Strasbourg, 10 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - This morning's opening session of the Council of Europe's summit meeting featured plenty of high praise for the organization's achievements since the collapse of European communism.
Most speakers underlined the Council's success in admitting 16 Central and East European reforming nations since 1990. Few mentioned the wars and civil strife Europe had experienced during the same period or the problems the Council had in maintaining its own democratic and human-rights standards while almost doubling its membership in six years,
French President Jacques Chirac, who is hosting the two-day meeting, set the prevailing tone by calling the Council "a symbol of our continent's rediscovered unity." Chirac said the organization was now an essential instrument for anchoring democracy and for promoting human rights throughout Europe.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl later spoke of what he called the Council's "enormous contribution" to European integration. He said that "we've made a huge step forward" in breaking down the barriers between the Western and Eastern halves of the continent. Today, said Kohl, the Council's contribution to what he called the "common European home" was more important than ever before.
Almost parenthetically, Kohl did mention the recent strife in Albania and the former Yugoslavia. Those examples, he said, showed that the Council's commitment to human rights was more important than ever before. That allowed him to call on the rulers of the former Yugoslavia to allow all refugees to return to their homes --a sensitive issue in Germany, which took in more Yugoslav refugees than any other Western country.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spoke after Kohl, also had kind words for the Council. The organization, Blair said, "has provided a yardstick for the former Communist countries as they develop modern, pluralistic, free and open societies. It has helped reduce tensions between communities and has demonstrated how the rights of ethnic minorities should be protected." Blair concluded: "The Council of Europe has room for congratulations..."
Just about the only one of this morning's 14 speakers to allow reality to temper his praise of the Council was Sweden's Daniel Tarschys, the organization's Secretary General. Tarschys spoke bluntly of what he called a "new sense of insecurity in Europe." He talked of recent "setbacks" in Albania, Bosnia and the Russian republic of Chechnya. He said that "poverty is always there (in Europe) --obsessively. More than ever, criminality scares Europeans. Corruption saps the legitimacy of our governments. Most recently," he went on, "we've seen demagogues transform latent ethnic conflicts into civil wars that led to veritable massacres."
But even Tarschys did not broach the subject of whether or not the Council had been too lenient in relaxing its democratic and human-rights standards while it admitted 16 former Communist countries. The subject is a hot one for members of the Council Secretariat, many of whom believe the organization did subvert its own standards. Thus, a few months ago Tarschys' deputy Peter Leuprecht of Austria took early retirement in order to protest what he said was the Council's undue leniency in granting memberships to Eastern nations that did not meet the Council's democratic criteria.
The subject could be raised later in the summit's discussions, but it is unlikely to concern the assembled leaders in Strasbourg for very long. They came here, it appears, to praise the Council, not to question it. European political realities could also, of course, intrude -- this afternoon, Russia's Boris Yeltsin is among the scheduled speakers. But it is already clear that self-congratulation will be a dominant theme in the Council of Europe's second summit. That's unfortunate for an organization that has done well in the recent past, but has yet to come to grips with the problems its success has created.