The 1980s were a period of great change in Europe. From the mid-1980s, bold and imaginative steps were taken to encourage and support these changes, though no one imagined the scale they would take. In this endeavour, the decisive moments happened between November 1984 and April 1985, under the German Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. Here the key actors were the German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and the Secretary General, Marcelino Oreja, who had just taken office. Under their leadership, the Council of Europe set up its own “Ostpolitik” and prepared its future enlargement.
The Council of Europe’s first official move towards opening up relations with the countries of eastern Europe was made in late 1984/early 1985. This fact has been somewhat forgotten because enlargement of the Organisation started in earnest a few years later when Hungary became a member on 6 November 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall came down. The guiding minds behind it were the new Secretary General, Marcelino Oreja, who took office in October 1984, and the German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher who, after taking over the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers a month later, invited his colleagues from the other member states to a special ministerial meeting in Strasbourg on 29 January 1985. On the agenda was an item headed “East-West relations”. A Secretary General keen to make his mark Marcelino Oreja had been a member of the Parliamentary Assembly from January 1983 before being elected Secretary General in May 1984. Before that he had served as Spain’s Foreign Minister in Adolfo Suarez’s government of transition to democracy. It was in this capacity that he attended a historic and memorable sitting of the Assembly on 12 October 1977 in Strasbourg, where the Spanish Government undertook to work for the adoption of a new constitution embodying the ideas and principles of the Council and the European Convention on Human Rights. As a result of this, Spain was able to join the Council a month later. While campaigning for election Marcelino Oreja made reference to this sitting which had impressed him deeply, strengthened his European convictions and created in him a permanent attachment to our Organisation. At various meetings held in this context he declared his intention of doing his utmost to secure a position of eminence for the Council on the European stage, at the same time admitting that this would require bold reforms of the Council’s programme, structures and working methods. His energy, liveliness and openness were valued and his optimism, warmth and ready smile were undeniably an asset in informal personal dealings. Members of the Private Office came to appreciate these qualities in a man who was particularly accessible and very pleasant to work with. “The little man with a mountain to climb” When he took office, the International Herald Tribune published an article entitled “Oreja, the little man with a mountain to climb”, a well-balanced text on the new Secretary General’s professionalism and experience and the great challenges he faced in seeking to energise the Council. I make no comment on his stature, because we are the same height (!), but that title was an accurate prediction. No sooner was Marcelino Oreja settled in Strasbourg when he threw himself into the job of conquering most of the mountain peaks of the Vosges, always leading the new Strasbourg friends and members of the Secretariat who were his fellow-hikers. He was a tireless walker and whenever possible went from home to the Council and back on foot, at a very lively pace that earned him the nickname “Speedy Gonzales”. Death threats against him by ETA meant that the French authorities had assigned him a bodyguard who was not exactly slender and had a lot of trouble keeping up with him. But dedication to the job won the day, and within a few weeks he got his second wind and a youthful figure as a result of keeping up with the boss! Personally, I didn’t hesitate when he suggested that I head up his Private Office, especially as he immediately involved me in his own duties by instructing me to draft a personal memorandum on the Organisation’s priorities and priorities for his own term of office. He also asked me to draft a speech for him to deliver to the Assembly at its October session. In the course of all this I learnt that he was a perfectionist. He liked an elegant if somewhat bombastic turn of phrase, and was fond of quotations, allegories and other figures of speech. His comments on texts submitted by the Secretariat often ended with the words “Fine. Just needs embellishing a bit – I’ve marked the places.” This same mindset prompted him to ask us to find a cogent slogan to describe his work programme for the Council, settling in the end on “Do less, but do it better, and faster”. Regarding the priorities for his term of office, I had experience in two areas of Council activity which proved very useful, from my time as Director of the European Youth Centre and later as head of the division for the planning and programming of intergovernmental activities. At the European Youth Centre (EYC) I had learnt a lot about the realities of international co-operation and specifically East-West relations. Partner youth organisations of the centre, especially those of a political nature, had great hopes of the talks under way between the two blocs to promote peace and understanding between the nations. Their spokesmen very much wanted to see the Helsinki Final Act implemented and were very keen that the Council should show greater commitment here. I probably have them to thank for my recognition of the Council as a body that represents the whole of Europe, a view I have upheld ever since. As head of planning and programming I saw how fragmented our work was, realised that there were too many expert committees, and understood the difficulties of achieving a balance of co-operation with the European Community which was starting to move into the Council’s own spheres of excellence. These at the time were the two areas in which answers to the challenges had to be found. The search for common cultural roots Discussions with those colleagues who had joined the small Private Office team were conclusive. We agreed on the two main issues, but we also agreed that the most important and pressing need was to explore ways in which the Council might open up towards eastern Europe through relations with those countries involved in implementing the Helsinki Accords which seemed willing to co-operate with our Organisation. In our view this was the best way of opening up new avenues of development for the Council and ensuring that it remained in control of its destiny, at a time when the European Community was growing in influence, following the Fontainebleau Summit of June 1984. But arguments were needed in support of our position, which was not yet widely shared within the Organisation. During the summer, studying the work of the Assembly, I discovered a parliamentary body that was far more “political” than the Committee of Ministers and had never given up on the dream of a united continent shared by the Council’s founders, in particular Winston Churchill who described it in masterly fashion in his famous Zurich speech of September 1946. Suffice it to say that in August 1950 the Assembly formed a special committee to watch over the interests of European Nations not represented in the Council of Europe, so that those nations not free to join in the first political project of European unification embodied by the Council should not be forgotten. This committee continued under another name up to the end of enlargement and played a decisive part in it. Resolution 805 from 1983 on “European co-operation in the 1980s” provides the best analysis of the scenario I have just described, with the same identification of a twofold need: firstly, to have greater complementarity, reciprocity and efficacy in relations between the Council and the community and, secondly, to explore the possibility of participation by the east European countries in the Council’s intergovernmental activities. The overriding idea was to operate a kind of “back to beginnings”, reasoning that the continent had a common history and a common culture, and that by emphasising these one might move beyond the ideological, political and economic divides that separated Europe into two blocs, in the secret hope that one day this artificial separation might end. In concrete terms the best way seemed to be to begin building relations with the countries of central Europe which had already shown interest in our Organisation, focusing on Europe’s shared cultural identity and using the very attractive framework of the European Cultural Convention which had the advantage of being open to all European countries, whether or not they were member states of the Council of Europe. Marcelino Oreja shared and endorsed this view. But in order to make it into a political project, it was necessary to find an influential member state, a minister ready to engage and a ministerial team with the flexibility needed to bring the plan to fruition within a short space of time.
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