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Europe: Was Council Of Europe Summit Worth The Effort?--An Analysis

Strasbourg, 13 October 1997 (RFE/RL) - Was it worth the effort and the expense? That was the question posed by many Council of Europe officials, diplomats and observers late last week after the conclusion of the 40-state organization's summit at its headquarters in Strasbourg -- only the second such meeting it has held in almost a half-century of existence.

Responses to the question varied from strong affirmatives from the summit's hosts through equally strong negatives from officials who asked not to be cited by name to skeptical journalists among the 1,000-strong press corps covering the event.

At a post-summit press conference, one of the skeptics suggested to French President Jacques Chirac, the official host, that the meeting had accomplished nothing Council get-togethers at lower levels could not have achieved, that indeed it had been "unuseful."

Chirac would have nothing of it, exploding in one of his characteristic exclamations: "From unuseful summits to unuseful summits, revolutions are made!"

When the same question was put to Germany's Leni Fischer, President of the Council's influential Parliamentary Assembly, she too had no doubts: "Of course it was worthwhile," Fischer said. "Why, there were 200 bilateral meetings held during the summit!"

Fischer and Chirac were the chief sponsors of the Strasbourg summit. Some 18 months ago, after she had taken over the Assembly's presidency, Fischer paid an official call on Chirac in Paris to ask him to host the meeting during France's current Presidency of the Council's Committee of Ministers.

Fisher pleaded the summit was necessary because eight countries, seven of them from Eastern Europe, had (or would soon) become members of the organization since its first summit four years ago in Vienna -- Latvia, Albania, Moldova, Ukraine, Macedonia, Russia and Croatia (plus Andorra). She noted that another group of Eastern nations, now numbering four -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Georgia -- had become closely associated with the Council. They all deserved a hearing, Fischer argued.

Chirac was easily convinced. He no doubt reasoned that a Strasbourg summit would enhance the French border city's cachet as "the heart of Europe" and would reflect well both on his country and its president. In any event, Chirac is known to like such meetings, where his gregariousness often proves persuasive among his international peers.

So in fact the only substantive reason for the summit was to give voice to 12 new countries belonging to or associated with the Council, as well as to the 32 members represented in Vienna. And that's exactly what it turned out to be --an entirely open-door meeting during which 44 speakers, plus a few more from other international organizations in attendance, spoke for about 10 minutes each. The speeches were the summit's only visible collective business.

There were no public discussions among the participants, no debate on pressing Council problems, only speeches mostly full of praise for the organization and its role in integrating the eastern and western halves of the continent.

The speeches got extensive press and media play in each of the leader's home countries. What's more, the political declaration issued collectively by the leaders, as well as an action plan adopted to guide the Council for the next few years, had been agreed upon weeks earlier at lower levels. They represented no breakthrough whatsoever in Council thinking or action, although institutional press releases suggested they did.

Of course, there was some real news out of Strasbourg -- because a few of those bilateral meetings hailed by Fischer produced immediate results.

Chirac and President Boris Yeltsin announced that Russia would seek to sign the recently negotiated treaty banning anti-personnel land mines, which the U.S. says it will not sign. The two presidents also revealed what they called agreement "in principle" with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to hold annual trilateral meetings.

Similarly, Armenian President President Levon Ter-Petrossian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Guidar Aliyev, after a Friday meeting, were able to announce their agreement to resume talks over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region with the Minsk Group of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe).

But these pieces of real news could have -- and probably would have -- occurred elsewhere than in Strasbourg. They were merely facilitated, not caused, by the physical proximity of the leaders involved. They did little to relieve the repetitive paeans of praise of the Council by most participants.

That the Council of Europe summit was largely a platform for self-congratulation was doubly unfortunate because it represented a lost opportunity to deal with the Council's problems at the highest level. Hadn't the Council diluted its own standards for democracy and human rights, which it was created to promote 48 years ago, by letting in so many deeply flawed democracies in so short a time? Weren't internal structural reforms necessary to adopt its institutions to its new pan-European vocation and streamline its slow decision-making processes? Where would the money come from to finance the organization's enlarged mission? Hardly a word was said in public about any of these or other basic questions.

Instead, they were all put off -- as the 15-nation European Union recently deferred its serious institutional questions -- until the next summit meeting.

That is to be held in two years time, on the occasion of the Council's 50th anniversary, in Budapest, the capital of the first of 16 Eastern states to become Council members.

By that time, the Council's problems will probably be so urgent that some action will have to be taken. Unlike the Strasbourg meeting, the Budapest summit will not be able to limit itself to a public-relations exercise.