As so often, it was Churchill who found the language. In a letter circulated to the wartime cabinet in October 1942 he had this vision : “Hard as it is to say now, I trust that the European family may act unitedly as one under a Council of Europe. I look forward to a United States of Europe in which the barriers between the nations will be greatly minimised and unrestricted travel will be possible. I hope to see the economy of Europe studied as a whole.”
The United States of Europe has yet to be formed and Britain still imposes passport controls on European Union citizens in contrast to the largely unrestricted travel that the rest of Europe enjoys. But the Council of Europe, set up in 1949, is one of the little known success stories of European unity. Martyn Bond, an expert in both the theory and practice of European institutions, has produced a succinct account of the history and current role of the Council of Europe. Britain is now in the driving seat as chair of the Council’s Committee of Ministers at a time when demands for reform are growing. MPs and Ministers could usefully read this book before pontificating on the Strasbourg-based body which costs the UK a modest 25 million pounds a year.
In fact, as this book points out, the Council is very much the child of post-1945 internationalist Conservative thinking. In 1948, an international congress presided over by Churchill took place in The Hague and from it flowed the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the creation of a supra-national court, the European Court of Human Rights, to enforce the Convention.
The Council was the soft power twin to the military alliance NATO, founded in 1949. While exhausted Labour ministers turned down the chance to shape the future European Community when Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison rejected the invitation to join the European Coal and Steel Community, Tory internationalist ministers were supportive of the idea of the Council of Europe. As well they might : the European Court of Human Rights’ first protocol upheld private property rights.
In 1954, a finance clerk at the Council offices in Strasbourg designed the twelve yellow circles on a blue background as the Council flag. Its lack of religious or other symbolism and its clear design made it an obvious choice for the European Union to later adopt as its own. The Council also chose the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony as its signature tune - a choice of stirring music without any ulterior political motive.
As Martyn Bond’s clearly written history of the Council of Europe shows, the Council has always played second fiddle to the greater political-institutional narratives of post-war European construction. Few other than experts know much detail of its existence, which may in fact be its saving grace. The Council has constantly added value to the quality and total store of European democracy. Forty seven states are now members, far more than the EU. Turkey has always been a member. This was never a magic wand for imposing Swedish or Swiss democratic standards on a Turkey which at times has had military government and even today has 76 journalists - more than China - behind bars. The European Court of Human Rights upholds freedom of expression but raised no protest against General de Gaulle’s iron control of French television news up to 1968.
Eurosceptics in Britain worked themselves into a lather after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that prisoners should be granted the right to vote. An emergency Commons debate was held, and MPs and the anti-EU press denounced the European Court of Human Rights. There are also protests about how judges have interpreted the European Convention on Human Rights article on protecting family life. Asylum seekers accused or convicted of serious crimes have on occasion avoided deportation, pleading they have founded a family of British citizens who should not be denied access to a father or husband.
In fact, Switzerland, the model non-EU country for many Eurosceptics, has allowed prisoners to vote for forty years and while a desire for revenge on foreign criminals by deporting them does appeal to those who seek retributive punishment, this is not meant to visit the crimes of the father on his children.
For Britain to exclude itself from the Treaty creating the Convention and Court would mean nothing unless the UK Human Rights Act was also repealed. This would place Britain, a founder member of the European Court of Human Rights, in the global pariah category that not even the hardest of hard-line MPs or editors really wants. Reform is needed, but to achieve this, a greater degree of commitment and participation is required to press British arguments. Some MPs may be angry at the Court’s decisions, but they will come to accept over time that most of its rulings have gradually been found to be on the right side of history.
The Council allows a steady drip of complaints about bad behaviour of member state governments, and since under the Treaty member states are bound to abide by the ECHR’s decisions, it has a great deal more soft power than is realised. Anomalies exist - the Court reflects social change. Gay persecution or the habit of beating children or denying prisoners civic rights were the norm in the first decades of the Council’s existence. But having a supranational court handing down judgements is a remarkable achievement of post-1945 civilisation. Now the court is clogged up by thousands of complaints from citizens of the Russian Federation. The ruling Russian elites are indifferent to western laws or codes of conduct. But at the Council, Vladimir Putin’s men have to listen to European values and perhaps some of them return home with a different outlook on how government should operate. There are indeed serious questions to be answered about the increase in cases and perhaps a period of suspension of Russia from the Council of Europe is justified and would cut down the case load massively. But would that be fair on Russian citizens who look to this non-EU body for redress against the Russian state machine ?
The Council’s Parliamentary Assembly is a fascinating debating chamber. A large number of past and future ministers go as delegates, and parliamentarians from 47 member states are forced to work together. Some of their reports, however, are a disgrace. One example was the wild allegations made in a report against the prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, which were comprehensively demolished earlier this year by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic. The political performance of the Council is as uneven as any assembly of politicians. British Conservative MPs, for example, sit with the official Putin delegation and there are some eccentric characters who take part in debates which are often more passionate than the other Strasbourg assembly, the European Parliament.
The Council has played a consistently useful role in post- 1945 democratic development, as Martyn Bond’s book points out. Europe has its problems, but the Council has done more to promote and sustain democracy and human rights in the continent than any other institution in European history.