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Spooked by Putin (and Macron), the Council of Europe meets

Spooked by Putin (and Macron), the Council of Europe meets

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As Russia wages war in Ukraine, one aging pan-European institution hopes to reclaim its historic role at the heart of the Continent.

Almost 50 heads of government are gathering this week in Iceland for what is only the fourth Council of Europe summit since the the body was created 74 years ago in the ashes of World War II.

Focused on human rights, the Council was the original post-war forum for discussion among European leaders. Items on the agenda this week include a tentative first step toward a compensation mechanism for victims of the war in Ukraine.

But officials and academics admit that Russian aggression in Europe was not the only reason to arrange the first Council summit since 2005.

The arrival of a new kid on the block — Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community (EPC) — has forced the Strasbourg-based Council to defend its patch. With questions raised about the value of so many pan-European bodies, the Council — which employs 2,200 people and has an annual budget of €479 million — is scrambling to justify its existence.

“There is a very, very crowded marketplace now of European institutions,” said Richard Whitman, professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent in the U.K.

Hastily arranged summit

Before attending the first EPC gathering last October, former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss privately expressed the view that there are already too many organizations in Europe — the OECD, the Council of Europe, and even NATO, which also includes non-European countries — and that she favored making existing structures more effective.

However, both she and her successor Rishi Sunak have since chosen to engage with the EPC, adding clout from beyond the European Union to Macron’s project.

This week’s Council of Europe summit was hastily arranged for a date just a couple weeks ahead of the second meeting of the EPC, which will see 47 political leaders gather at a castle near Chișinău in Moldova on June 1.

Some of those involved with the Council are unimpressed with Macron’s diplomatic efforts.

“The 46 members of the Council of Europe are in itself the European political community — it was not necessary or appropriate to create a new circle,” said Evangelos Venizelos, a former Greek deputy prime minister.

Venizelos was one of the authors of a report commissioned by the Council of Europe to inform this week’s summit. The group, led by former Irish President Mary Robinson, warned the organization must “adapt in order to remain fit for purpose” in the wake of the Russian war in Ukraine, and encouraged its members to “set out a clear vision.”

The group’s report — published in October 2022, just days after the first EPC summit in Prague — demanded a “proper articulation” of the role of the EPC and its relationship with the Council of Europe.

Criticizing the EPC’s “undefined” remit, the report insisted: “The need for a pan-European political community to safeguard human rights, democracy and the rule of law is already met by the Council of Europe.”

The Council of Europe is the oldest pan-European body, established after World War II | Alastair Grant – WPA Pool/Getty Images

‘Diplomatic sugar rush’

Venizelos suggested the shifting dynamics of pan-European politics means parts of the Council’s role will have to change.

“I’m not so optimistic concerning the so-called political role of the Council of Europe,” he said. “But I believe in the role of the Council of Europe as the guarantor and protector of the European values, democracy and the rule of law,” he said.

Whitman noted that for most European political leaders, the agenda is already pretty packed. So “it’s not clear to them what the added value of [many of the Council] gatherings would be.”

“This [Council of Europe] gathering has the same vibe as the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly — everybody turning up to give their showcase speech but you kind of wonder, what’s the follow-up?” said Whitman.

“You’re getting this very powerful diplomatic sugar rush with everybody coming in and saying how important the organization is, but then they disappear.”

Part of the attractiveness of the EPC for European leaders is its lack of history, he added. The Council of Europe has been “a bit of a slog in recent years, and [it] has been difficult to deal with some members like Russia,” which was finally kicked out of the organization in 2022. “The European Political Community doesn’t come with the same baggage,” Whitman said.

“An interesting thought experiment is: would you create the Council of Europe if it didn’t exist? What you’d probably want is something less binding and at the same time covering some of the areas that the European Political Community looks as if it is going to focus on, like energy and migration.”

A spokesperson for the Council of Europe denied any rivalry between the Council of Europe and the EPC, describing the issue as an “academic question” and insisting “there is no competition but complementarity.”

“The EPC is not an institution for human rights, but a format to decide responses in various areas, including military, energy and infrastructure,” he said. “The roles are clear, and the Council of Europe remains Europe’s human rights organization; whereas the EPC is an exchange between leaders on current issues, including [those] resulting from the current crisis.”

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