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Council of Europe

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The Council of Europe is not an EU institution.  It is not a part of the EU. The Council brings together 47 European states to discuss political issues that affect them, mainly regarding culture, the environment, ethics and law.  It has also provided constitutional advice to the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe.  It runs the European Court of Human Rights and was responsible for the European Social Charter. It presents a model of intergovernmental co-operation as opposed to the supranational model on which the EU operates.

Established under the Treaty of London in 1949, the Council of Europe represented one of the first attempts at European reconciliation and co-operation after the divisions and nationalism of World War II.  The idea for establishing the Council of Europe emerged from the political debate after World War II on how to prevent another war.  Particularly notable was the speech made by Sir Winston Churchill in 1946, when he called for a United States of Europe to encourage co-operation, but did not imagine Britain as a member.

The Council’s first success was the signing of Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1950, followed by the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights in 1959.  However, with the establishment of the European Community in 1958, the role of the Council of Europe declined and for many years it was sidelined.  Since the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s it has done much to promote democracy in former Soviet bloc countries and the Balkans, promoting the principles of democracy and human rights that have enabled many of these countries to join the EU.

How does the Council of Europe work?
The Council of Europe consists of the Parliamentary Assembly, made up of representatives of the member states’ parliaments, and a Council of Foreign Ministers. It has no law making powers but instead passes conventions and charters that recommend actions that its members should take. The proposals of the Council do not take automatic effect – instead members have to sign up to them. The parliamentary assembly is led by a President, Pedro Agramunt, elected in 2016, and supported by a secretariat of 1,800 civil servants.

Although the Council’s recommendations in many areas are not binding, in some important areas – principally human rights – it does have legal jurisdiction.  Under the Convention of Human Rights, all signatories are obliged to uphold the right to life, to protection against torture and inhumane treatment, to freedom and safety, to a fair trial, to respect for one’s private family life and correspondence, and to freedom of expression. States and individuals, regardless of their nationality, may refer alleged violations to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. However, the Council has no enforcement mechanism so cannot impose the human rights rulings on members.

The process of joining the EU requires prospective members to sign the European Convention on Human Rights. When the EU gained legal personality through the Lisbon Treaty, it joined the convention in its own right.