Statement by Terry DAVIS

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

during the debate on the State of democracy in Europe

on the occasion of the third part of the 2008 Ordinary Session

of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly

(Strasbourg, 23-27 June 2008)

In 1863, the sixteenth President of the United States Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – and referred to government of the people, by the people, for the people.

For the past one hundred and forty-five years, politicians across the world have struggled to grasp the concept – or to accept it. Some still struggle.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Council of Europe has more than doubled in membership to include all European countries except Belarus. That is because Belarus is often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. But it does not mean that there are no other countries with problems when it comes to compliance with Council of Europe standards on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The fact is that membership of the Council of Europe, whether it is recent or going back for decades, is not a certificate of irrefutable and irreversible democratic credentials.

There are several issues, and they are not exclusive to one part of Europe.

Properly conducted elections are one of these issues. Recently, we have had a succession of elections in our member states, and the observer appointed by the Parliamentary Assembly have reported that some of these elections have failed to meet the standards of the Council of Europe. Problems vary from old-fashioned ballot stuffing to more sophisticated methods of influencing the outcome, but they nearly all have one thing in common – the incumbents have profited as a result.

Democracy is a question of attitude – not attitude to victory, attitude to defeat. To win is easy. To lose is difficult. Believe me, I speak from personal experience. I lost a few elections myself, and my reaction was always the same – accept the defeat, but make up my mind to win next time. Some people seem to be too impatient to bother. They are ready to accept the will of the people – but only if it is in their favour.

If I may paraphrase William Shakespeare, if you lose an election in a democracy, the fault lies not in the stars, or your opponent, or the electorate, the fault lies in yourself.

The elitist approach to politics, in which politicians know best and feel entitled to take the liberty of rigging or ignoring election results because voters elected - or wanted to elect - their opponent or to vote down their pet project, is deeply undemocratic. Yet it still occurs.

Freedom of expression, or rather the lack of it, is a matter of serious concern. Methods vary from place to place, but again, the result is the same. Whether it is money, brute force or state control over the media which is used to silence dissenting voices – it is democracy which suffers.

Often we say that all this can be attributed to the lack of a democratic culture which takes years, if not decades, to take hold. This claim may be true, but it does not justify half-hearted attempts at democracy, designed more to satisfy international observers than to allow voters to make their choice.

Over the past decades, the Council of Europe has created a comprehensive body of democratic and human rights standards. We have designed and made available the necessary programmes to assist our member states in the implementation of these standards. And still we sometimes face situations when democratic laws have been adopted, democratic institutions have been created, and politicians have made all the right democratic noises, but the end-result resembles a poorly executed rehearsal in a theatre instead of a genuine exercise in democracy.

In fact, very often, the problem is not so much the lack of democratic culture. It is the lack of democratic will. Agreed, some things take time, but that time will never come if the democratic process is at a standstill or worse. You cannot have a democracy without democrats.

If we want to improve the state of democracy in Europe, we must call a spade a spade. The fact is that some European countries are not doing well enough.

The primary purpose of the Council of Europe is not to blame and shame, our role is to help. But before we can do so, there must be recognition that there is a national problem, and that our help is needed. This debate - and I congratulate the Parliamentary Assembly on the decision to hold it – is a good opportunity to do so.

Thank you.