Speech by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Council of Europe Summit, Reykjavik, 16 May, 2023

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Dear colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

When former French Prime Minister Édouard Herriot inaugurated the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe in August 1949, the wounds from the Second World War were still fresh. Herriot spoke about “the right of the clenched fist” and the “cult of violence” that emerged in Germany and brought such widespread devastation to our continent. For Herriot and the other founding fathers and mothers of the Council of Europe, it was all the more clear how, going forward, they intended to fight this “injustice of the clenched fist”: with the strength of the law, transcending political and cultural boundaries, with the conviction that power must be bound by rules and laws, and by making the promise that all citizens have equal rights and obligations.

Herriot and his generation had experienced first hand how there’s an inseparable link between the rule of law, democracy and the protection of human rights at national level and peaceful coexistence at international level. The war that Germany brought upon Europe and the rest of the world became possible only because the National Socialists were previously able to tear down democracy, the separation of powers and human rights in Germany.

Having made this connection, one will also understand that the Council of Europe is more important today than ever before.

On 24 February of last year, Russia attacked Ukraine to conquer territory and move borders by force. That is why it was the right thing to do, and in fact fully unavoidable, to exclude Russia from the Council of Europe.

We were also right to suspend the Council of Europe’s cooperation with Belarus, due to the support the regime in Minsk has shown for Russia’s war of aggression.

To be perfectly clear: the fact that antidemocratic movements and authoritarianism could take hold in Russia is not to be held against the Council of Europe, but rather underscores that we must take our common rules even more seriously as we move forward, and that we must view them as an early warning system for keeping the peace in Europe.

Two conclusions should be drawn from this:

First, every one of our member states must meet its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe – without compromise. This includes consistently implementing all decision of the European Court of Human Rights. We should view what might be considered a defeat before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as actually benefitting human rights and civil liberties – all across Europe, and thanks to the exemplary role of the Court, in many ways throughout the world, as well.

The Council of Europe was often a world pioneer when it came to preparing our democracies and constitutional states to meet the challenges of the future. It should retain this role, for example when it comes to protecting human rights in the digital age, or implementing the right to a healthy environment.

My second point concerns the lessons that we as the Council of Europe are drawing from Russia’s attack on Europe’s peaceful order. Our main focus is to do everything we can to support Ukraine as it moves along its democratic and European path – that is, as it defends itself against Russian aggression, safeguards its rule-of-law institutions, pursues reconstruction, also through the Council of Europe Development Bank, and builds up its capacities in the sphere of the judiciary.

The Council of Europe is also important for prosecuting the war crimes of the Russian occupiers and for achieving accountability for the enormous damage that Russia is wreaking in Ukraine each and every day. The register of damage that we intend to establish together here in Reykjavik plays a key role in this regard.

One lesson to be drawn from the turning point is that we want to accompany Ukraine, and of course also the countries of the Western Balkans – Moldova and in the longer term also Georgia – as they move towards EU membership. Here, too, the Council of Europe plays an important role – not least thanks to the significant expertise of the Venice Commission.

Finally, the Council of Europe must do its utmost to help democracy, human rights and the rule of law gain a foothold truly everywhere in Europe. With regard to Russia and Belarus, this may be nearly unthinkable today. But at some point Russia’s war against Ukraine will end. And one thing is certain: it will not end with Putin’s imperialism claiming victory. Because we will support Ukraine for as long as it takes, until a just peace has been reached.

Until then, we as the Council of Europe should maintain ties with the representatives of a different Russia, and of a different Belarus, thereby keeping prospects alive for a democratic and peaceful future of both countries, as unlikely as this may sound to us today.

This is in keeping with the founding principle of the Council of Europe, whereby internal freedom, democracy and the rule of law go hand in hand with countries' peaceful coexistence. It is also in keeping with our desire to secure peace and freedom everywhere on our continent – for each and every citizen.

Thank you!