Web Content Display

Parliamentary Assembly Session: 25 to 29 January 2010

Address by Georges A. Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece

26 January 2010

(Extract of the verbatim records)

Mr PAPANDREOU (Prime Minister of Greece). – Thank you for your kind words, Mr President.

We often underestimate and undervalue both the uniqueness and the importance of our common European institutions and practices. I myself have come to this building and this institution wearing different hats, yet I do not cease to marvel at what you are doing, and what we Europeans are attempting to accomplish, or even achieving, here. So many different nations, so many different cultures, so vast an array of traditions and languages, so much history that has poisoned our relations in the past; yet we have established a common court and a common Assembly of representatives from our Parliaments. I could add to that the establishment of a Commissioner for Human Rights, a Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, a European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, and the Venice Commission. All those organisations are doing an extraordinary job in defending human dignity.

What that means, very simply, is that we have voluntarily taken a common vow to accept supra-national institutions which guarantee that we can live together, abiding by common values and common practices involving democracy, respect for human rights, respect for each other, and respect for our common humanity. We cannot and must not take those institutions, practices and achievements for granted. I agree with the Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland – and congratulations, my dear friend Thorbjørn, on your recent appointment and your determination to revitalise the Council of Europe.

Let me insert a small parenthesis. I knew Thorbjørn when I was much younger, and a refugee. At that time, we did not have democracy in Greece. I would visit Thorbjørn in Oslo with my father, who, being a refugee, had a Norwegian passport because he could not have a Greek one. For that reason, this is also a sentimental and an emotional moment. Thorbjørn is not only a friend, but one who has fought: at the time of which I am speaking, he was an active member of the committee for democracy in Greece. He has fought for democracy in my country, and has helped to change the face of Europe to what it is today. I wish you well, Thorbjørn, and in particular I wish you well in your determination to revitalise the Council of Europe and make it even more relevant to the challenges that we all face across our continent and, indeed, beyond.

What can the Council of Europe, one of the oldest European institutions, offer today? Some may say that, after 60 years of defending human rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, we have reached maturity and accomplished our aims on our continent, but that does not seem to be the view of our citizens. Let me give a simple example. The unprecedented case load of the European Court of Human Rights as a result of the explosive growth in the number of individual applications over the past 10 years is testimony to the strength of that unique institution and its legitimacy in the eyes of our citizens, but also to the need for it to continue to function properly and effectively. In that context, let me say that I look forward to the forthcoming Interlaken conference, and take this opportunity to thank the Swiss Presidency for the initiative.

The application of the principle of subsidiarity – both at national level and in the Court itself – and recognition of the importance of individual applications are, of course, essential, but I would go even further. I believe that the Council of Europe, along with the European Union, faces a renewed and daunting task: to defend democracy at a time of globalisation, and to humanise and democratise the process of globalisation.

Let me try to present a picture to the Assembly. It may be simplistic, but it is easy to understand. Let me explain how I see globalisation. In my view, it is similar to the wild west. We see a new frontier filled with opportunity – opportunity for wealth – as new resources are discovered. In the wild west the resources were oil, gold, water, forests and wildlife; today’s resources are digital communications, new technologies and other new possibilities. However, in the wild west there were also few or no rules. Resources were plundered, tribes were wiped out, and outlaws became sheriffs. There was no rule of law, but only the rule of the survival of the strongest.

Today, our globalising world is also a new frontier providing great opportunity and great wealth, and yet with few if any rules. Whether we are talking about the financial crisis, the struggle for energy resources, the menace of climate change, or poverty and inequality, what we lack at global level – although we have tried to strengthen institutions such as the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the World Trade Organization – are the necessary rules and regulations, the necessary common understanding and values, and the necessary institutions to deal with those important challenges in a collective, just and effective way. The recent meeting of so many heads of state and government in Copenhagen was a case in point. It highlighted the lack of processes and institutions and even the will to regulate and humanise our model of growth and development in front of a terrible menace – the most difficult challenge humankind has ever faced.

This lack of necessary regulation and co-operation at the multinational level has allowed the process of globalisation to become more like what the wild west was – those who survive are those who have the power. However, it is not simply a matter of survival. We are witnessing such a concentration of power in the hands of the few that our democratic institutions as we know them today are being threatened. These are our new challenges and the new threats to our democracies which we must face up to.

Let me give you a few words on the nature of these challenges as I see them. The capture of our democratic institutions by the powerful in our societies and around the world, the huge concentration of money and very often the huge concentration of the media in the hands of a few, have made our democratic institutions vulnerable. Politicians are lobbied by the powerful, and more and more politicians become dependent on huge budgets or the favours of those who own the media if they want to be elected. If necessary, even politicians are bought off.

The same goes for many of our other institutions that uphold the rule of law, whether it be judges or the police. They are also targets of corruption. As inequality and huge concentration of wealth increases, so does the corruption of our democratic institutions. A lack of transparency and democratic control and the huge strength of the financial sector in the United States were behind many of the reasons for the Wall Street crash just a year ago. We are all feeling the effects, very much in Greece today, of this crisis.

This brings me to another aspect of our global challenge – the fact that many local issues today are global issues. So, climate change may exist around us but it is a global issue. While this has given our citizens a sense of planetary consciousness that may not have existed before, they have also become conscious of the fact that nation states, national governments and national parliaments cannot solve these problems alone. So our citizens feel more and more powerless rather than empowered. This brings on fear and frustration. It undermines the sense of power that democratic institutions give to our citizens. It also brings on extremism and defeatism. It brings on the desire to look for solutions in a populist leader who promises magic or to find scapegoats – those who are different, foreign – for our problems. It is very dangerous for the fabric of our democratic society.

This brings me to a third challenge: we are becoming ever more multi-ethnic. While we feel less empowered, we also see our societies changing, and changing rapidly, and more fear rather than solidarity is created. Racism and xenophobia become tools in the hands of some politicians to splinter their societies at a time when we need to muster our strength, work together and use this diversity to be creative and to create new bonds of solidarity in order to meet the major challenges faced by Europe and the world today.

If we do not meet these challenges and face up to them in a way that strengthens human rights, the rule of law and the sense of justice and security for all, particularly for those who are weaker, we will see massive competition at the global level between the differing geopolitical interests whether it is over energy, water resources or whatever else, and we will also see great insecurity and fear at the societal level. So we either humanise and democratise globalisation, or globalisation will become synonymous with violence and barbarism.

Is there a model or a way out? I would say that there is European model. However, before I conclude on the importance of this model, I would like to say a few words as a Greek. Like all European peoples, we like to look to our traditions to mine them and to look for solutions. If you stand next to the Parthenon on the Acropolis and and look down on Athens, you will see the ancient Agora. Agora means not only market but public speaking. So politics and the economy were united at that time. Today, we have separated the market and the economy from the polity in a way that allows the market, rather than our democratic institutions and our citizens, to make policy. We need to bring back politics so that our decision in our economies are informed and regulated by the democratic will of our peoples.

Again, if you look across from the Acropolis you will see a hill called the Pnyx, where a citizen could stand on a rock and speak and be heard by all. Today most politicians can only speak through a filter called the media. So here again we need to see how we can democratise this by giving greater access to all. The new cyberspace and digital world are providing us not only with new possibilities but with new democratic challenges regarding how we see democratic participation in this new cyberworld.

Looking at the columns of the Parthenon, one marvels not only at the architecture but also at the labour that went into moving those tonnes of marble. One realises that ancient Greece – the Polis – was a democracy, but also that it had its flaws. Yes, there were slaves and barbarians. However, one could become free and become a Greek. How was that done? Being Greek was not a question of DNA. As Issocratis, an ancient Greek philosopher, said, being Greek meant simply sharing in Greek education. In fact, what he was saying was that anyone who shared the values of Greek society could be Greek.

Is this not what we are trying to do, and are doing, in the Council of Europe and the European Union? Should we not use this principle in integrating our new migrants and refugees into our societies? This can be attained only through reinforced democratic participation and active engagement in civil society, which are two key factors of good governance that we must actively promote. That is why my government has introduced a new bill to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants born and educated in Greece.

Finally, if you glance towards the Aegean sea, you will see a great number of islands. In ancient Greece, in ancient times, these were separate cities in their own right but they were also bound by a common alliance, common traditions and common values, something that we are accomplishing in Europe today.

So my conclusion is simple: in this globalising world, the world needs more Europe, not less. If Europe was a peace project after the First World War and Second World War, today it is also a project in how to deal with a globalising world. We can and must become a model for a globalising society – one that provides that different nations, different cultures and different languages and traditions can partake and share in the same fundamental values and the same core practices and, in doing so, guarantee the rule of law and a democratic and humane globalisation.

This is why it is so important that all member states of the European Union have signed up to the Charter of Fundamental Rights. This will help enshrine human rights at the institutional level and ensure that there will not be different national standards across Europe that will weaken one of the most important pillars of European integration. Of course we need a clear allocation of responsibilities so that we can collectively be more effective in our responses to these new global challenges – climate change, sustainable development, terrorism and violence, organised crime, migration and racism. Those are all pressing issues that test our traditional values and threaten the social fabric of our countries.

These complex issues affect different countries in different ways, but they all affect us in many ways, and we can all deal with them with common principles. We must tackle them with both delicacy and determination and strike an equitable balance between conflicting interests, but base this on fundamental principles on which all our negotiation must be based – such as the respect for human rights, which is non-negotiable. So Europe has come a long way, but we can still go much further. We face new challenges, but we are still dogged by conflicts of the past. Unacceptable dividing lines still persist in some corners of our continent. In the region I come from, we must move ahead. The enlargement of the European Union, particularly in south-eastern Europe, can, and must, create new opportunities for the exercise of the rule of law and bring lasting peace. There must be solutions to festering problems, such as in Cyprus, the Caucasus and Georgia, that continue to threaten security and stability in Europe.

More than 35 years have passed since the Turkish invasion and occupation of the Republic of Cyprus, yet the island’s two communities remain segregated. The rights of thousands of Greek Cypriots are being violated – by evictions and enforced exile, for example – and these violations have been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey must implement its judgments in full.

In this region and many other parts of Europe, minorities have often been used as a Trojan horse for irredentist aspirations. Frequently, minorities have become double victims, both of the countries where they live, out of fear, and through exploitation by those with whom they have cultural ties, owing to irredentist aspirations. This is why the protection of minority rights goes hand in hand with stable borders, and respect for territorial integrity and international law.

It is my belief, of course, that the best medicine for avoiding such exploitation of minorities is to guarantee the respect of human rights for all. That is why the Council of Europe has been so important in recent years. It has been a global pace-setter in the protection of human and minority rights, particularly in south-eastern Europe, a region that historically has been torn apart by ethnic conflicts.

In respect of the Muslim minority in Thrace, let me start by stating the obvious: these people are Greek citizens, equal before the law, who enjoy the same rights as all their fellow citizens. I also cannot stress too much the importance that we attach to the European perspective on the western Balkans. This is the best way to consolidate regional stability and development, which, in turn, will alleviate ethnic tensions and enhance internal cohesion and security. In this context, Greece has undertaken a number of initiatives over the years. Assembly members may remember the Thessaloniki agenda during our presidency of the EU in 2003, and there was also the recent agenda 2014, which aims to provide the western Balkans with a clear and tangible framework for EU membership. Of course, 2014 is a symbolic year, marking 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. I hope that this agenda will provide an incentive to these countries to speed up necessary reform, and that it will also enable us to create a dynamic for helping to solve the bilateral and regional problems that continue to undermine our cohesion and co-operation.

In this context, Greece is actively engaged in negotiations with “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, under the auspices of the United Nations. Despite Council of Europe and UN Security Council resolutions, we have yet to resolve the FYROM name issue. We believe that international law is the most appropriate framework within which to address such issues.

Similarly, we are trying to address the concerns of the sizeable Greek minority in Albania from the perspective of European and international human rights law, in close co-operation with the Albanian authorities. Greek-Albanian relations are constantly improving, and I hope that Albania’s EU perspective will be a catalyst for ironing out any outstanding minority issues as Albania moves closer towards European norms and values.

In August 1949, Greece became the 11th member state of the Council of Europe. Today, we remain committed to our obligations to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all our citizens. We are proud to be a member of this great Organisation, and you should be proud of what you are doing for Europe and its future. This Parliamentary Assembly continues to do a remarkable job, particularly in helping to strengthen the rule of law and deepen democracy in new members states from central and eastern Europe. You parliamentarians play a crucial role, not least in international election observation. As chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2009, Greece made a conscious effort to promote complementarities with other key players. I know that the Assembly worked with Mrs Dora Bakoyannis when she was Foreign Minister in terms of co-operating with the OSCE, and with our government, too. The Assembly has been a valuable partner of the OSCE in this respect.

I also want to congratulate you, Mr Çavuşoğlu, on your election as President, and to wish you every success. I am certain that you will fulfil the pledges that you made in your opening speech, and I am delighted that one of our neighbours from Turkey will hold this office for the first time since the foundation of the Council of Europe in 1949.

Let me assure everyone that Greece today is redoubling its efforts to promote good neighbourly relations and to enhance European integration. I thank you all very much for your attention.