Council of Europe summit in Reykjavik: Heads of state discuss the future

The heads of state and government of the Council of Europe meet in Reykjavik to discuss its future. There are enough topics. But the Council of Europe is not only struggling with its lack of publicity.

He often appears as a warning, denouncing, for example, insufficient fight against corruption in Germany, insisting on the observance of human rights and criticizing pushbacks at the European external borders: the Council of Europe. No, not the European Council of Heads of State and Government in Brussels, but the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. It is the oldest organization in European states and is often confused with its namesake. Maybe it’s his own fault. Finally, in 1986, he allowed the EU to use his flag. It is not an EU institution itself. The Council of Europe was founded in 1949 under the impressions of the Second World War and thus well before the then “European Economic Community” (EEC), the forerunner of today’s EU. Among its founding fathers were British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and then Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Council of Europe – important but little known

The Council of Europe has always been committed to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Its instruments: More than 200 international treaties, conventions, expert groups, a parliamentary assembly and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Its members: 46 European countries. One of his greatest achievements: the establishment of a death penalty zone for around 700 million people.

And yet: “Everyone needs it, but nobody knows it,” says political scientist Karl Brummer from the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. In a survey commissioned by the European Movement Germany at the beginning of May, only five percent of those questioned knew that a Council of Europe summit was to take place in Reykjavik on May 16th and 17th.

Bundestag member Volker Ullrich thinks that the Council of Europe is not getting the attention it deserves. The CSU politician is a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which has 306 members from the member states. They elect key staff in the Council of Europe, observe elections and examine current issues.

Ukraine should be the main topic of the summit

Under the Icelandic Presidency of the Council of Europe, the 46 heads of state and government are invited to the fourth summit in its 74th year. However, Karl Brummer fears that some of the heads of state and government will not even make the journey to Reykjavik. There is definitely a lot to talk about.

The central point should be the support of Ukraine. In the run-up, the Council of Europe said that a kind of register for future lawsuits from Ukraine should be created. The summit should also deal with the question of the whereabouts of missing Ukrainian children. Council of Europe expert Brummer expects symbolism and a confirmation of European values ​​from the summit. Because “as far as the practical side is concerned, to support Ukraine in its construction or even militarily, the Council of Europe has no competences or powers,” Brummer told DW.

Russia is out

The member states of the Council of Europe are also members of the European Convention on Human Rights. If citizens see their rights violated by states, they can go to the Strasbourg court. According to the court, almost 16,000 cases from Russia were still pending at the end of March – around a fifth of all cases on which the court has yet to decide. The opposition politician Alexej Navalny had also appealed to the ECtHR in the past and was right. Only: Russia has not been a member of the Council of Europe since March 2022 because of the attack on Ukraine. Numerous judgments that have already been imposed on Russia should no longer be implemented, although Moscow would be legally obliged to do so.

Volker Ullrich considers Moscow’s exit to be correct, even if the loss of protection by the ECtHR is a “drop of bitterness” for the 130 million citizens in Russia. However, the Russian exit will tear a hole in the institution’s budget. In 2022, the budget of the Council of Europe was 477 million euros. Russia’s contribution amounted to a little more than 34 million euros and was thus around 7 percent of the total budget. However, Moscow had stopped making payments even before he left. It is still unclear how the financing gap is to be closed.

Outstanding lessons and challenges

But what are the effects of Russia’s departure for the other member countries? “There are quite a number of states that have systematic problems with respecting democracy and human rights and the rule of law,” Brummer points out.

Ullrich also sees the need for greater implementation of these basic principles in states that are still in the process of transformation. “In recent years, the Council of Europe has always been intended for states that want to move closer to the EU. Against this background, it is important for the Council of Europe to confidently fly the flag on this issue,” the MP told DW.

Competing event in Chisinau?

Possible competition also comes from another direction: Just two weeks after the meeting in Reykjavik, 44 of the 46 heads of state and government are to meet again. This time in the form of the “Political Community” in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. French President Emmanuel Macron launched this format with the aim of strengthening political cooperation, security, stability and prosperity on the continent. Brummer takes a critical view of the facility and actually considers it superfluous in the light of the Council of Europe. Volker Ullrich also sees a great need for clarification on the relationship between the two formats.

Many unresolved questions, little media attention and now a parallel event: the Icelandic hostess, Prime Minister Katrin Jonasdottir, said back in January that it was important to formulate a vision for the future of the Council of Europe. The heads of state and government now have the opportunity to do so – if they come.

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