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Council of Europe: Assembly's Activist President Leni Fischer

Strasbourg, 27 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Leni Fischer is a former German high school teacher whose calm, quiet demeanor conceals an activist achiever. She has been in German politics (CDU) for three decades, sat in the Bundestag for 20 years and been a member of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe 's Parliamentary Assembly for the past 11 years. Through all that time, her name was barely known outside of Bonn or Strasbourg.

Early this year, however, Fischer was elected President of the Parliamentary Assembly, the first woman ever to hold the post. Her election ended her anonymity -- because, since the 1989 collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the once obscure and relatively unpublicized post of assembly president has come to be considered an important one throughout Europe.

In part that's because, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Council itself, for the 40 years before, a rather sleepy, purely West European institution -- successfully took up the challenge of transforming itself into an active pan-European organization. Of the Council's 39 member states today, 15 are from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Six more nations from the area are now formally associated with the organization and have applied for full membership.

In addition, the organization's Parliamentary Assembly, composed of nationally elected officials from all member states, has played an important role in effecting the expansion of the Council to the East. It was the assembly, to cite only one example, that devised the status of Special Guest for Eastern parliamentarians whose countries were seeking entry into the Council -- a first essential step toward membership. The assembly's last three presidents have led the effort to expand the Council's mandate from the promotion of democracy and human rights on the continent -- for which it was established in 1949 -- to taking on a more political role.

Fischer's immediate predecessors, Socialist Miguel Martinez of Spain and Swedish conservative Anders Bjorck, moved the Council decisively in that direction during the seven years of transition to its current pan-European status. Not one to be outdone for activism, Fischer is seeking to push it further toward political involvement, what she calls "another kind of function" for the Council.

"The Council and its Parliamentary Assembly have been dealing with quite a number of hot issues for some time, particularly human-rights issues in new member states." Fischer said In an interview with our correspondent in Strasbourg Thursday. But she acknowledged that the assembly was seeking to carve out new areas of competence for the Council, even in security matters.

Fischer argued that security is not only a matter of protecting nations or groups within them: "We think that security has something to do with democratic security and with the security of the individual." Based on the "the pillars" of democratic and individual security, she added, stability for nations can be built.

Fischer acknowledged that she was expanding the definition of the word "security" but said: "that's what we've been doing since the (assembly's) discussions about Russia joining the Council" early last year. She recalled that, at the time, many member states of the European Union pressured their Parliamentary Assembly members to vote for Russian membership because, she said, they believed it would enhance the security of Europe.

"This has been my argumentation from the very beginning, Russia has to belong to this new European security architecture. That is much easier to develop within the Council of Europe, as a result of recent discussions about NATO enlargement, under which Russia would not be a member but closely affiliated. The European institutions, deal with a net of various problems and solutions. What we the assembly say is that we want the net to be woven as closely as possible so that no-one escapes the net of security achievements," Fischer said.

To weave more securely the Council of Europe's portion of the net, Fischer was one of the first in the organization to suggest a second summit meeting next year. By that time, she says, the Council will probably have some ten members -- including Russia -- which joined after its first-ever summit in Vienna three years ago.

"The new member states haven't yet had their chance to be visible at the summit. To give them the chance to do so "will help them in their own countries," she concluded.

If the heads of government and state is agreed on for Strasbourg next Autumn, Leni Fischer is also likely to be quite visible at the summit. For the one-time school teacher, in fact, it might be a moment of some glory.