The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe

October 10, 2005 - nr.40
Summary

 

  1. The PA is the oldest international pluralistic parliamentary assembly established on the basis of an intergovernmental treaty. It is the driving force behind many of the Council’s activities in the field of setting and monitoring compliance with norms. Because the PA has the authority to give its opinion and make recommendations concerning all aspects of the Council of Europe’s mandate, it plays an important role within the organisation. The AIV wishes to highlight this role and presents the recommendations below, aimed at strengthening it. It does so somewhat reluctantly, however, because it does not actually consider it appropriate to give its opinion on how the PA performs its tasks in an advisory report addressed to the government.
     
  2. The AIV notes that, over the years, the PA has held its own in the debate on standard- setting and compliance with agreed norms. The PA has frequently performed good work in this area and also regularly makes its voice heard more effectively than, for example, the Committee of Ministers. However, it is essential for the PA to constantly check to what extent its conclusions are being taken seriously and, where necessary, to press for follow-up measures.
     
  3. It is also useful and necessary for the PA to reflect on its own functioning on a regular basis, to focus on core tasks and not to contribute to the proliferation of the Council of Europe’s activities outside its core mandate. The limited time available for plenary meetings, the sheer range of views and interests and the nature of parliaments as such call for a certain degree of realism regarding the PA’s abilities in this regard, but its members should be prevented from allowing the Council’s range of tasks to continue expanding. The debate within the PA and the decisions that this produces should always contribute to the implementation of the core tasks. The AIV therefore believes that it is primarily up to the PA as a whole, but also the individual members and political groups within the PA, to remain constantly aware of the positive opportunities to contribute to the implementation of the Council of Europe’s core mandate as well as the risk of the further proliferation of its activities. In addition to the Committee of Ministers and the secretariat, the PA has its own role to play here.
     
  4. The AIV recommends that the PA take a restrained approach to legislation that goes beyond the core mandate formulated by the AIV. It is fair to say that one could question the appropriateness of an estimated 20 to 30 per cent of the more than 100 parliamentary recommendations and resolutions adopted in 2004. In this context, the AIV repeats its earlier recommendation to the PA to take another critical look at its current list of treaties and, in addition, to exercise restraint with regard to the adoption of new ones. The AIV also advises the PA to take another critical look at its various permanent and ad hoc committees, some of which appear to contribute little to the implementation of the Council’s core tasks. In this context, the AIV assumes that it will be possible to transfer any tasks that are related to the Council’s core mandate from the non-relevant committees or subcommittees to others. Finally, before any decision is adopted, a detailed projection of the expected financial implications should always be prepared. As a result, decision-making will once again be realistic and the potential influence of personal preoccupations and casual interests will be further reduced.
     
  5. The AIV recommends further improving the coordination of activities between the Committee of Ministers and the PA. There are countless opportunities for regular, timely and intensive consultations between these two bodies. The Committee of Ministers has accepted the proposal to consult the PA when preparing draft treaties and protocols, but the AIV feels that this consultation process still needs to be strengthened so that the PA can exploit its involvement in the legislative process more effectively and move closer to becoming a co-legislator.
     
  6. The AIV repeats its recommendation to exercise restraint with regard to the creation of new institutions, unless they are really necessary for implementing core tasks. If new institutions are to be established, the risk of duplicating existing activities, organisations or institutions in Europe should be closely monitored. The key word here is complementarity, and a deliberate overlap in activities would require detailed explanation and justification. The AIV also warmly welcomes the recent decision of both the Council of Europe and the OSCE to improve cooperation between the two organisations.
     
  7. The AIV acknowledges the PA’s key role in the election of judges to the European Court of Human Rights, both during the preliminary phase and during the actual selection. However, there is still ample room for improvement in this area, both at national level and within the Council of Europe. The AIV believes that special attention to the gender ratio remains necessary and that the way in which the nominated candidates are interviewed could be organised in a more professional manner. Opting for a longer interview conducted by a tripartite panel including judges from the Court and other experts would improve the quality of the evaluation. As long as the current procedure remains in force, however, it should be ensured that the members of the PA interview the candidates with appropriate discretion, given that, as national parliamentarians, they help to produce legislation that is theoretically subject to review by the Court.
     
  8. The PA recently reconfirmed its appreciation for the annual reports of the Commissioner for Human Rights and stated its intention to do more to implement the Commissioner’s recommendations. It also advocated expanding the Commissioner’s role with regard to the enforcement of judgements and the ability to bring cases before the Court. The AIV continues to believe in the importance of this post, but sees the Commissioner’s role in relation to the European Court of Human Rights more in the area of the execution of judgements and reducing the total number of cases brought before the Court than in the development of an independent right to bring cases before the Court. Finally, the AIV repeats its recommendation in favour of a thorough evaluation of the Commissioner’s mandate. In that evaluation, the Dutch government and the PA could apply various recommendations from the earlier and present advisory reports.
     
  9. The AIV wishes to emphasise the key role played by the PA in the areas of interaction with national parliaments, building up national democracies and safeguarding a uniform European area of justice. The PA does this by assessing individual countries in a critical or encouraging manner, but also – and especially – by constantly keeping in mind the standards to which democratic systems may be held. The aforementioned resolution ‘New concepts to evaluate the state of democratic development’ is a good example of this, and the activities of the Venice Commission are also extremely relevant in this regard.
     
  10. One of the core functions that the PA continues to see as part of its remit, alongside its core tasks, is to provide a forum for the representatives of young democracies and new member states. Among other things, this provides them with an opportunity to try out democratic approaches in practice. Learning to take part in a democracy is not purely a rational process but an experiential one. Incidentally, this learning experience also applies to parliamentarians from the older European democracies. For them, too, a democratic order is not an immutable and straightforward given that can survive without constant maintenance or attention to issues that threaten it or grant it lasting legitimacy. The reciprocal learning experience is further strengthened by the existence of the double mandate, which means that European experiences can also have an impact at national level. The AIV strongly supports this function of the PA and advises it to continue investing in this area.
     
  11. This advisory report once again demonstrates how much importance the AIV attaches to the PA’s role in monitoring compliance with the Council of Europe’s acquis. This activity, which is often based on the PA’s own high-quality reports, has contributed greatly to strengthening democracy throughout the Council of Europe’s area and deserves to have an impact at all levels of the Council. The AIV believes that further improvement in the cooperation between the Council of Europe’s institutions – the Committee of Ministers, the PA, the Secretariat, the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights and others, including the Venice Commission – will help to sharpen the Council’s profile in the core areas in which it operates.

     

Advice request

 

Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council on International Affairs
Postbus 20061
2500 EB Den Haag

April 2004 

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

I hereby submit a request for an advisory report on the role and position of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This advisory report should be regarded as a supplement to the report received in 2003, entitled ‘The Council of Europe, less can be more’.

On 7 April 2004, the Chairperson of the Dutch delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe asked me to request the Advisory Council on International Affairs to produce an additional advisory report on the role and position of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and similar assemblies in Europe, to supplement the advisory report published in 2003, ‘The Council of Europe, less can be more’.

This request was mainly prompted by the observation made by the Senate in November 2003 and by the Dutch delegation to the Assembly in the meeting with members of the AIV on 16 March 2004 that too little attention was paid in the advisory report to the role and position of the Parliamentary Assembly. I, too, indicated this in my response to the advisory report.

I therefore support the delegation’s request and would appreciate it if the Advisory Committee could provide me with further advice on the role, position and function of the Parliamentary Assembly within the Council of Europe.

I would like to make an additional observation. In my response, I indicated the importance that I, like you, attach to concentrating the Council of Europe’s activities. I would be grateful to receive your Committee’s views as to how the Parliamentary Assembly can contribute to helping the Council to carry out the tasks related to its core activities in a more coherent and effective manner.

The differences between the mandates of the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe, the EU, the WEU and the OSCE are such that a comparative study would not fall within the scope of the advisory report, which deals specifically with the functioning of the Council of Europe. In my opinion, a follow-up report on the role and position of this important organ of the Council should focus on the nature of its relationship with other institutions of the Council.

I look forward with interest to receiving your views on the above matters. The Committee of Ministers is presently discussing whether to hold a Third Council of Europe Summit in May 2005. I informed the Parliamentary Assembly in January that the summit should revitalise the operation of the Council of Europe’s organs and institutions, including the Assembly. In the light of this, I would be grateful if you could produce your advisory report before the end of 2004, so that the results can be discussed during the preparation of the summit in 2005.

Yours sincerely,

 

Bernard Bot

Government reactions

 

 

 

 

 

F. Korthals Altes

 

Advisory Council on International Affairs

Postbus 20061

2500 EB Den Haag

The Hague

25 July 2005

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

 

Pursuant to my request of 30 April 2004, you presented the advisory report The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to me on 21 March 2005. At the request of the House of Representatives, a response to this report has been prepared.

 

Please find enclosed a copy of this response, which I am now sending to the Presidents of the two houses of the States General.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

[signed]

 

Bernard Bot


 

Government response to AIV advisory report The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

 

Let me express my thanks and appreciation for the advisory report I received from the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) on the Parliamentary Assembly (PA) of the Council of Europe (CoE). It is a welcome supplement to the earlier, general report on the CoE, which devoted little space to the PA.[1] A more in-depth analysis of the role and position of the PA within the CoE was requested, particularly by the Senate of the States General and the Dutch delegation to the Assembly.

 

This report thus continues where the earlier one left off. As requested, the AIV considered how the PA could take effective, concrete steps to help the CoE further concentrate on its core tasks. From this perspective, the AIV focuses on the work of the PA and its place within the CoE’s institutional system, especially its relationship to the Committee of Ministers.

 

The report gives useful recommendations (discussed briefly below) for further reflection on the functioning of the PA and the role of the CoE as a whole. It should be added that – just as the AIV believes it is not its role to advise the government on the functioning of the PA – it is not the government’s place to evaluate the manner in which the PA does its work. The recommendations in the advisory report are above all addressed to the Dutch PA delegation.

 

The role of the Parliamentary Assembly

The AIV rightly highlights the very important role of the PA as a forum for promoting democracy in Europe. In the period when new democracies were emerging in the former Soviet bloc and acceding to the CoE, the regular, close contacts between members of parliament (MPs) from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as their joint work in the PA, were a major factor behind the firm and lasting establishment of the democratic process almost throughout the European continent.

 

The work of the PA has been of great significance for the promotion of common values in Europe. As the AIV noted, the PA monitors compliance with obligations in this area by individual member states. The AIV mentions the examples of Greece, Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Russia/Chechnya, but many others could also be cited. For instance, as recently as its summer plenary session in 2005, the Assembly debated the situations in Kosovo, the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

 

Through such activities, the PA exercises a unique form of oversight of the state of democracy and respect for human rights in Europe. Thanks to their double mandate, its delegates may be inspired by specific developments in their own countries and their experiences in the CoE may inform domestic debates. New and old CoE member states alike experience these benefits. I agree with the AIV that it is worthwhile for the PA to continue taking part in monitoring and tightening existing CoE norms. Upholding democracy, the rule of law and human rights requires ongoing effort.

 

More concentration on core activities

I also share the AIV’s opinion that the PA is currently involved in extending the scope of the CoE’s activities. The AIV observes that many of the resolutions and recommendations adopted go beyond the CoE’s core mandate and that the link to the core themes of human rights, democracy and the rule of law is not always apparent.

 

It is not the government’s place to prescribe an approach to these issues. The PA and its members are themselves responsible for determining the nature and organisation of their activities. However, I would note that at its recent summer plenary session the PA put topics on the agenda that may, either thematically or geographically, fall outside the core tasks recently identified by the CoE at its Third Summit and endorsed by my government. Examples include the debates on the environment and the Millennium Development Goals, and on the current situation in Uzbekistan. Recent events in Uzbekistan certainly merit debate, but the country is not a member of the CoE. One might therefore wonder whether it would be more appropriate for that debate to take place in the OSCE, to which Uzbekistan does belong.

 

The AIV rightly notes that it will be extremely difficult to reach agreement in the PA on greater concentration on core activities. This turned out to be a difficult task within the Committee of Ministers in the run-up to the Third Summit. Now that the member states have established clear priorities – specifically, all activities must serve to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law – it is all the more important for the PA likewise to reach agreement on this point. I was therefore pleased to read in the AIV report that the Dutch delegation to the assembly has stated that it intends to work seriously towards further concentration on the CoE’s core activities.

 

The AIV makes a few specific suggestions about how this can be done: a more critical approach to proposed activities, as well as measures to do away with PA committees in areas that fall outside the CoE’s core mandate. The AIV also advocates reviewing whether proposed treaties are relevant to the CoE’s core mandate. Existing conventions and other agreements could also be subject to a review of this type. While I acknowledge that this could be a useful step, I would emphasise that the cooperation of the other member states would also be required. Discussion of these issues should not under any circumstances delay the implementation of the results of the Third Summit, which is currently the top priority.

 

The AIV also advises restraint when it comes to setting up new institutions; in this area too, it contends, the core mandate should be kept in mind. It also points out the importance of avoiding duplication of activities and promoting complementarity between Europe’s international organisations. I agree that unnecessary duplication should be avoided. During the Dutch Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers and again in the run-up to the Third Summit, the Dutch government argued for better coordination and closer cooperation between the CoE, the EU and the OSCE. Significant steps toward these objectives were taken at the Third Summit.

 

The PA can make a valuable contribution to closer cooperation between the CoE and other European institutions, especially the EU. Support seems to be growing for the proposal to involve the PA and its EU equivalent, the European Parliament, in the regular quadripartite meetings between the CoE and the EU. Given the importance of closer cooperation between the CoE and the EU, the government will make proposals to this effect within both forums.

 

Finally, the AIV turns its attention to budgetary discipline, contending that clear financial projections for proposed activities would encourage clear priority-setting. I agree. One major objective for the Netherlands at the Third Summit was to free more funds within the budget for activities directly relating to the CoE’s core tasks. As I stated in the government response to the earlier AIV report on the CoE, further work on this topic will have to take place in the discussions about the priorities that the Secretary-General periodically submits to the Committee of Ministers and within the usual planning and budgetary processes. The discussion that began in Strasbourg about the follow-up to the Summit in Warsaw has opened up the prospect of a meaningful adjustment.

 

The PA has a limited role in the budgetary process, with no powers of control over the budget and expenditures. The CoE’s constitutive agreements assign this responsibility to the Committee of Ministers. Even so, when making recommendations the PA could render account of the implications for the CoE’s budget.

 

The Parliamentary Assembly within the Council of Europe

The AIV report also deals with the PA’s role within the CoE. The AIV’s main recommendation is to continue improving the coordination of activities between the Committee of Ministers and the PA. In debates and correspondence with the Dutch parliament prior to the Third Summit – in the weeks after the publication of the first AIV report – there were two main topics of discussion: (1) strengthening the role of the PA (relative to the Committee of Ministers); and (2) measures the Netherlands could potentially take to promote the participation of both houses of the Dutch parliament in the CoE’s activities, such as early provision of information on new international agreements and regular debates.

 

I endorse the AIV’s recommendation to improve coordination. This coordination is the joint responsibility of the Committee of Ministers and the PA. The PA could make better use of its powers under the organisation’s constitutive agreements, and in particular could better monitor how the Committee of Ministers follows up the PA’s recommendations and questions. In national parliaments, too, PA members could do more to bring the CoE to the attention of their fellow national MPs. This would serve to promote political oversight of the Committee of Ministers by national parliaments.

 

There is also room for improvement of the Committee of Ministers’ approach. For example, it could operate more transparently and turn to the PA at an earlier stage for opinions and recommendations. I was interested to read the PA’s recommendation, made during the recent plenary summer session, to create a joint ad hoc working group to follow up the results of the Third Summit. This working group could complement the existing Joint Committee in which the Committee of Ministers and the PA now meet.

 

It would also be possible for the PA to become more involved in developing new international agreements within the CoE. For instance, the Committee of Ministers could provide the PA with information about proposed agreements at an early stage so that the PA could make recommendations on them. For similar reasons, it would be a good idea to provide such information to national parliaments. The Dutch parliament is already regularly furnished with a list of international agreements being negotiated on behalf of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (under section 1 of the Kingdom Act on the approval and publication of treaties; the list is sent to the States General, the Staten of the Netherlands Antilles and the Staten of Aruba). Publication of this list makes it possible for the houses of parliament to request further information on specific draft agreements.

 

In the run-up to the Third Summit, there were proposals (mainly by Dutch senators) to hold an annual debate on the CoE in the Dutch Parliament and to discuss the CoE during the debate on the State of the Union. However, the work of the EU is so wide-ranging and has such far-reaching effects on our daily lives that it merits separate discussion parallel to the debate on the national budget. In my view, the debate on the State of the Union provides sufficient opportunity to discuss the wish for closer cooperation between the CoE and the EU, as we have seen in the past. Furthermore, topics relating to the CoE in general can be addressed in various ways and at various times, depending on the parliament’s wishes. An annual debate is one of the possibilities but would be useful only if there were a clearly defined agenda. One might consider a debate before, and in preparation for, the annual CoE ministerial meeting.

 

[1] AIV, ‘The Council of Europe: less can be more’, advisory report no. 33, The Hague, October 2003.

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