Dialogue is key

Speech by Minister for European Affairs Frans Timmermans to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at the occasion of the farewell of René van der Linden as President of the Parliamentary Assembly


“Europe is not about the absence or presence of a multicultural society: it is an intercultural society.” said Frans Timmermans to the Assembly. “What makes us human is our willingness to talk to others, and above all our willingness to listen to others and to recalibrate our beliefs after having done so.”

[Full speech and Q&A]

== Introductary remarks with cordial congratulations to mr de Puig on his election as new President of the Parliamentary Assembly and he rendered thanks to mr van der Linden for the work of his Presidency ==

If you will allow me, Mr President, I will switch to English now, to stress once again that the Dutch Government is extremely grateful for the efforts undertaken by Mr van der Linden during his presidency. We are indeed proud of what he has done for this Organisation and for his country.

I agree with you, Mr President, that the core business of the Council of Europe is to concentrate on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. That is what the Organisation was created for, and it is what it still concerned with today, tomorrow and for the years to come. Jean-Claude Juncker’s phrase that the Council of Europe is a “full-scale factory for democracy” still defines precisely what our Organisation is all about. The force of the Council of Europe is in its focus on those three subjects, and in putting them into a societal context in our member states, which is where they need to operate. It is important that we recall that the Parliamentary Assembly is a place where people meet from all sorts of national, cultural, religious and non-religious backgrounds. This Assembly offers them a forum to look at differences and common values, but it is not a free-for-all debating room; it is based on a very strong legal commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. That has been laid down in many treaties and conventions, and the dialogue between our countries and our representative members of parliament is framed by those legal commitments. The call for dialogue can therefore never be an excuse for weakening the legal commitments that we have all entered into.

It is fair to say today that what was started by the Council of Europe 60 years ago has now had an impact not just on other European organisations, but on the world at large. Our stance on banning the death penalty has echoed in the United Nations through its resolution against the death penalty. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment has broken new ground on the prevention of torture, and that has been followed worldwide. The Venice Commission has set new standards that are also copied and followed elsewhere. That is logical not only because the work that is done is good and should be supported, but because it is a part of human nature to want for others what we claim for ourselves. It would be strange if we claimed human rights, democracy and the rule of law for ourselves, but did not want people elsewhere to enjoy the same rights. If we keep our own rights and freedoms to ourselves, in the end they will lose their meaning, because we can stick to our norms only if we are willing those who do not enjoy them today to gain them in future.

I want to salute today the efforts of the Slovak presidency to put the issue of Roma rights higher on the agenda. That is absolutely necessary in today’s Europe. In most of our countries, the Roma are in a difficult position. They are probably the most socially vulnerable minority group in the EU and therefore need special attention in the whole range of issues covered by the Council of Europe’s activities – social policy, human rights, the rule of law and democracy. Today, we have a unique opportunity to address that issue and not to fight with other European organisations about whether we should be the sole organisation to deal with it. Instead, we should try to strengthen our approach by supporting each other’s efforts.

I was really encouraged by the proposals made last week in the European Parliament by Commissioner Frattini, who also wants to put the issue high on the EU’s agenda. The High Commissioner for National Minorities of the OSCE is also focused on the issue. There is a unique opportunity for the Council of Europe to take the lead on the issue and ensure that we work closely together with the EU and the OSCE, and perhaps even specialised UN organisations, so that once and for all the plight of the Roma in Europe is at the forefront of our attention and is dealt with.

I must stress here that I am not, as someone from a western European country, telling eastern European countries that they should do better. Tremendous efforts have been made to improve the position of the Roma, as has just been explained by Prime Minister Fico, in the countries where most of them live, and it is a common responsibility for all Europeans to address the situation of those people.

There are other areas on which the Council of Europe and the EU can work together. I understand that later this week, Michel Platini will be here to talk to you about football in Europe. I am working very closely with him through the EU, and I have taken the initiative jointly with my French colleague, Jean-Pierre Poullier, to put the issue of sport in Europe, and of football particularly, high on the EU’s agenda, because it is an important issue for our population. It has perhaps been neglected in the past, and it should get more political attention, especially when one considers the vulnerable position of children and young people. That merits our attention.

My country is deeply committed to this Organisation and to strengthening its position. We have entered into bilateral co-operation agreements to the amount of €600 000. We have given extra support to the Human Rights Commissioner, and we support a number of bilateral projects – that is, Council of Europe projects – via our bilateral embassies in several Council of Europe member states. We also support the initiative by Norway to create a trust fund to help the Court address its backlog and other problems. We will make a contribution to that trust fund. We will also look favourably at any request that we might receive from the Court to help it perform its duties.

I come now to a point that was close to my heart for many years when I was a member of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly. Mr Erik Jurgens, when he was Chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, initiated a procedure to draw the attention of national parliaments to the Court’s rulings. In the Netherlands, the government reports to parliament once a year so that it can see how we have implemented Court rulings. That procedure would merit adoption by other member states, because – this is the point that I have been looking forward to making all week – this Organisation can have an impact and be effective only if what you say here you also say in your parliaments at home.

Too often, in my experience, there is a discrepancy between what is said here and what is taken back to national parliaments. I say that as a former member of parliament, but I also say it as a member of government. Governments sometimes say something here and then go to the EU in Brussels and say something else. If I say to you parliamentarians, “Do me the favour of saying exactly the same at home as you say here,” you can expect the same commitment from me. The Dutch Government, on the Juncker report or anything else, takes the same position here as it does in the EU.

All too often, governments hide behind acronyms – EU, COE, OSCE – and claim that it is the organisations’ fault that we do not co-operate. However, the same governments, acting within those organisations, express different points of view depending on the organisation concerned. If we want the Council of Europe to be more effective, we all have a responsibility to avoid doing so. That will lead to more consistency between organisations and avoid the problem, which we have seen for many years, of inter-organisational strife and questions such as, “Who has the favour of this important country now?” or, “Do we do this via the Council of Europe or the OSCE?” In the end, those who suffer from that approach are those who depend on us for the protection of their human rights and of the rule of law and democracy. We should not do it.

We had a long debate in the Netherlands Parliament on the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna. That is all water under the bridge, because the agency is now in place. Our task now is to make it efficient and ensure that it does not replicate the excellent efforts of the Council of Europe. We must ensure that it does not seek an extra or supplementary role, but supports the effort of the Council of Europe to improve our efforts for the people who count, rather than expending energy on bureaucratic or political infighting between organisations.

Another element that is essential in this debate is dialogue. Dialogue means not only that you can say what you think, although that is part of it. As Albert Camus wrote in a wonderful article in Combat in 1948, dialogue presupposes the willingness to listen and to change your mind. Dialogue is more than just saying what you think and standing on your position. It is also listening to someone else’s position, even though you might not agree, and being willing to change your own views on the basis of what they say. This Organisation is a prime example of how that works. It is based on rules and clear norms laid down in treaties, followed by dialogue based on those rules between those with different points of view.

I shall give an example that is very important to my government – the position of gays and lesbians in Europe. I know that there are different points of view on that issue in European society. In the Netherlands, for instance, they have full rights of same-sex marriage, as they do in Belgium and Spain. We are proud of that, but we do not impose it on everybody else. Other people have different views, and that is fine, but respect for human rights is not something to be toyed with. Gays and lesbians have human rights that must be respected and that cannot be called into question because of religious beliefs or cultural differences. That is a basic and fundamental position that needs to be respected by every individual member of this Assembly and by every individual member state of the Council of Europe.

That brings me to the other point about religion. Of course, we all respect religion and religious differences. But in the present debate, especially in my country, respect is always claimed but never given. Respect only works if you are willing to give it and people are willing to give it to you. That is the only way to have debates between people who believe and people who do not. People have the right to hold strong beliefs. They have the right to go to church, and to advocate their church’s beliefs and their own personal beliefs. They also have the right not to believe, not to be a member of a church or to leave a church without being threatened or socially isolated. We should also speak out for those rights. There should always be a balance between the two.

I stress these points because in my country, as most of you will know, the debate for and against a multicultural society is very heated. There hardly seems to be any middle ground. People are either for or against a multicultural society. If they are for it, they do not want to hear the other person’s argument: if they are against it, they think it is bad and do not want to hear about it. Europe is not about the absence or presence of a multicultural society: it is an intercultural society. That is all too often forgotten. We have a duty to speak openly to people of other beliefs. That was true in 1948 when this Organisation was created, and when Albert Camus wrote his famous article.

What makes us human is our willingness to talk to others, and above all our willingness to listen to others and to recalibrate our beliefs after having done so. To me, that is what the Council of Europe stands for and that is our common future.

THE PRESIDENT thanked Mr Timmermans for his statement. He was pleased that the content of his speech had shown that Mr Timmermans knew about Europe and about the Council of Europe. He said that Mr Timmermans had made relevant suggestions, good for the Assembly’s up-coming programme of work.

Question and answer session

Five speakers, one from each of the different political groups, were to ask questions.

(The speaker continued in English)

The first question is by Mr Manzella, on behalf of the Socialist Group.

Mr MANZELLA (Italy) said that he was struck by Mr Timmermans’s ideas of fundamental rights. His question was about the Lisbon Treaty and how it had furthered the case of fundamental rights, especially in relation to the two European courts. He asked what was the position of the Dutch Government and Mr Timmermans’s own position on fundamental rights.

THE PRESIDENT. – Thank you. I call Mr Timmermans.

Mr TIMMERMANS said that outcomes were what mattered: the results in regard to fundamental rights. He believed that the position of the two courts could be strengthened by the courts themselves further representing the rights of European citizens. What was important was respect for the rights of citizens.

THE PRESIDENT. – I call Mr Van den Brande to speak on behalf of the Groups of the European People’s Party.

Mr VAN DEN BRANDE (Belgium) thanked Mr Timmermans for his commitment to Europe. He was particularly struck by Mr Timmermans’s support of a multicultural society. He asked what Mr Timmermans thought of developments in Russia, which was a member of the Council of Europe.

THE PRESIDENT (Translation). – Thank you. I call Mr Timmermans.

Mr TIMMERMANS said that Russia was most important to our future as Europeans. The Council of Europe should appreciate that Russia had a European vocation. These values could not be achieved overnight and it was important that relations between Russia and the European Union were strengthened, especially in world issues such as global warming and energy. Europe and Russia had a common and shared programme for the future. All countries on the continent of Europe had to understand this relationship with Russia and have the same commitment to its development and improvement.

THE PRESIDENT. – Thank you. I call Mr Memecan to speak on behalf of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Mr MEMECAN (Turkey). – Minister, you said that Europe is becoming more intercultural, and we acknowledge that. Many policies are being introduced to integrate new Europeans in order to achieve continued harmony in Europe. However, I strongly believe that integration should be mutual. What programmes or incentives are being developed for indigenous Europeans so as to better integrate the new Europeans?

THE PRESIDENT. – Thank you. I call Mr Timmermans to reply.

Mr TIMMERMANS. – It is only relatively recently that Dutch society and Dutch politics woke up to the fact that we have many new fellow countrymen. For many years, we failed to devise the right policies to achieve successful integration of newcomers in our society for the simple reason that we thought that people would stay a couple of years and then go back. This has been a struggle. We try and fail, and sometimes we go too far and have to correct the situation. We have now struck a balance between rights and obligations. There always has to be a balance between those two.

It is fair and right to ask all new citizens that they learn the language, that they learn to function fully in society. This is what we do today. On the other hand, if we ask that of our new citizens we should also be in a position to offer them a fair chance to develop themselves, to create a future for themselves and their children. So we have to fight very hard against discrimi nation in the workplace and against illiteracy. We must ensure that the second generation children finish their education and their professional training so that they can fully profit from the society they are now living in. There are rights and obligations.

THE PRESIDENT. – Thank you. I call Mr Greenway on behalf of the European Democratic Group.

Mr GREENWAY (United Kingdom). – Thank you, Mr Minister, for your excellent address. As a former member of this Assembly, I think that you are well placed to judge our mood. Many of us are nervous about our supremacy in respect of human rights. This is our core business. It is perhaps felt that the supremacy of the Assembly and the Council of Europe over human rights will be undermined by the Fundamental Rights Agency. What is your advice as to how we should retain our supremacy and what will you, as a Minister and former member of this Assembly, do to ensure that this remains the case?

THE PRESIDENT. – Thank you. I call the Minister.

Mr TIMMERMANS. – It is unfortunately a little known fact in Europe that the Council of Europe does a lot of work for the European Union in this area. The European Union uses the Council of Europe as an agent in many of these functions. There is no need to change this. I would advise the Council of Europe to make this better known. Very often, we tend to overlook this. I say this on behalf of myself as well and I will make sure that we present this fact constantly when we talk about this issue.

Secondly, if our approach were to be – I would almost say jealous – so that we were afraid of something being taken from us, and this is one politician talking to another who understands this point, I would say that we should make sure that such an understanding is embedded in our long-standing tradition of human rights and democracy.

Let us make sure that we work together and that the funds, the means and the work force at the disposal of the agency works for the Council of Europe. That would be my intention and I will make sure that the services I have work closely so that whenever problems arise we immediately intervene politically.

THE PRESIDENT. – Thank you very much, Mr Minister. The last speaker is Mrs Strik, on behalf of the Unified European Left.

Mrs STRIK (Netherlands). – I fully agree, Mr Minister, with your plea for a consistent policy throughout the world. I have two questions, one about the Israeli energy cuts in Gaza and one about involving Hamas in the peace process.

According to the United Nations, the current energy cuts will deepen the humanitarian distress of the Gaza residents. It is the next step in Israel’s determination to punish Palestinians collectively for the actions of certain groups. Is the Dutch Government prepared strongly to condemn the current energy cuts and to insist that the Israeli Government stops this policy? Is the Dutch Government prepared to act firmly in this regard in the European Union and the Council of the European Union?

Hamas has won fair and free elections, whether we like it or not. Is the Dutch Government prepared to involve Hamas as one of the relevant parties in the peace process aimed at achieving a durable solution?

THE PRESIDENT. – Thank you. I call Mr Timmermans.

Mr TIMMERMANS. – Thank you for your question, Mrs Strik. The Dutch Foreign Minister is in the region this week because this subject is very high on our agenda. We fully support the declaration prepared by the EU presidency which calls on all parties to exercise restraint in this escalating situation – and we mean all parties, on all sides. We have not only seen what you have talked about in Gaza, we have seen an increase in terrorist attacks within Gaza on Israeli territory. What we need now is restraint, an effective start to the process begun at Annapolis.

On the second question that was raised, there is a clear precondition to be met before we can start talking to Hamas. It has to stop using terrorism and to say so clearly and to abide by that declaration. It has to refrain from its position of saying that Israel should be destroyed and swept off the map. This is not an acceptable position. This is not an organisation with which one can negotiate while it holds such a position. That is the clear stance of the Dutch Government and the EU and I stand by it.

THE PRESIDENT said that that concluded the questions to Mr Timmermans. On behalf of the Assembly, he thanked him most warmly for his address and for the answers he had given to questions. He hoped to see him again soon.