Wednesday 17 May 2023

The Reykjavik Summit and Declaration

Long-awaited, the fourth ever Council of Europe Summit has been taking place yesterday and today in Reykjavik's Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. As the Council itself called it, "[a]n historic opportunity for the Council of Europe to refocus its mission, 
in the light of new threats to democracy and human rights, and to support Ukraine." 

The rhetorical question, both before and after the Summit, remains: has this historical opportunity been seized? It is, for one, palpably clear that the Council of Europe has become a less central player in what has been called "the very crowded marketplace of European institutions" and that summits like this risk being nothing more than a "diplomatic sugar rush". This is both a long-term development and a short-term one. 

Long-term in the sense that with the waves of enlargement of the European Union, 'Strasbourg' has become much less central to the concerns and interests of now more than half of the Council of Europe's member states, the important progress in the accession of the EU to the ECHR talks notwithstanding. 

Short-term in the light of French President Macron's quixotic initiative of a European Political Community launched last year and followed up this year, with an almost complete overlap in membership with the Council of Europe. Ironically, at the same time, the Council's main mission of promotion and protection of the rule of law, democracy and human rights - and this is almost a trope by now - has become more urgent then ever, both in the face of renewed war in Europe and backsliding developments in quite a few of its member states.

With the city centre partly closed off for traffic and Icelandic airspace patrolled by the British Air Force, Iceland for less than 24 hours was a virtual fortress in the Atlantic. While for some heads of state or government, this was a good opportunity to show European unity, most clearly in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for others it was a mere podium to try and tackle domestic concerns. An example of the latter is UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rather in vain trying to get backing for his Rwanda agreement style policies to tackle illegal migration. This, by the way, received a rather cold response in the Icelandic capital, especially on the point of trying to reform the ECHR system to fit this specific domestic political need.

Beforehand, the calls for what was needed for the Council of Europe, on which we reported here and here, were not exactly matched by expectations of what the Summit would actually produce. To give a last minute boost, just before the start of the Summit, Amnesty International in a piece on Politico argued for the need to match words with actions. In other words, to go beyond another lofty Declaration. Looking at it as it happened, the Summit seems to have been more of a symbolic, yet still important, showing of unity (and even that not entirely) but not so much more. 

The outcome is a Reykjavik Declaration entitled 'United around our values'. It revolves around the dual aim of the Summit, namely to stand united against Russia's war on Ukraine and to establish clearer priorities and direction to the work of the Council of Europe as an organization. 

On the first aim, the Summit can indeed be seen as a reflection of unity, but also a little bit more. The member states do not only call for Russia's withdrawal from Ukraine but also from Moldova and Georgia. And one of the very few concrete results coming out of the Summit being the creation of a registry of damages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine (see for more background here). It is meant to be the first step in a future international comprehensive compensation mechanism. Next to all the endeavours undertaken elsewhere in terms of criminal law and accountability, this can be seen as a complementary effort to prepare for reparations for all those suffering from the violations of human rights and international law in the current war.

On the second aim, as expected at least in wording, the states reaffirm their "deep and abiding commitment" to the ECHR and the European Court of Human Rights. One could say that the states have tried, again at least in words and accompanied by hopefully some action, to strengthen the three core values of the Council of Europe: human rights, the rule of law and democracy. 

First, human rights by "re-doubling" their own efforts to take their obligations under the ECHR system seriously, including. most eminently in the implementation of the Court's judgments. A whole appendix is dedicated to this, entitled "Recommitting to the Convention System as the cornerstone of the Council of Europe’s protection of human rights”. Equally, the strengthening the office of the Commissioner for Human Rights is mentioned. 

As to the Court, the states recognise that it does not have sufficient (financial) means to do its work effectively, as the Court had itself indicated in the run-up to the summit, and promise to "[e]nsure the allocation of sufficient and sustainable resources to enable the Court to exercise its judicial functions effectively and to deal with its workload expeditiously." The devil is in the details of course, as this does not clarify the eternal discussion whether more funding for the Court should be budget-neutral and thus go at the detriment of other work of the Council of Europe or whether the states are truly committed to put their money where their mouth is and increase substantially the funding for the Court. Whether this will happen will become clear only in the future budgets of the Council of Europe, and the states have given no clear sign that they are prepared to substantively raise their structural contributions. This key issue has thus not been solved in Iceland.

Secondly, the rule of law by strengthening the visibility and work of the Venice Commission, including its rule of law checklist.

And thirdly, democracy, through the new "Reykjavík Principles for Democracy" - a much needed impetus for the third value pillar of the Council of Europe on which it has traditionally spent the least means but whose fragility can no longer be ignored. The Principles read as a summary guidebook of what political scientists would call deep or high-quality democracy. Democracy as more than just elections, in other words, but also including broad participation, free media and a vibrant civil society.

But the prioritisation has only gone so far, as readers of the Declaration will also discover a host of other topics on which the member states want the Council of Europe to work, most pre-eminently the environment (on which more action is promised and may follow in the coming years, also in terms of standard-setting), but also social justice, gender equality, protection of children, modern information technologies, and much more. A so-called Reykjavik process should make the environment a "visible priority" of the organisation. 

In a nutshell, the states have not really made choices, but seemingly only added new priorities - in the age-old discussion between states in favour of the Council only focusing on its three core goals in a narrow way and those seeing a much broader role for the organisation, the latter group seems to have prevailed once again. There is something in this declaration for (almost) everybody, but without a clear sustained effort to fund all these 'priorities'.

Only history will tell if the Icelandic Summit was a new breath of life for the Strasbourg institutions - in the words of the Council of Europe's Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić at the Summit potentially reflecting a reconfirmed determination to democratic reconquest (my translation of her words spoken in French) - or just a nice photo opportunity for politicians. In the face of the seriousness of democratic and rule of law backsliding and the threats to human rights protection, one may strongly hope the Secretary General will be right, but hard work and political and financial  commitment is crucial to get there.