Where do democracy and human rights stand in today's Europe?

By Catherine Lalumière
President of the Association of the Schools of Political Studies
20 June 2014, Speech given at the First International Alumni Seminar of the Schools of Political Studies, Strasbourg

Translated from the French by Alexandra Jaraba

I) Where do democracy and human rights stand in today's Europe?

This question is worth asking in these terms because today, Europe, Greater Europe is going through a period of doubt and questioning, and Europeans, from both West and East are clearly troubled.

Today's mood is different from the one that prevailed after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the Council of Europe opened up to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. As you know, I am particularly attached to the Council which is hosting us today.

At that time, democracy, human rights and all the other humanist values seemed to inspire everyone's approval, and even enthusiasm. Today, the situation is quite different.

In the East, the situation in Georgia, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and more recent developments in Ukraine are a source of great anxiety. What do these countries want? What do their peoples want? What do the Russian Federation and its "charismatic" President Vladimir Putin want? It is a worrisome situation.

But in the West, in the European Union, the climate is not entirely stable or reassuring: the rise of nationalism is one of the worrisome outcomes of the May 25th European elections. Admittedly, the reasons behind the resurgence of nationalism differ from one country to another: the United Kingdom is different from Denmark, which in turn differs from Hungary, Greece or France... But there we are: the European spirit, based on reconciliation, solidarity and the desire to live together in peace, seems to be giving way to a return to inward looking. We should never forget President François Mitterand's words in his final speech to the European Parliament in 1995. When having recalled the reasons which, in 1945, had us embark on the European venture in the first place, he said: "Ladies and Gentlemen, nationalism is war..."

There is nothing wrong or unusual in loving one's country but nationalism is quite different... It is a distortion. It is no longer just loving one's country, it is the contempt and even hatred of other people leading to violence and even war...

Clearly, today Europe and European values are in poor shape. That is all the more worrying since at present the world is changing considerably with the rapid and spectacular emergence of certain countries (such as a China, India, Brazil and the African continent), globalisation, and the multiplication of commercial, intellectual and cultural exchanges thanks to new communication technologies (internet and other technology tools). All these things, which in some respects constitute real progress, are destabilising Europe and European countries. I am of course referring to the European Union, but a fortiori, to the wider Europe, of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe encompassing particularly sensitive areas such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, Ukraine and its neighbours Belarus and Moldova (we mustn't forget Transnistria), etc...

In fact, all over the wider Europe there are signs of instability which could escalate into full-fledged conflicts. Political leaders can lose control of these conflicts which are then taken over by warlords or mafias, ultimately leading to barbarism.

Everywhere, there is a resurgence of nationalism. 

Everywhere, there are threats to the democratic and humanist values on which the "Common European Home" is built. It was about that Home that Mikhail Gorbachev spoke in his day, here at the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, where I received him on July 6, 1989. But that was 25 years ago.

II) What should we do?

What can be done to ensure full respect of the democratic and humanist values to which all member states committed themselves on signing the European Convention on Human Rights? But what can we do to avoid being naively optimistic and losing out to the "Realpolitik"?

On the face of it, Realpolitik seems to be the iron pot and democratic values the clay pot. They are bound to be crushed.

Many leaders probably think along these lines, particularly those which like Russia, had a seemingly glorious past during the USSR era and who might be under the impression of having lost some of their power. That is the case for Russia, but also to a certain extent for England and France, who may sometimes be nostalgic about their former colonial empires and the influence they used to have in the world.

The recent resurgence of nationalism and populism in these two countries only serves to confirm this point of view even if there are also other reasons for this resurgence.

Under these circumstances, I believe the first thing to do is to try and distinguish between what pertains to geopolitics and what pertains to the political philosophy defining the nature of the regime governing a country at a certain time. By striking the right balance between these two we will be able to avoid disasters.

Both in terms of geopolitics and of major questions of international politics, the place and the role of the Nation and State are inevitable. We can readily understand that a government may wish to protect its territory, to protect its citizens, and even by extension, to protect those that used to be its citizens in the recent past but no longer are, those who speak the same language and have the same culture. I am thinking of Russian minorities living in the Russian Federation's neighbouring countries. It is therefore understandable that Russia was shocked by the European Union's tactless approach when it initiated negotiations aimed at concluding an Association Agreement with Ukraine without officially consulting Russia on the matter and without discussing a similar agreement with Russia.

I said "European tactlessness" because we obviously cannot deal with Ukraine or negotiate with Ukraine without in some way involving Russia. This is due to the fact that Russia and Ukraine's histories are closely intertwined and that in the future, these two countries will have to work closely together in their own political and economic interest. The European Union should have kept that in mind.

However, although Europe's tactlessness may account for Russia's anger it did not mean Russia could take whatever action it liked including the use of military or police force, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, even invoking the principle of "the right of peoples to self-determination" could well be questioned.

This democratic principle is indeed legally recognised under Article 1 of the 1945 Charter of the United Nations as well as by Article 55 of the Charter and other subsequent laws.

However, this obviously very important principle is counterbalanced by the notions of "territorial integrity" and "inviolability of borders". Although lacking the legally binding force of "the right of peoples to self-determination", this second principle is a tenet of political wisdom. Moving the borders is an extremely delicate issue. If we want peace, it must only be done through negotiation and compromise.

From this point of view, the manner of the decision to return Crimea to Russia was far from exemplary. Similarly, nor was Nikita Khrushchev's reverse decision taken in 1974.

Europeans, all Europeans from East to West, should bear in mind their history of countless wars over the centuries, often caused by poorly managed or poorly contained border problems. For in shame the way the borders were drawn after the First World War by the Treaties of Versailles (1919) and Trianon (1920) was catastrophic, and a major cause of the Second World War and of the still unresolved national minorities issues (e.g. the divided Hungarian nation and the Hungary's minorities living in its neighbouring countries as consequence of the Treaty of Trianon...)!

What I have said shows that in international relations we can and sometimes must take into account history, the existing balance of powers and what are after all different countries' legitimate interests. In short, only a global and geopolitical vision can lead to a better understanding of a leader's - let's say authoritarian - wishes or decisions at a certain time. That goes for the whole world, but also in the wider Europe, and even in the European Union.

Thus sovereign states want to act alone. And some presidents of sovereign states love this solitary action. But such is the world today that it is made up of states which all claim to be sovereign. Relations between them will necessarily be complicated with inevitable rivalries, competitiveness, power unbalances and conflicting interests. Since they all claim to be sovereign, they all want to have the last say.

In this context, the progress of humanity lies in trying to devise acceptable compromises between these states which purport to be sovereign. Such compromises often take the shape of legal rules which we call international law. It is a special form of law that consists of legally binding and monitored rules (e.g. the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, monitored and applied by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg) but also of recommendations setting out principles which are less closely monitored. International law is a blend of "soft" law mixed with an increasing amount of "hard" law. Europe has contributed significantly to the elaboration of international law.

Nevertheless, even in Europe, the leaders of our countries are always tempted to circumvent hard law. Therefore, the new member states of the Council of Europe are not the only ones to contest the decisions of the Strasbourg Court. The British Prime Minister recently contested the Court's authority in the name of the United Kingdom's sovereignty. Where is England heading and where is Europe heading? Where will we all end up if we continually challenge the very things which our fathers had the merit to create?

* *

Today, our infinitely complex world needs to realise that our survival entails the existence of common rules and the respect of these rules. It is not a dream and it is not a utopia, it is a condition crucial to our survival. And ultimately, that is the true Realpolitik, one that does not limit itself to short term victories and that takes into account the long term future of humanity and of our peoples.

So where does Europe stand today on this global challenge? What is its place and what is its role? And here it is still the wider Europe, the Europe of the Council of Europe to which I am referring.

Our shared past was one of the most conflictual and violent in the history of humanity. And the depths of horror were undoubtedly reached during the 20th century - not so long ago - with the Nazi extermination camps and the Stalinist deportations to the gulags. Europeans have no lessons in humanity to give to the rest of the world.

However, having reached the depths of horror, after the Second World War we began some serious soul searching.

That was not done in one day and it was not done easily. There were multiple steps, the first of which being the drafting and adoption of the revolutionary text that is the Council of Europe European Convention of Human Rights of 1950.

It became the bedrock of Democracy and Human Rights in Europe.

It regulated the relations of the signatory states with their citizens and even with any person within their territory.

It influenced relations between the signatory states by encouraging dialogue, compromise and mutual respect.

In short, it was a giant leap for international law, both in and between the signatory states.

Since the adoption of this symbolic text, followed by other similar texts, European States have certainly not been the image of perfection. Far from it. However, Europe is, despite all that, an example envied by many people around the globe.

Today, as I have been saying from the beginning of this intervention, Europe, Greater Europe, is going through times of crisis. It is not only an economic crisis, it is also a moral crisis, and ultimately a very political crisis. What kind of society are we building? What do we want to leave to our children? Everywhere, there are abounding temptations: out for their own ends policies, selfishness, rejection of others.

Without sinking into wishful thinking or unrealistic dreams, isn't it our highest officials' responsibility to make decisions in keeping with these principles and values that we struggled so hard to establish?

What is a great political leader nowadays? What is a good leader?

As I ask these questions, an image which has made a profound impression upon me comes to mind: it was in 1970, in Warsaw. The German Chancellor, Willy Brandt was there on official visit and went to the Memorial built in remembrance of the massacre of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Then and there, the Chancellor of Germany, who had actively resisted Hitler and the Nazi regime, he who had done nothing wrong, very spontaneously knelt before the Memorial. With this gesture he took on the responsibility of the entire German people. He honoured the victims whose rights to life and freedom had been trampled on and destroyed by the Nazis. That day, Willy Brandt embodied and symbolised the true democratic and humanist grandeur of a leader and of his people.

It is an example, it should be an example for all the Europeans and also for you, young Europeans who bear the future of Europe in your hands.