Terry Davis: ‘Europe isn’t just 25 countries’

Today, the representatives of 45 European countries will elect the secretary general of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. Walter Schwimmer of Austria is running for re-election to the post and is being challenged by Terry Davis, a Labour MP from the United Kingdom, and Kristiina Ojuland, the foreign minister of Estonia. The Council of Europe, which is based in Strasbourg, is perhaps best known in Greece for the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, and for expelling Greece during the dictatorship. But it is seldom heard on other issues, despite the fact that it is the oldest collective European body, having been formed in 1949, and brings together 45 nations, including Russia and Turkey. It is separate from the European Union. Davis and Ojuland were in Athens last week to meet with government officials. Although Davis, who has been a member of the assembly for the last 12 years, voted against his government’s decision to go to war against Iraq and was also in favor of a referendum on a constitution for the European Union, he has the British government’s backing for the position. He met with Kathimerini and discussed his ideas for reforming the Council of Europe, its relations with the European Union, the need for referenda on important issues, and how the Council of Europe could take the lead in formulating governments’ response to terrorism. This is a most interesting time for Europe, after the European Parliament elections. Can the Council of Europe play a bigger role in getting people more excited at the idea of a united Europe? One of the main points in my program is to be more clear about the role of the Council of Europe in Europe. At present there’s a lot of duplication between the Council of Europe and and the European Union and also with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). I would like to see the Council of Europe be more clear about its role. I believe the Council of Europe should concentrate on human rights, and that includes democracy, culture – because there’s more to the cultures of Europe than the cultures of the European Union – and problems such as that of refugees. We’re all very conscious that there are still many refugees and displaced persons in the Balkans, but this is also a major problem in the South Caucasus. I think also that there are some big environmental issues which are properly the concern of the Council of Europe. But if we simply remember what happened at Chernobyl – that tragedy occurred in Ukraine, outside the European Union and affected countries both inside and outside. But these are core values of the EU as well. Well, the European Union has other responsibilities. There is a degree of duplication. Sometimes it is a very good thing to have two or three organizations working together in a particular field, both in a geographic sense and in the responsibility sense. But often that wastes time, it wastes money, and we can’t afford this. It is the taxpayer who pays for all this work so there is no point in having two organizations trying to do the same thing. We have nearly 200 conventions, protocols and agreements on the Council of Europe. I’m sure they’re all important but some are more important than others. I think there’s a strong case for having a list of core standards which should be applied to everybody. Racism and discrimination But there are other things. For example, one of the great problems in Europe – and we’ve seen it to some extent in these elections for the European Parliament – is racism and discrimination. That is the antithesis of the values of the Council of Europe. But one doesn’t hear very much about the council. Is that because it is absorbed somewhat by the EU? It’s not absorbed, it’s dominated. And some people in Strasbourg constantly complain about it and point to the fact that the Council of Europe was established first. To my mind, there is no merit to claiming to be the oldest organization. These organizations exist to do things. One of its biggest problems is that nobody knows about it. The only part of the Council of Europe that has any visibility is the European Court of Human Rights. Many people think that that is a part of the European Union but it is not, it is one of the most important institutions of the Council of Europe. A lack of visibility is a problem because it hampers the work of the Council of Europe. One of the complaints of the people in Strasbourg is that they could do more if they had more money. But you’ll not solve that problem in Strasbourg. The decisions about allocating more money to the Council of Europe are taken by ministers of finance, who will not be persuaded to give more money unless they’re satisfied that the work being done by the Council of Europe is valuable and that the expenditure is value for money. And the Council of Europe do not prioritize. They try to do too much. It’s much better to do two things, do them well, finish them, evaluate the result – by the way, I have never seen an evaluation of a project by the Council of Europe, and I’ve been going for 12 years – so you learn from what’s been achieved and then move on and do two or three more things. Instead they try to do five things, don’t do anything properly, very rarely finish anything – and so it’s not surprising that its not regarded as being effective by the people who take decisions about money in capital cities. Wasteful rivalry Can you give me an example of ineffective things that lead nowhere? Yes. It is said that if you go to Kosovo you will find that there is a traffic jam of international Land Rovers, where everybody is trying to get a piece of the action, everybody is competing. There needs to be much greater clarity about that. It is this waste, this sense of rivalry, that is so wasteful. Enthusiasm is something that is lacking in Strasbourg. There are 1,500 people working for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. They are very highly qualified, very highly skilled. There’s a lot of experience there, but they are not highly motivated. And that is the job of the secretary general. The secretary general should be the leader of the team. But it is an adventure on which the Council of Europe is engaged. It is an adventure to be building the sort of Europe – not just for 25 or 35, but of 45, eventually 47 countries – the kind of Europe where people live in harmony with each other, where people respect each other, where there are differences but where we respect the differences, where we respect the other person’s religious beliefs, where we do not distinguish on the basis of ethnic origin or religious belief or gender. And these are important matters and it’s exciting to be trying to build a Europe like that.