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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 1967.

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'état a few weeks earlier. The Turkish delegation only resumed its place in 1984 after the holding of free elections.

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-operation.

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.

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