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Interview with Tobias Flessenkemper, Head of the Belgrade Office of the Council of Europe (COE)

18. 04. 2019.

Tobias Flessenkemper, Head of the Belgrade Office of the COE

Consultations with civil society in the process of drafting the Council of Europe conventions and reports is one of the formats of cooperation: for instance, many of the elements of the Istanbul Convention have been drawn from contributions of women and other human rights organisations. In this respect, the participation of civil society organisations, academia and think-tanks is really important both at the national level, where they engage with elected representatives, as well as at the European level.

This year marks 70 years of the Council of Europe. Congratulations! In your opinion, what have been the most significant accomplishments of CoE in the past 70 years – can you even number them?

Indeed there have been plenty achievements over 70 years. The first and foremost achievement and the basis for all of our work are the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of 1950. Together with the European Court system founded on the Convention, it is for me a civilisational accomplishment that should evolve further, to better equip Europe for facing new threats for human rights and democracy. Citizens in all of the countries represented in your network benefit from the ECHR, including the abolition of the death penalty.

Few years after the ECHR, the Council of Europe members agreed on the European Cultural Convention. Much of what we perceive as being “European” today, from respect and protection of cultural heritage to mobility of students and-discriminatory education is due to the cultural cooperation in Europe.

A recent achievement that jumps to mind is, of course, the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the so-called Istanbul Convention which all the Western Balkans states ratified, and have been bound by its provisions over the past five years. The reflections on how best protect women from violence in the context of this Convention have stimulated a lot of debate throughout Europe. Just over a month ago, the first monitoring visit under the Istanbul Convention to Serbia took place, and the monitoring report is in the making.

Another key achievement is the advancement of participatory democracy in Europe. Let me recall the value of the European Charter of Local Self-Government as well as the work of our expert body, the European Commission for Democracy through Law, widely known as Venice Commission, that has been helping European countries to bring their legislation in line with European standards.

The general public often confuses the Council of Europe with the EU. Although CoE is not an EU body, to what extent has CoE influenced EU integration process? Can the membership in CoE help the candidate countries for EU membership in their EU accession endeavour?

The Council of Europe is the oldest organisation created in 1949 to achieve a greater unity between European states, and it is now composed of 47 member states. Its goal is to safeguard and turn into reality the common ideals and principles of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. All 28 member states of the European Union are also part of the Council of Europe. The EU is based on the same values that inspire and guide the work of the Council of Europe, hence there is a strong link. All states acceding to the EU were first members of the Council of Europe. The scope of the Council of Europe’s activities is very is broad: it works in virtually all spheres of public life, excluding national defence and security. It helps states devise more effective policies based on European standards in economic, social, cultural, scientific, legal and administrative fields, with the ultimate goal to advance the enjoyment by all Europeans of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Council of Europe has set the foundation for what we consider today’s European way of life.

The key conventions guiding our work are the European Convention of Human Rights, the European Cultural Convention, the European Social Charter, the European Charter of Local Self-Government, the Framework Convention on National Minorities, to name just a few. Ratification of these Conventions and implementation of the standards they set is fully in line with the objective of the Western Balkans countries to join the EU.

On your remark about the frequent confusion between the Council of Europe and the EU, let me just add that it was the Council of Europe that has created the European flag – twelve golden stars on the blue background – in 1955, and has also declared in 1972 the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony as the European anthem. It was only in 1985 that the European Community (and since 1993, the EU) also introduced these symbols of European unity.

You have experience with working and living in several Western Balkan countries. In your opinion, what are the main challenges for the Western Balkan region in the EU integration process?

The Western Balkans as a region and its individual countries have -participated for some 20 years in the work of the Council of Europe, and is at the same time part of the Stabilisation and Association process (SAp) of the European Union.

Let me focus on some aspects that are important both the Council of Europe and the European Union.

The process of transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy based on fundamental rights and freedoms as well as the rule of law has turned out to take more time than many expected initially. We are also observing that the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is being negated by high officials. This is a setback with regard to the ambition of the SAp and with regard to the commitments undertaken by countries of the Western Balkans upon joining the Council of Europe. Furthermore, it questions the very fundamentals of the rule of law that cannot be upheld without respecting the European public law order, which obviously includes international justice.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe is also concerned about the insufficient follow-up to and implementation of judgements of the European Court of Human Rights This cannot but reflect on the broader system of rule of law and accountability in the region.

Hence, the Council of Europe’s bodies tasked with monitoring countries’ progress in various fields, such as GRECO, the Group of European States against Corruption, often finds that not enough has been done to bring the countries closer to the Council of Europe’s standards.

Another concern has been the functioning of democratic institutions, with independent bodies all too often being subject to political interference. This contributes to low levels of trust in politics and institutions, as illustrated on a regular basis by the Balkan Barometer of the Regional Coordination Council surveys. This lack of public confidence in the authorities is a negative trend that we seek to reverse, but so far it remains a challenge for all of us that we seek to help.

You also have rich experience working with civil society. Why are non-governmental organisations and, particularly, think tank organisations, important for enhancing democratic societies and standards?

The Council of Europe can be compared to a triangle. On one side, we have European states and governments which aim to establish genuine democracy. On the second side, there is the European legal order with common standards, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which are legally binding on the governments committing to them. On the third side, there are people of Europe themselves – including, of course, the civil society. As a logical extension of the work of its intergovernmental bodies, the Council of Europe cooperates with a range of non-state organisations, including think-tanks that bring many valuable ideas and insights into the work of our expert bodies. A conference of international non-governmental organisations taking place twice a year is one of the formats of such cooperation. Consultations with civil society in the process of drafting the Council of Europe conventions and reports is another format: for instance, many of the elements of the Istanbul Convention that I have mentioned earlier have been drawn from contributions of women and other human rights organisations. In this respect, the participation of civil society organisations, academia and think-tanks is really important both at the national level, where they engage with elected representatives, as well as at the European level. The Council of Europe offices in the region, including our Office in Belgrade, work to make sure that all actors can participate in our work in order to shape the future of our continent for the next 70 years.