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Why We Still Need the Council of Europe


The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, is probably Europe’s most misunderstood organisation. Even well-informed people confuse it with the European Council — the periodic gathering of European Union (EU) heads of state or government — and with the Council of the European Union, where ministers from each member state are responsible, alongside the European Parliament, for passing the EU’s laws and approving its budget.

The Council of Europe has nothing to do with the EU. It was created in 1949 by the Treaty of London, two years before the Treaty of Paris which set up the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the first stage of European integration. The Council covers a different geographic area too, since it has 47 member countries (1) — most of the continent — compared with the EU’s 27 members (28 in 2013 when Croatia joins).

The Council started out with 10 members (2) but grew over the years — particularly after the collapse of the Communist bloc in 1989 — to include the entire continent with the exception of Belarus. Its objective is to help create an area of common democratic and legal principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention is the Council’s main achievement, and any country wishing to become a member of the Council must ratify it, organise free elections, abolish the death penalty and guarantee the rule of law. The task of the European Court of Human Rights, to which citizens can lodge an application directly, is to ensure respect for the Convention.

At a time when the European public, tired of the financial crisis and budget cuts, is calling into question the legitimacy of EU institutions and the purpose of integration, it is useful to turn our attention to an institution such as the Council, which has always put democracy and human rights at the forefront of its activities.

At the end of the second world war, the idea of Europe (which had been around since the 19th century and had grown stronger after 1918) quickly established itself as the best way to avoid another catastrophe. There were three schools of thought among those who favoured European integration: the “unionists” (including Churchill, and to some extent de Gaulle) who wanted countries to cooperate as much as possible while remaining sovereign states; the “federalists” who thought European countries had been so ineffective and shown such a propensity to violence that the best solution was to form a federation; and the “functionalists”, who could also be considered federalist, who believed that any economic and social integration would inevitably lead to political union by the “spill-over effect”. They included Jean Monnet (1888-1979), a French businessman posted to London during the second world war, who was taken with the Anglo-Saxon world and became one of the architects of European unity.

The various currents favouring integration met at The Hague in the Netherlands, 7-10 May 1948, for the Congress of Europe. The Congress brought together important political figures from 17 countries, and was presided over by Churchill (no longer the British prime minister). It closed with a resolution, the Message to Europeans drafted by Denis de Rougemont, appealing for an end to conflict. One of the consequences of this text was a recommendation to create an indirectly elected parliamentary assembly to study the political and legal implications of a European Union or Federation. Federalists saw this as a snub, as they wanted a constituent assembly elected by universal suffrage.

The Berlin blockade, which came a few months later, set the western liberal democratic bloc firmly against the eastern Communist bloc. As the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were proclaimed, on 5 May 1949, ten countries established the Council of Europe.

It was far from the creation of a European federation: the Council of Europe was an intergovernmental organisation, and signatories did not transfer any of their sovereign power to it. It was expressly excluded from dealing with matters of defence, which were supervised by Nato, set up a month earlier by the same ten countries under the leadership of the US. The start of the cold war saw an increase in tension between the two blocs, particularly over Berlin and Budapest (1956).

Nonetheless the Council retained its humanist vision — sharpened by the extreme violence of Nazi domination and war, and by the happier creative chaos of the Hague Congress. It was imbued with a pluralist vision of Europe (as opposed to a Stalinist people’s democracy) and respect for fundamental rights. While Europe embarked on the road towards union two years later, with the creation of the ECSC, then in 1957 with the European Economic Community (EEC), there remained at the core of the Council something more deeply “political” than integration based on a common market of competition and free trade.

When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, creating the EEC, the media and officialdom turned their attention from the Council, to follow the functionalist construction that Monnet, with his method of “small steps”, had envisaged. Economics was seen as the solution to every problem; democracy and human rights were taken for granted, and not worthy of in-depth discussion. General de Gaulle described the Council as “that sleeping beauty on the banks of the Rhine”, referring to its headquarters in Strasbourg. The Council spent the cold war period concerning itself with cultural rapprochement and the civil and legal rights of member states.

The Council enjoyed a rebirth in 1989 when revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) put democracy, in the liberal sense of the word, back at the heart of the debate. Movements like Solidarity in Poland became the symbols of protest against Communist regimes, and they naturally became interested in the work of the Council. In the middle of the glasnost period (3), the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev chose the Council as a “neutral” platform to expound his vision of a “common European home”. Catherine Lalumière, then Secretary General of the Council, convinced of the important role it could play, restored its proactive stance, increased its contacts and developed democracy programmes that were applied throughout the CEE. The Council is often perceived as the antechamber of the EU and its common market, and associated with economic prosperity, even though no legal link exists between the two.

The Council’s revival lasted a decade, until the CEE joined the EU, and it returned to relative obscurity. The timidity with which it demanded a peaceful solution to the bloody conflict in Chechnya in 1999-2000 caused its moral authority to be called into question for a time. There had already been heated debate when Russia joined in 1996. More generally, the failure of many European countries to challenge new members who flouted democratic principles sometimes undermines the organisation’s credibility.

The European public’s disenchantment with the EU is no doubt rooted in the over-importance given to the economy, financial circles and the powers of the European Commission (without any real democratic counterpart), in the process of integration. It is becoming harder to bridge the gulf between populations in crisis, searching for a meaning in a globalised world, and a Union perceived as distant, technocratic, illegitimate and undemocratic. The political philosophy underpinning the Council seems to have been forgotten. Yet if it were applied to the Union, it might give new meaning to integration. Europe’s citizens and leaders could benefit greatly from the lessons of the Hague Congress, the words of Rougemont — and the rediscovery of the Council of Europe.

Translated by Stephanie Irvine.

Fabio Liberti is research director at l’Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS), Paris.


(1) Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, San Marino, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom.

(2) Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom.

(3) Policy of “transparency” introduced in the Soviet Union in 1985.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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