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Council Of Europe: Are The Council And EU Partners Or Rivals?

Strasbourg, 29 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Yesterday's speech by European Union Executive Commission President Jacques Santer to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly underlined the growing cooperation between the two multilateral organizations. But Santer's remarks, and two Assembly debates on the EU that framed them, also served to point up a continuing rivalry in some areas between the two institutions.

The Strasbourg-based Council has now 40 member-states, including 16 from Central and Eastern Europe. It has almost doubled in size since 1990. The 15-nation EU, headquartered in Brussels, is currently entirely West European but has 10 candidate states from Eastern Europe knocking vigorously on its membership door. These 10 Eastern states are already closely associated with the EU.

The Council, founded in 1949 to promote democracy and human rights, is the older of the two organizations. The EU evolved out of the European Economic Community that was created in 1957 to integrate Western Europe economically. Gradually, that integration has taken on a political as well as an economic character, a development enshrined in the 1993 Maastricht Treaty that changed the Community into a Union. All EU members are also members of the Council.

It was the Council of Europe, with its vaunted "Pan-European vocation," that first welcomed Eastern nations. In his speech yesterday, Santer paid tribute to what he called the Council's "democratic authority." He said it had taken "bold action to blaze the trail" in integrating the two halves of Europe that had once been separated by the Iron Curtain. He particularly praised the Parliamentary Assembly for having devised a special guest status for Eastern nations seeking membership in the Council. That status, Santer said, "helped train (Eastern parliamentarians) for democratic life."

Santer said that all the Council's pioneering efforts at integration are "valuable for the European Union at a time when we in turn are preparing our enlargement" to the East. He spoke of a recent "significant improvement in relations" between the two groups. And he concluded that "our two organizations have already formed a partnership in shaping the architecture of our continent....a partnership that expresses the complementary nature of our aims..."

In fact, the two organizations are more and more engaged in cooperative programs in the East, most notably in Russia and Ukraine. That increasing partnership was formalized in November by an exchange of letters between Santer and Council Secretary General Daniel Tarschys that made the EU's Executive Commission a participant in many Council activities.

But there have been problems in the growing Council-EU partnership, problems noted by several Assembly members in yesterday's debates on the EU. Increasingly political in nature, the EU has begun to make democratic pluralism and human-rights implementation conditions for its assistance to all countries. It has done so, some Assembly members complained, without even a nod to the Council, whose very reason for being is the promotion of democratic values and human rights.

In addition, Assembly members asked, was it really necessary last year for the EU to duplicate the Council's efforts to combat racism and xenophobia? Santer was conciliatory in his answer, acknowledging that the Council was what he called "the best possible monitoring instrument" for human rights on the continent. But he carefully added that a common attitude regarding human rights was, in his words, "in Europe's interest."

Assembly members spoke of other conflicts between the two organizations. Several noted that the Council's European Human-Rights Court, its most important organ, now finds itself in occasional competition with the EU's Luxembourg-based Court of Justice. That overlap could lead to legal confusion, they pointed out, with two different sets of cases creating different legal precedents.

Are all these complaints just a reflection of an institutional battle for terrain rights? In part, they are just that. But it now also seems clear that as the partnership between the two institutions grows, with the EU's gradual opening to the East, so too will their rivalry. That fact of life is just another example -- small perhaps, but nonetheless significant -- of Europe's difficulties in getting its several houses in order.