Prague, 11 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Council of Europe was the first of Europe's multilateral organizations to reach out to the former communist states in the East and help them to achieve swift democratic reforms. Today, 16 of its 40 member states are from the East.
The Council of Europe should not be confused with the European Council, the EU's chief decision-making body, although it often is, particularly in the East.
A few months before the fall of the Wall, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev chose the Council's Parliamentary Assembly as the forum for his appeal for a "common European home." Whatever wider effects it had, Gorbachev's historic speech served to wake up the Council.
The organization had been languishing at its headquarters in Strasbourg for most of the four decades since it was founded in 1949 to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights across the continent. The first important out-reach step was taken by the Council's influential Parliamentary Assembly, composed of nationally elected legislators from each of its member states. The Assembly set up a "special guest status" for parliamentarians from reforming Eastern states that had applied for Council membership but not yet met the body's stiff democratic criteria for entry.
Guest status allowed Eastern legislators to take part in all Assembly debates and committee work -- as equals, except for voting rights -- and in effect associated their nations closely with the Council. It also created valuable friendships and a sense of collegiality between Eastern and Western legislators and, no less important, among the Eastern guest delegations themselves. Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin, an Assembly guest parliamentarian for several years, told RFE/RL last year that the contacts he had made with his Hungarian counterparts proved very useful bringing about the recent reconciliation between the two nations.
Catherine Lalumiere, the French Socialist who was the Council's Secretary General at the time and is now a European Parliament member, calls the Assembly's initiative "an inspired act." In a telephone conversation last week with our correspondent, she said it was "Western Europe's pioneering breakthrough to the East because it served to dissolve the psycholgical wall between the two halves of the continent." And, she added, it set the Council on its path to what she and others now call its "pan-European vocation."
The Council becomes the gateway to integration with the EU and NATO
Soon after welcoming Eastern parliamentarians, the Council began to use its secretariat's extensive expertise in legal, human-rights and minority questions to advise candidate states on essential democratic reforms. In several cases, Council experts worked closely with national governments in drafting new constitutions and basic laws that met its high standards -- especially those set out in its most important institutional document, the European Human-Rights Convention. Advice was offered on matters ranging from the treatment of prisoners through citizenship requirements to dealing with governmental corruption.
The advice was welcomed -- indeed, it was often solicited -- by Eastern states, which came to regard the Council as the essential "gateway" organization for integration with the EU and NATO. Each candidate knew that the sooner Council membership certified democratic allegiance, the sooner its chances for being accepted by the two Brussels-based organizations. Throughout 1990, there was a barely concealed competition among three Central European nations to become the first former Communist state to accede to the Council. The race was won in November of that year by Hungary, because Poland and Czechoslovakia were later in holding what the Council considered free and fair general elections.
Over the next six years, the Council admitted 15 more Eastern states and today provides guest status to four others -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Bosnia. In the case of the three Caucasian nations, the organization decided to stretch its definition of "European" beyond geography to include those it deemed culturally a part of the continent. That means that from the Atlantic to the Caucuses, only Belarus and rump Yugoslavia are not either a member of or associated with the Council. The Parliamentary Assembly suspended Belarus' guest status early this year in outrage over President Aleksandr Lukashenka's rigged referendum and dismissal of a democratically elected legislature. Much earlier, with the outbreak of civil war in 1991, the Assembly had frozen Yugoslavia's request for admission.
Critics say the Council has diluted its standards
But the Council's success in fulfilling its pan-European vocation has led to a backlash of criticism in its own Secretariat and in some member states. The critics argue the Council moved too quickly in granting admission to democratically unqualified Eastern nations. They say that the organization began to dilute its strict standards in late 1993, when Romania was made a member, and out-and-out subverted them by later granting admission to Albania, Ukraine, Russia and Croatia.
Last Spring, the Council's long-time Deputy Secretary General, Austrian Peter Leuprecht, took early retirement in order to assail publicly what he called the "diminution" of Council values. Leuprecht didn't say so, but many of his former colleagues and some diplomats in Strasbourg believe that political pressure from France, Germany and other EU members brought about the hasty admissions. The reason is said to be EU's reluctance itself to grant early admission to Eastern states and its desire to throw a sop to them with Council membership. In the cases of Russia and Ukraine, which are not likely to join the EU for a long time -- if ever -- Paris and Bonn pushed hard for them to be attached to the only multilateral organization available.
The Council's current Secretary General, Swedish conservative Daniel Tarschys, admits that the human-rights record and progress toward democracy in some of the recently admitted Eastern states leaves much to be desired. But Tarschys, a former Soviet-affairs specialist, argues that nations like Russia and Ukraine are more subject to Council influence as members than they would be as outsiders seeking admission. So do most Parliamentary Assembly members, although some say the Council has lost its cachet as standard-bearer for democracy.
The Council's standards are not its only problem today. In the past year or so, the wind seems to have gone of the organization's sails --as if admitting so many Eastern states in so short a time has exhausted it. Last month's summit meeting in Strasbourg was little more than a public relations exercise, particularly for the more recent Eastern members. There was no discussion of the dispute over standards, nor of needed structural reforms and increases in the budget to allow it to truly monitor democratic practices throughout the continent. All such questions were put off until the next summit two years hence.
That meeting, celebrating the Council's 50th birthday, will be held in Budapest -- a fitting symbol of its transformation during the past eight years. But the Council needs to find a new elan, if it is not to become a mere antechamber for Eastern nations awaiting entry into the EU and NATO. The Council has the institutional means to do so. What is missing is the collective will of 40 states to push ahead.
This is part one in a five-part series on the role of Europe's multilateral organizations in integrating Central and Eastern Europe with the West. See Europe:Has The West Embraced The East?