on the occasion of the
third part of the 2011 Ordinary Session
of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly
(Strasbourg, 20-24 June 2011)
(extract of the verbatim records)
Dear Mr President, Mr Secretary General,
ladies and gentlemen and members of the Parliamentary Assembly,
I first came to this Chamber in 2001 as a member of the Bulgarian Parliament. I attended the part-session that followed the 11 September attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States. The interesting debate on terrorism that followed in the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly, as well as everything that happened after that debate and after those terrible events in New York, influenced our lives as both parliamentarians and human beings. How much the world has changed since that day in 2001, when 4 000 died in a single terrorist attack. The Council of Europe was brave and open then and the Parliamentary Assembly spoke with one voice, condemning terrorism and the murder of innocent human life.
Today, ladies and gentlemen, we are faced with a challenge of historic proportions, the scale of which can only be compared with the scale of change that engulfed central and eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some call it the Arab Spring, and I recently heard someone call it the “quicksand of change”. Others have referred to it as the perfect storm and yet more have called it the Arab revival. We are still in the process of understanding the revolutions in the Arab world, but one thing is sure: no elected politician in Europe and no member of this Assembly or of our national bodies would deny that the historic scale of the change coming to the Mediterranean is unmatched in history.
Many comparisons have been drawn between what is happening now and that which happened 20 years ago in central and eastern Europe. The historical context is different, the political traditions are different and so are the people, and one might even say that the reasons for what is happening are different, but one unifying goal allows us to compare the strength of the voices of the people who went out on the squares of Cairo and on the outskirts of Tripoli with those who stood up in Prague, in Sofia and in Berlin and demanded the end of communism. That is the call for liberty echoed by thousands of people across the Middle East and amplified by voices from Morocco to Yemen, throughout the world.
That voice had two parts, the first said, “Kefaya”, or “Enough”, and asked for no more corruption or government mismanagement. The people of the Arab world stood up against corruption. Who can better guarantee that the standards implemented in the countries in our southern neighbourhood will be based on fairness and the rule of law than the Council of Europe? Who else has been the guarantor of human rights throughout Europe, the member states and our democracies?
The people of the Arab world stood up not only against corruption, but for democracy. They wanted to participate in their government, to be able to elect their representatives and to hold them accountable. Who but the Council of Europe in our continent guarantees that the highest standards of secular government and democracy are implemented across Europe? Who guarantees that if not the conventions, agreements and institutions that we have set up in this magnificent Assembly?
The people of the Arab world stood up against corruption, demanding democracy and fair economic opportunity. I stress the word “fair” because it is important that people throughout our southern neighbourhood have access to not only the opportunities that we have in Europe, but the guarantees that they can succeed on their own merit and skill. Where, if not in Europe, are such opportunities best guaranteed? Where, if not in the biggest single market in the world – the European Union – are there such guarantees?
I believe very strongly that it is the role of both the Council of Europe and the European Union to be involved, engaged and visionary in their support for democracy and fair economic opportunity and against corruption in the Arab world. The people of the Arab world stood up with one voice, demanding their dignity. You can call it the Arab Spring, or the quicksand of change, or the Arab revival, but what it is is a revolution of human dignity, in which hundreds of thousands of people demand to be given the standards that we in Europe hold dear and as part of our tradition of democracy and government. Who, if not us, can provide the lessons that we have learned over the past 20 years from the tremendous changes we have lived through, particularly in central and eastern Europe?
If it were not for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism, many countries that are represented in the Parliamentary Assembly today and are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights and a number of other international instruments would not be part of this family. The experience that we have gained over the past 20 years could be a useful well of information and knowledge for those who are embarking on this road.
It is not up to us to tell people in our neighbourhood how to run their governments or how they should organise their states, but it is up to us to understand that what we have learned and our experiences can provide a useful beacon of hope and a tool for those who want to embark on a similar transition. That is why, in early May, I hosted a conference in Sofia to which you referred in your introduction to my speech, Mr President. The Sofia Platform conference brought together bloggers from Egypt, students from Yemen, government officials from Morocco and Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world, as well as activists, politicians and non-governmental organisations from central and eastern Europe who had been involved in changing our countries over the past 20 years. It was an honour that the conference was opened by the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr Jagland, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon. Their presence reiterated the strength of the message that we can all carry together to our friends in the Middle East and north Africa: you are not alone in your struggle to develop institutions built on the rule of law, accountable government and free and transparent governance.
With that conviction, following the conference, I decided to come to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to speak to you not as a diplomat or as a government official, but as a politician. The strength of our democracies in Europe is that the politicians drive the agenda of change and the political leaders of our countries set the agenda for the future. The Council of Europe can be proud because it has guided so many nations and societies on the path to democracy and because it embodies the fundamentals of European civilisation today. The understanding that, in a democracy, you have not only elections, but a guarantee of the rule of law, that human rights are not just written on paper, but should be implemented and observed by all institutions, that freedom of speech is sacrosanct, and that an independent judiciary and impartial administration are key to the functioning of every state.
The Council of Europe has amassed a huge amount of knowledge and experience of transitions and support for countries in transition. Yesterday, the Assembly was visionary enough to create the Partnership for Democracy status and, on behalf of Bulgaria, I am happy to welcome Morocco as the first country to subscribe to that new initiative of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. That important initiative creates a dialogue between politicians in Europe and Morocco. I hope that, in the coming months, you will extend that partnership to other countries, such as Tunisia and Jordan – countries that want to move forward on the democratic road.
However, colleagues, beware: when we create these instruments, it is extremely important to focus on the real work that comes with them and to make sure that, when we create institutions, we use them to transfer our knowledge and experience, and not to rubber-stamp other people’s work. The leadership of this Parliamentary Assembly, and your political leadership when you go back to your national capitals and parliaments, should sound a call – a call for Europe and the Council of Europe to support political reforms in north Africa and the Middle East; a call to engage at parliamentary level and through the Venice Commission, supporting those who want to create constitutions, based on the rule of law, that enshrine the fundamental principles to which we subscribe; a call to create a legal environment that guarantees that corruption is uprooted in that part of the world and tackled as soon as possible; a call for more transparency in the way that governments are managed and held accountable; and a call to guarantee that the media are free from their owners’ interference and subscribe to the multitude of ideas and initiatives in every society.
To do that, the Council of Europe must come to the front of efforts. It should not run things from the back. It should not support other people; it should lead them. That is why I very much welcome, on behalf of Bulgaria, the initiative of the President of this Assembly, who believes it is time to call a summit of the Council of Europe’s member states. It is time for the political leaders of those countries to come together around three issues. First and foremost, there is an important issue that affects many members of the Council of Europe and the EU: the accession of the EU to the treaties. Secondly, there is the finalisation of the extremely important process of reform in the Council of Europe that was initiated by the Secretary General and President of the Assembly. Last but not least, we face a tremendous challenge in our southern neighbourhoods, and in how we address our friends across the Mediterranean. We should not tell them how to run their lives, but should support them in making the changes that we believe are in the interests of civil society, freedom and democracy. On that point, Bulgaria will back and support wholeheartedly all initiatives that come from the Council of Europe, because we believe strongly that it is our common goal to expand the community of values of which we are part.
Before I close, I cannot but mention the events of the past few months, with which I am sure the Council of Europe has been engaged. I cannot but mention the situation in Libya, which continues to deteriorate. One person – Colonel Gadaffi – has stood against the voice of the nation. It is important for all of us to move forward and provide not just humanitarian but political support, including support for the road map drafted by the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, so that we can move forwards towards a political solution to the crisis in that country.
I cannot fail to mention the deteriorating situation in Syria, a country that is close to Bulgaria historically and geographically; the largest Arab community in my country is from Syria, and there is a large Bulgarian community in Syria. Indeed, I visited President Assad in the middle of April, carrying two messages. The first was, “End the violence now.” The second message was, “Move forward with the most radical and innovative reforms – reforms that even the people on the streets of Syria have not yet demanded.” Unfortunately, since then we have seen more people killed, more brutality and anger, and more attacks on civilians. There have been a number of words spoken about reform, but now is the time to call strongly on the Syrian authorities, and to say, “Enough tanks; enough repression. Move forward with the agenda of reform. Do not tell us what you will do – do it.”
I cannot but mention the situation in Yemen, a country that is key to the security of the whole Arabian peninsula, and much more than that. I hope that the Vice President of Yemen, who now effectively yields the power of a president, will stick to the plan that has been agreed to by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and will work with the opposition and the students who are still protesting on the streets of Yemen to end the violence, to hold quick elections, and to put in place the guarantees that we need to make sure that the country comes back from the brink of violence.
For all those conflicts, and for many others both in our regions and around the world, we should appreciate that what we say in our parliaments, in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in the European Parliament and before the media has reverberations. I hope that the message that we carry from this day forward will not be one of simply putting forward our demands, but that we will say what we would be willing to put on the table in support of change in the Middle East.
The European Union can support the mobility of people in the Mediterranean by providing visa facilitation to students and others who want to study and develop their careers in Europe. It can provide increased market access so that we can support the economies of these countries. It can provide money to support change. However, the Council of Europe holds the key to the institutionalising in many of those countries – at least in those that wish for it – of the fundamental guarantees that we want to see embedded in a secular government that is based on the rule of law and the protection of human rights.
In times like this, we must choose whether to be on the right side of history, or on the wrong side. I am sure that, given the wisdom of this Assembly and under its esteemed leadership, the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly will not just choose, but lead the choices of others, to be on the right side of history in embracing liberty and the call for freedom, in supporting those who want to build secular societies founded on the rule of law and the protection of human rights, and in sharing the experience of what we have gone through in our part of the world over the past 20 years. If we do not do that – if we are not up to that challenge – we will bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy. We will be giving tools to those who are radically opposed to the way in which our societies are structured and run, to those who believe that a radical hijacking of religion can be used to subjugate a civilisation and stop it developing. That is why I believe that it is very important for all of us – politicians, governments and non-governmental organisations – to do everything that we can in support of those who want to build countries on the foundation of secular government and the rule of law. Otherwise, we will face what Samuel Huntington years ago called the clash of civilisations; we will make that a reality. We will build walls around ourselves. We will be afraid of the rest of the world.
I say this as the Bulgarian Minister for Foreign Affairs. I come from a country that is home to Christians, Muslims and Jews, and to Bulgarians, Armenians, Turks and Roma. It is the country that brings together the diversity of Europe. I could not stand idle while we failed to meet the challenge of this generation. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I am convinced – based not just on my presence today, but on a number of conversations that I have had with the leadership of the Council of Europe and with a number of political leaders across Europe – that it is indeed our understanding and our common goal that we have to be practical, innovative and specific in our support for transformation in the Mediterranean and north Africa.
In that, I hope that you will heed the call for the Council of Europe to take the leading position. Again, I feel that that is important given the traditions and the role that this Organisation has taken for democracy in Europe, particularly over the last 20 years. Thank you very much.