of Ministers is the decision-making body of the Council

of Europe. It directly represents the governments of the member States.

It is composed of the Minister for foreign affairs of each member

State. The Minister may be represented by an alternate who is either a

member of government or a senior diplomat.

The chairmanship of the Committee changes with each six-month session,

in the English alphabetical order of the member States.

The Committee meets twice a year at ministerial level, once in April or

May and again in November. The day-to-day work of the Committee is

conducted by the Ministers' Deputies. Each minister appoints a Deputy,

who usually also acts as the Permanent Representative of the member


The Ministers' Deputies meet in plenary two to three times a month.

Their decisions have the same authority as the Committee of Ministers.

The conduct of meetings of the Ministers and their Deputies is governed

by the Statute and rules of procedure.

The Deputies are assisted by a Bureau, Rapporteur Groups and ad hoc


The Committee of Ministers performs a triple role:

- firstly as the emanation of the governments which enables them to

express on equal terms their national approaches to the problems

confronting Europe's societies;

- secondly as the collective forum where European responses to these

challenges are worked out;

- thirdly as guardian, alongside the Parliamentary Assembly, of the

values for which the Council of Europe exists; as such, it is vested

with a monitoring function in respect of the commitments accepted by

the member States.

The work and activities of the Committee of Ministers include :

* political dialogue

* interacting with the Parliamentary Assembly

* interacting with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of

Europe (CLRAE)

* follow-up to respect of commitments by member States

* admission of new member States

* concluding conventions and agreements

* adopting recommendations to member States

* adopting the budget

* adopting and monitoring the Intergovernmental Programme of


* implementing cooperation and assistance programmes for central and

eastern Europe

* supervising the execution of judgments of the European Convention

on Human Rights by the member States

* contributing to Conferences of Specialised Ministers

The Committee of Ministers is made up of the ministers for foreign

affairs of the 41 member states. It meets twice a year in ordinary

sessions and may hold special or informal meetings. Its Chair changes

every six months according to the member countries' alphabetical order.

The Ministers' Deputies meet at least once a month. They draw up the

Council of Europe's activities programme and adopt its budget, which

today amounts to some 1 300 million French francs. It also decides what

follow-up should be given to proposals of the Parliamentary Assembly,

the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and the specialist

ministerial conferences that the Council of Europe regularly organises.

The Parliamentary Assembly

The Parliamentary Assembly is the parliamentary organ of the Council of

Europe consisting of a number of individual representatives from each

member State, with a President elected each year from among them for a

maximum period of three sessions. The present President is Lord Russell-

Johnston, a British Liberal Democrat (LDR) member of the House of


Whilst in the Committee of Ministers each member state has one vote, in

the Parliamentary Assembly the number of representatives and

consequently of votes is determined by the size of the country. The

biggest number is eighteen, the smallest two. As there are an equal

number of representatives and substitutes, the total number of members

of the Assembly is therefore 582, plus 15 special guests and 15


They are appointed to the Parliamentary Assembly in a manner which is

left to be decided by each member state as long as they are elected

within their national or federal Parliament, or appointed from amongst

the members of that parliament. The balance of political parties within

each national delegation must ensure a fair representation of the

political parties or groups in their national parliaments.

Political groups

In order to develop a non-national European outlook, the formation of

political groups in the Parliamentary Assembly has been promoted and

from 1964 onwards they were granted certain rights within the Rules of

Procedure. At present the Assembly counts five political groups: the

Socialist Group (SOC); the Group of the European People's Party

(EPP/CD); the European Democratic Group (EDG); the Liberal, Democratic

and Reformers Group (LDR) and the Group of the Unified European Left

(UEL). Political Groups have to commit themselves to respect the

promotion of the values of the Council of Europe, notably political

pluralism, human rights and the rule of law. To form a Group, at least

twenty members of at least six different delegations have to decide to

do so. Members of the Assembly are entirely free to choose the Group

they wish to join. Before deciding they can attend meetings of one or

several groups and should not be bound by their national party label

but choose the group which best suits their political affinities. The

President of the Assembly and the Leaders of the Groups form the Ad hoc

Committee of Chairpersons of Political Groups.

The Bureau

The President, eighteen Vice-Presidents and the Chairpersons of the

political groups or their representatives make up the Bureau of the

Assembly. The big countries have a permanent seat in the Bureau; the

smaller countries take turns. The duties of the Bureau are manifold:

preparation of the Assembly's agenda, reference of documents to

committees, arrangement of day-to-day business, relations with other

international bodies, authorisations for meetings by Assembly

committees, etc.

The Standing Committee

The Standing Committee consists of the Bureau, the Chairpersons of

national delegations and the Chairpersons of the general committees. It

is generally convened at least twice a year and its major task is to

act on behalf of the Assembly when the latter is not in session. Each

year one of the Standing Committee meetings, together with a number of

other committees, takes place normally in one of the member states.

The Joint Committee

The Joint Committee is the forum set up to co-ordinate the activities

of, and maintain good relations between, the Committee of Ministers and

the Assembly.

It is composed of a representative of each member Government and a

corresponding number of representatives of the Assembly (the members of

the Bureau and one representative of each parliamentary delegation of

member States not represented on the Bureau).

The Secretariat of the Assembly

The secretariat of the Assembly is headed by Mr Bruno Haller, Secretary

General of the Assembly who is elected by it for a period of five


Its staff is divided into the Private Office of the President, the

Secretariat of the Bureau and the Joint Committee, the Table Office and

Inter-parliamentary Relations, the Administration and Finance

Department and the Political and Legal Affairs Department including a

number of operational Divisions to cover the work of the committees.

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly is made up of 286

representatives and the same number of substitutes from the parliaments

of the member states. Each delegation's composition reflects that of

its parliament of origin.

The Parliamentary Assembly hold four plenary sessions a year. Its

debates on a wide range of social issues and its recommendations to the

Committee of Ministers have been at the root of many of the Council of

Europe's achievements.

The Parliamentary Assembly has instituted a special guest status, which

has enabled it to play host to representatives of the parliaments of

non-member states in central and eastern Europe, paving the way to

these countries' eventual accession.

The Assembly plays a key role in the accession process for new members

and in monitoring compliance with undertakings entered into.

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe, like the

Parliamentary Assembly, has 286 representatives and 286 substitutes. It

is composed of two chambers, one representing local authorities and the

other regions. Its function is to strengthen democratic institutions at

the local level, and in particular to assist the new democracies.

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