This Wednesday, for the first time since 1998, Germany will assume the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It is the second consecutive Presidency to be held by an EU member state and the second consecutive to begin in the midst of the ongoing global public health crisis. Following a very successful Greek Chairmanship, Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs of Greece Miltiadis Varvitsiotis prepares to pass the baton to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas who will preside the Committee of Ministers for the next six months. The European Union looks forward to close collaboration with the German Presidency, especially in the context of their coinciding Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Germany has made clear from the outset that they envisage using their Presidency as an opportunity to uphold the values of democracy, rule of law and human rights, as well as a chance to reassert the Council of Europe as a core pillar of multilateral cooperation in Europe. In a time where multilateralism and the rules-based order have found themselves increasingly under fire, we must not let the importance of our common European values be forgotten. This reassertion follows similar pledges to effective multilateralism in both the Athens Declaration and the EU Priorities for Cooperation with the Council of Europe 2020-2022. From a European Union perspective, this support is most welcome as we continue our negotiations for accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, in the words of incoming President of Ministers’ Deputies Rolf Mafael “in the European Union, as in the Council of Europe… we defend democracy, the rule of law and human rights”.
Germany’s priorities are forward looking and are aimed at addressing the future challenges to the Convention system just as much as the challenges of today. One such issue is the regulation of artificial intelligence and the use of digital algorithms. Finding the right balance between such technological developments and human rights will be a crucial factor in defining how future generations will live their lives. Left unchecked, it poses a significant threat to how we can safeguard human rights. Germany recently underlined its commitment to this priority at a meeting of the Gender Equality Commission, where the risks of algorithms entrenching gender bias was discussed. The German commitment to focus on artificial intelligence comes just months after the publication of the European Union’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence which commits the European Union to a rights-based and approach in future policy. Moreover, it comes just weeks after the Ad Hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI) published its first progress report which noted the importance of inter-organisational cooperation between the Council of Europe and European Union on this subject.
The European Union is equally looking forward to working with Germany at the Council of Europe on combatting hate speech, a subject close to the hearts of both organisations. Whilst both the Council of Europe and European Union are proud advocates of the freedom of speech, enshrined in both the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, we recognise that it ends where hate speech begins. We look forward to the upcoming multi-stakeholder conference “Dealing with Hate Speech from a European Perspective – Impulses for the Council of Europe”, which will compare existing national regulation, promote awareness of hate speech and look into anti-discrimination strategies for particularly affected groups. It is set to take place in Berlin on 17-18 February 2021.
Germany has also included the protection of the rights of minority groups into its set of priorities. Germany will focus on Roma and Travellers, including Sinti and others, as the largest minority in Europe, and will organise a series of seminars and cultural events in close collaboration with the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC), founded in 2017 on a Council of Europe initiative and based in Berlin. We also hope this focus will allow the European Union to find suitable synergies for cooperation with the Council of Europe on this topic, especially from the context of the new EU Roma Strategic Framework 2020-2030.
We welcome also Germany’s efforts to further involve young people in the debates and decision-making processes surrounding these issues. Young people in particular are facing diverse challenges and youth work in all its forms can serve as a catalyst for empowerment. The upcoming 3rd European Youth Work Convention which is set to take place 7-10 December, is the next major step towards implementing the European Work Agenda, a joint effort to empower and guarantee equal participation of young people in all EU and Council of Europe member states. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential impact on social and economic rights, protecting the interests of young people is now more important than ever. We hope this will help create the necessary springboard to put youth policy back on the agenda across the continent.
Not only does the upcoming German Presidency allow us to reaffirm our strong cooperation, it also provides a timely opportunity to refocus our attention on the future challenges we face together. Germany’s coinciding Presidency of the Council of the European Union has opened up the possibility of synergies between the European Union’s and Council of Europe’s agendas. Of particular note in this respect is the fact that Germany has included environmental action as a topic in both its Presidencies. The European Union, the Council of Europe, along with their member states, recognise the links between environmental policy and protection of human rights. The European Union is committed to streamlining the protection and promotion of human rights into all of its external action. In close collaboration with Germany and all our member states, we envisage that the European Green Deal and all EU environmental policy is compliant with international and European human rights standards.
The German Presidency, like the Greek Chairmanship before, falls on the auspicious occasion of the 70th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights. As such, the forthcoming Presidency does not only provide a chance to look forward to the future, but also gives us the opportunity to reflect on why we pursue these objectives and priorities in the first place. Both the European Union and Germany agree that we do so on the basis of protecting our shared European values, which must be protected now more than ever. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says: “Democracy is not a matter of course, we live in times when people have to stand up to safeguard democracy, peace and freedom”.