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The Council of Europe and Canada: Together for Democracy

Remarks delivered at the interactive dialogue with the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, at the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Canada being granted observer status at the Council of Europe on April 3rd, 1996.

Virtually held on April 27th, 2021

Stéphane Dion
The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe, and Ambassador of Canada to Germany

Madam Secretary General of the Council of Europe, dear Marija Pejčinović Burić:

As we mark the 25th anniversary of cooperation between the Council of Europe and Canada, the first thing I would like to say to you, on behalf of all my colleagues and as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe, is that at this very moment, you are surrounded by friends. As the Canadian heads of mission and senior Canadian officials whose responsibility, whose daily work, is to continually strengthen ties between Canada and Europe, we are delighted to be with you at the Palace of Europe in Strasbourg, at least virtually.

It speaks volumes that the Council of Europe, whose raison d’être is democracy and peace, is currently being headed by a native of Ljubuski, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina affected by the war in the former Yugoslavia, where today Croats and Bosniaks live side by side. Perhaps, Madam Secretary General, that is where you found your passion for Europe that has been evident throughout your admirable career, from your studies at the College of Europe to your responsibilities at the Europe House Zagreb and with the European Movement Croatia, from your participation in negotiations for Croatia’s entry into the European Union to your ministerial mandates with Croatia’s Foreign and European Affairs, and as Deputy Prime Minister of your country. Madam, as someone who is truly Croatian and European, you are an inspiration to all those who believe that identities enhance each other—never detract from one another—and that they must all be embraced.

For this reason, and as a former high-level handball player who appreciates teamwork, and also as a polyglot at the head of a Council whose two official languages are…English and French, you have everything that appeals to us as Canadians.

And even though you already know this, I must also say that, in our constant efforts to bring Europe and Canada closer together, the Council of Europe is an essential lever, one that Canada sees as a superb human achievement and a key ally for the causes of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Bloodied by centuries of incessant conflicts culminating in two world wars, the European continent had a crucial need to endow itself with an organization whose main raison d'être would be European harmony. Launched at the initiative of visionary leaders including Winston Churchill, so that the horrors of World War II will never be repeated, founded in 1949 by ten Western European countries, the Council of Europe has succeeded, over the decades, in effectively bringing together all European countries, from Iceland to Russia, with the sole exception of The Holy See (which has observer status) and Belarus.

It is often said that peace is more than the absence of war. If there is one organization on earth that embodies this maxim, it is the Council of Europe. You serve the ideals of democracy in almost all areas of human activity.

I would not have enough time to describe the 160 or so international agreements, treaties and conventions or to list all the bodies that the Council oversees. Together they play a vital role in promoting human rights, democratic institutions and good governance; education, scientific and cultural cooperation; crime and drug prevention; environmental protection; public health and bioethical practices; gender equality, minority rights and inclusion. In looking for common solutions to the challenges facing European society, you inspire the whole world, including, of course, Canada, in our joint efforts to fight discrimination against minorities, xenophobia, intolerance, organized crime and corruption, cybercrime, terrorism and violence against women and children.

Each of your 47 member states has signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. The Council of Europe has truly become the continent's leading human rights organization, in normal times as in times of crisis like the current pandemic, through the European Court of Human Rights and the Council’s relentless action, its binding conventions, its recommendations, meetings and conferences, training assistance, policy guidance and toolkits, reports, studies and awareness campaigns.

It has been said that the European Union would never have seen the light of day without the Council of Europe. What is certain is that the European Union has taken from the Council of Europe its ideal of unity and democracy, down to the symbolic choices of its flag and its national anthem, and that no country has ever joined the EU without first belonging to the Council of Europe.

As we know, Europe is a diversified and complex political cosmos, where liberal democracy, cultural pluralism and good governance are variably entrenched, with a persisting strong east-west contrast. Of the 23 countries around the world that the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2020 Democracy Index classifies as "full democracies," no less than 13 are Europeans. However, even these most well established European democracies are not immune to authoritarian and populist pressures. In some other European countries, authoritarian governments have achieved a large degree of state capture by infiltrating the bureaucracy, weakening checks and balances, hobbling the media, subsuming the judiciary, denigrating minorities and immigrants and attacking their rights.

Faced with these authoritarian abuses, the Council of Europe deals with the same dilemma so familiar to the foreign policy of democratic governments like Canada: would it be better to sever ties with an abusive government, or maintain dialogue and a presence in the country? How to sanction bad players while retaining the ability to support good players?

It happened in the past that the Council of Europe has gone so far as to exclude or suspend member states: Greece's military regime between 1969 and 1974, Türkiye after the military coup between 1981 and 1984. The common wisdom is to consider expulsion as an extreme measure, of last resort, if only because one of its consequences would be to deprive the citizens of the expelled country of access to the European Court of Human Rights. However, by keeping these problematic governments in the Council, it becomes more difficult to promote higher legal and democratic standards and to fend off attempts to politicize the Council, its courts and other institutions.

These are the fundamental dilemma which animate the most complex debates of the Council of Europe and which sometimes give rise to controversy. It must be quite complicated, but at the same time fascinating, Madam Secretary General, facilitates and responds to the debates within the Committee of Ministers, composed of the Foreign Ministers of all these 47 contrasting member states, and of the Parliamentary Assembly, composed of members of all these diverse parliaments.

Canada is, along with the Holy See, the United States, Japan and Mexico, one of the five States to which the Council of Europe has granted observer status. As such, we are proud to have contributed to the elaboration of several Council of Europe conventions and to have signed and ratified many of them. We are proud of the active participation of the delegations of the Canadian Parliament in the work of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and in the meetings of its political groups.

On June 12, 2019, Canada became a full member of the Council’s Commission for Democracy through Law, the Venice Commission. We did it because the Venice Commission is nothing less than one of the world’s most authoritative expert bodies related to the promotion of constitutionalism and the rule of law, of which the important contribution extends far beyond the European continent.

I think it is fair to say, without being presumptuous, that thanks to our share values and interests, Canada’s contribution to the Council of Europe is active and diverse. Recent examples range from support to capacity building in Ukraine; participate in the negotiations of the 2nd protocol of the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime; further enhance our very active participation in Eurimages by becoming a full member; be fully involved in the Venice Commission; contribute to the work of the committee on artificial intelligence; or promote, with Intercultural Cities, the integration of newcomers and minorities.

In closing, Madam Pejčinović Burić, allow me to quote an excerpt from your first statement as Secretary General: “During my work as the Secretary General, I will pay special attention to all non-discrimination issues, particularly to women and children.” That is, indeed, good news, because Canada’s foreign policy is officially feminist. As you can see, we are well suited to working together.

In fact, you can count on Canada in everything you do for democracy, the rule of law and human rights, since your goals are our goals. We are therefore very happy to be discussing them with you today.

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