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Speech of PACE President at the Forum for the Future of Democracy


Warsaw, 3-4 November 2005


Ladies and gentlemen,

As a democratic politician, I am honoured to speak after Mr Lech Walesa, who played such a central role in the fight to bring democracy to Poland. I have been in politics for almost thirty years, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly for more than fifteen years and its President since January. It is therefore only natural that I am excited by this Forum for the Future of Democracy and honoured to address its launching meeting, especially since the Forum itself was originally an initiative of the Assembly. My colleague Mr Wielowieyski, who has dedicated himself to creation of the Forum, will be representing the Assembly in the Closing Session.

The Royal Castle, where we meet, was also the venue for the Third Summit of the Council of Europe in May. The Warsaw Summit gave renewed focus and vigour to the Council of Europe, but this Forum is faced with an even greater and – dare I say – more important task. I would describe this task as not merely talking about the future of democracy; it is more urgent than that. We are here to help ensure a future for democracy in Europe. We need, therefore, to assess the quality of our democracies.

Winston Churchill once said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” I would conclude from this that democratic government is a basic social necessity.

It is therefore all the more important that, as the world changes, democracy remains relevant and alive. Because it is only democracy, when coupled with respect for human rights and the rule of law, that can ensure the conditions for economic growth and the material well-being of our citizens.

Democratic government is not just about constitutions and institutions, however, it is about process and participation. Democracy therefore needs freedom: freedom of information and expression, freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of assembly and association, the freedom to vote in free and fair elections. And, of course, the freedom to disagree.

And if democracy is truly to mean government of the people, by the people, for the people – as Abraham Lincoln intended – then these freedoms must not be illusory or dead-letter law. They must be exercised, and exercised with enthusiasm. Democracy must be part of everybody’s everyday experience.

People need to know that their participation counts. They need to know that it is worthwhile to follow debates, to take an interest in election campaigns, to vote. For politicians to represent the people, persons from all walks of life must be inspired to join political parties and to stand for election to public office. If not, a gap emerges between the electorate and the politicians. There is growing concern about this gap in many European countries, and we must find out the reasons for it.

Politicians and political parties alone however, are not enough. Democracy needs a strong, pluralistic media and a diverse and active civil society, free to organise and agitate. Civil society must be an integral part of the democratic process, systematically providing constructive criticism and new ideas.

Increasingly, politicians are not exercising leadership, with the result that the political process lacks credibility. We must involve citizens in political life, in order to restore an effective decision-making process. Equally, we must reinforce democracy, human rights and the rule of law as an inherent part of the education system. How to achieve this should be an issue in your discussions.

I am making the development of contacts with civil society a central theme of my Parliamentary Assembly Presidency. I am therefore delighted that the topic of “civic participation” is at the very heart of my activities today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is the Forum’s launching meeting, and so you will have to make some decisions on what you intend to do, and how you intend to do it. Please do not take this as an invitation to become obsessive about formalities and procedures! I have no time for bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. Nevertheless, there are some basic points on which I would like to comment.

The composition of the Forum is a crucial issue. The Council of Europe already has a committee of national civil servants, in the form of the Ministers’ Deputies. Whilst civil servants will have a role to play, the Forum must ensure that it remains something more than that. If not, it risks becoming redundant.

Equally, the Council of Europe already has a Parliamentary Assembly, a Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and a Liaison Committee for the international NGOs that enjoy participatory status. These bodies do not need to be duplicated. On the other hand, they must be involved. The Parliamentary Assembly, for example, has established a sub-committee devoted to the Forum that will play an active role in your work now and in the future, by taking initiatives and making proposals.

What distinguishes the Forum is its focus on a specific issue. I believe it will address this issue most effectively by bringing together the widest possible variety of parties with a real and immediate interest: civil society, journalists, academics, politicians, civil servants, and so on. There must be a proper balance between these groups, in order to achieve genuine, pluralistic representation of society as a whole.

I would like to thank the Polish authorities wholeheartedly for having organised this launching meeting so promptly and enthusiastically. Nevertheless, in future, the Forum will need as much autonomy as possible, with the role of national authorities being to create a free and open space for discussion. You should begin thinking about how to be proactive in organising your own work, and not just wait to be convened by national authorities.

I would recommend that you avoid anything that might lead to stagnation and repetition. With a diverse composition, you may not need a permanent secretariat, which could help your work to remain original and innovative.

I would also suggest the greatest possible flexibility in working methods, varying according to the issue and the expertise required. The Forum could become one of many hubs of an informal and evolving network, whose development should be guided only by the principles of effectiveness and independence.

In short, I believe that the Forum must become:
• Diverse and representative, a bridge between different groups in society
• Autonomous and pro-active
• Flexible and creative
But ultimately, these decisions must be your decisions, and I wish you imagination, inspiration and every success in your work.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As a democratic politician, I do not exempt myself or my colleagues from criticism. Democratic politicians must represent the people, not bureaucratic government. We must be independent and open to citizens’ concerns. Politicians must fulfil their responsibility to be close to the people, by knowing what they have in mind and taking clear positions that take these views into account. The future of democracy depends also on this.

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