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13 September 2019

The creation of a new Council of Europe institution: the North South Centre


Hans de JONGE

The story of the creation of the North-South Centre began, as far as I am concerned, with my appointment as secretary of the Committee on Economic Affairs and Development of the Parliamentary Assembly in 1973. I was thrilled that after barely six years in the Council and after having gained experience as an assistant secretary of various other Assembly committees, I was entrusted with such a responsible task to succeed a brilliant British colleague, Martin Vasey. He had left the Council for a position in the Commission of the European Communities upon the UK’s accession. It was a challenge to meet his high professional standards.

How could I proof my worth? What was the committee going to deal with, what were the main concerns of the time, how were new initiatives taken? It was soon clear to me that the secretary had to gain the confidence of the parliamentarians, whatever their political belongings. One important task of a committee secretary was to assist them in preparing their reports. In doing so, the secretary - thus I too - often had to deploy diplomacy so as to avoid unnecessary divergences if reports would reflect too strong partisan views.

The Committee reported regularly on current economic problems as well as on the activities of major international economic and financial institutions. A main role was to prepare every year a report on the OECD for which the Parliamentary Assembly acted as a parliamentary forum, as provided for in an agreement between the two organisations established upon the creation of OECD in 1962.

Stage one: A new approach to treat development problems

One major topic and regular concern of the Committee on Economic Affairs and Development was the policy of the Council of Europe member States and other rich countries towards the developing countries, in particular Africa. There was a growing political awareness that the problems facing European countries – be they economic, social or ecological – could not be solved by them alone. A better international cooperation and solidarity was necessary. In the seventies and eighties, the Committee adopted several reports on the cooperation policies of the Council of Europe member states. At the same time, in 1975 the United Nations had adopted the target of 0.7 % of their GDP for development aid.

In 1980 a high level commission was set up by the World Bank to make recommendations to end the political impasse in the north-south negotiations, under the chairmanship of the former German Chancellor Willy Brandt. The Commission appealed for a large-scale restructuring of the world economy and a new approach to treat development problems, including an urgent programme for ending poverty. One of the achievements of the Brandt report was that it mobilised public opinion on the issue. A few years later the Brundtland Report[1] set out the concept of sustainable development, ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1987.

Stage 2: The Council of Europe’s reaction

What was the Council of Europe’s reaction to these developments? The Committee on Economic Affairs and Development presented in 1981 to the Parliamentary Assembly an extensive report on “Global prospects: human needs and the earth’s resources”. The report, prepared by Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, an Icelandic parliamentarian who became later a four times re-elected President of his country, argued that the Council of Europe had its proper role to play in international efforts to eradicate hunger and poverty in the world by creating the essential conditions for a more balanced relationship between population growth and the availability of food and other physical scarce resources. The report underlined the interdependence of all nations and populations in tackling the interlinked problems of population growth and the depletion of scarce resources.

So the question was: what could Europe do to create a better world by addressing existing disequilibria and creating a greater international solidarity? There was a clear need for a European reflection on the great challenges facing the world. Hitherto, there had never been a parliamentary initiative in discussing these global issues at European level. My role as Committee secretary was to get the idea through that a first ever parliamentary conference on Europe’s responsibility would be necessary to speak out and transcend the more self-interested (inter)governmental approach. After further deliberations on the Grimsson report, the Committee proposed to the Parliamentary Assembly to organise a conference on Europe’s contribution towards a fairer sharing and better preservation of the earth’s physical resources[2].

The Portuguese members of the committee had proposed that the Conference take place in their country which had recently joined the Council. Portugal was situated halfway between the North and the South and in many respects still a developing country itself. After 50 years of dictatorship and as a new democracy having granted independence to all of its former colonies, Portugal could play its proper role in bringing the countries of the North and the South closer together. In the autumn of 1983 Olafur Grimsson and I went to Lisbon in preparation of the Conference. We were received by the new Prime Minister, Mario Soares[3], who later became the President of Portugal, at his official residence where he invited us to a working luncheon to discuss how the conference could best be organised. We could count on the efficient help in preparing the conference from both the National Assembly and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. It was clear that the Portuguese government attached great importance to its success.

Stage 3: A unique Conference on “North-South: Europe’s role”

The Conference took place on 9-11 April 1984 in Lisbon at the Assembly of the Republic. It was the first major meeting ever held on Europe’s responsibility vis-à-vis the developing world in which all the democratic countries of Europe participated. More than 400 parliamentarians, members of government, representatives from intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations came together. In the impressive chamber of the Portuguese Assembly the conference was addressed by the President of Portugal, Antonio Ramalho Eanes, the Prime Minister, Mario Soares, and a host of European ministers responsible for development cooperation. The heads of OECD, the Commonwealth, UNCTAD, UNDP and other major international organisations took an active part in the conference. The developing countries were represented by the then Chairman of the group of 77, the Ambassador of Mexico to the United Nations, Porfirio Munoz Ledo (who years later became the Permanent Observer of Mexico to the Council of Europe), the Chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of India, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and the Prime Minister of Cape Verde, who spoke on behalf of the Portuguese speaking African Nations.

The Independent Commission on International development was represented by its Chairman, Willy Brandt, and the World Commission on Environment and Development by Gro Harlem Brundtland. They made the most vibrating and captivating appeals for greater international solidarity and a stronger involvement of the European nations in the assistance and cooperation with the developing world. It was of course overwhelming to be surrounded by so many celebrities at the same time but running around to ensure everything goes well I had no chance to meet with them.

The conference ended with the adoption of the “Lisbon Declaration”, calling on “the peoples, the parliaments and the governments in Europe to spare no efforts in building a new international system which, through stronger global institutions, helps to create a world where every citizen is free from hunger and oppression and where children are offered the opportunity to master their own destiny.” The Conference proposed organizing a Europe-wide public campaign to raise public awareness of the many issues on the North-South agenda and how they affected the future of Europe itself.

Stage 4: The European Public Campaign on North-South Interdependence and Solidarity

The conference had far-reaching consequences. The report presented to the Parliamentary Assembly by the Rapporteurs, Uwe Holtz from Germany and Harry Aarts from the Netherlands, proposed that a “European Public Campaign on North-South Interdependence and Global Survival” be organised by the Council of Europe. Both parliamentarians were also chairmen of the Development Cooperation committees in their respective national parliaments and experts on North-South issues in their own right.

The Parliamentary Assembly endorsed this proposal and in November 1984, the Committee of Ministers responded favourably by expressing its conviction that the Council of Europe had a duty to make its specific contribution to promoting North-South relations. They agreed to the organisation of a European Campaign in close cooperation with the European Community and non-governmental organisations.

The main objectives of the campaign were to raise public awareness of the complex structural relationship which affected European and Southern countries in their day to day life, and to prepare for recognition and acceptance by the public and its elected representatives of the policies necessary to create a fairer world, heeding the needs of the North and South in an equitable way. There should be greater public awareness of the reality that the problems of the North and the South were intimately linked and could not be solved by one side alone, be these of an economic, social, ecological or humanitarian nature.

A European Organising Committee was set up, chaired by Ambassador Walther Lichem, Deputy Director General for Development Cooperation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Austria. Representatives of governments, parliaments, local and regional authorities and non-governmental organisations from all the Council of Europe member States constituted this organising committee.

Under the slogan “North-South: One future – a Common task”, the Campaign was launched officially in the Parliamentary Assembly on 26 January 1988 by H.M. the King of Spain, Juan Carlos. The British rock musician Sting and Jamaican Singer Ziggy Marley produced a special clip for the Campaign with a song entitled “One world is enough for all of us”.

In the period from February throughout 1988 and beyond, numerous activities took place under the auspices of the Campaign which was directed by a small staff from Strasbourg. At European level a series of round tables, colloquies and other events were organised on trade, debt, agriculture, environment, employment, development assistance, socio-cultural relations, as well as the specific needs of the least developed countries. National campaigns were launched in nearly all 22 member States of the Council of Europe. About 1500 national activities were estimated to have been organised.

A culminating event was the Conference of Parliamentarians and NGO’s on North South Interdependence and Solidarity which took place in Madrid on 1-3 June 1988. The event was opened by the King of Spain and attended by a few hundred parliamentarians and NGO representatives as well as high-level representatives from governments and international organisations.

At the close of the Conference, the Madrid Appeal for action on North South Interdependence and Solidarity was adopted, with the aim to achieve the goal of a fairer sharing of the earth’s resources, to promote more just social and economic policies and to make a much more sustained effort to give all persons a real chance for an acceptable and dignified existence. In the Appeal the proposal was made to set up a permanent structure to continue implementing the objectives of the Campaign.

Stage 5: The decision to create a European Centre for Global Interdependence and Solidarity – the North-South Centre

In addition to a series of policy proposals for specific action, the Madrid Appeal proposed that the Council of Europe set up an “organisational structure”, bearing in mind the constructive proposal made by the new Prime Minister of Portugal, Anibal Cavaco Silva, that his country host a Centre for Global interdependence and Solidarity”, which should serve the purpose of continuing the process of cooperation between NGOs, parliamentarians, governments and international institutions, and following up the ideas and structures built up during the North-South Campaign.

Uwe Holtz and Harry Aarts presented in January 1989 a new report to the Parliamentary Assembly in which they proposed that the setting up of such a Centre be actively pursued. This Centre they wrote «should pursue tasks that hitherto had not been pursued elsewhere. It should promote the “quadrilogue” between governments, parliamentarians, local and regional authorities, and civil society, strengthen co-operation and dialogue between NGOs from the North and the South, and improve development education and the fundamental issues of interdependence and solidarity.

The Parliamentary Assembly endorsed these proposals and in turn, the Committee of Ministers noted the success of the Campaign and instructed their Deputies to consider and determine arrangements for putting the proposal to set up a European Centre for Global Interdependence and Solidarity into effect. A few months later, in November 1989, the representatives of the 10 founding States – Cyprus, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, San Marino and Spain – adopted Resolution (89) 14, establishing a European Centre for Global Interdependence and Solidarity.

The aims of the Centre were defined as to provide a framework for European Cooperation for the purpose of increasing public awareness of global interdependence issues and to promote policies of solidarity in conformity with the aims and principles of the Council of Europe. The creation of the Centre was an important political sign. The end of the east-west antagonism had led to fears of a great focus from the international community to Central and Eastern European countries to the detriment of developing ones. In a way the Centre would function as the Council of Europe’s window to the world, and would be a concrete follow up of a specific commitment taken by the Committee of Ministers in the Declaration adopted on the occasion of the Council of Europe’s 40th anniversary (5 May 1989) : “The Organisation must remain open to the world on account of the growing interdependence of international relations and of the universality of its values and principles”.

The Centre started its operations in May 1990 with a small team based in Lisbon. It is commonly referred to as “the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe”.


This is the story of how after a long political process and action, a new Council of Europe institution saw its light. However, unfortunately, not all Council of Europe member States have given the North-South-Centre the support it needs and deserves. In spite of this lack of suitable resources, the Centre has made commendable efforts to fulfil its mandate. I may single out its global education programmes, its “youth and development” universities, the Lisbon Forum on human rights and the annual North South Prize. Over time it has adapted its structure and activities to respond better to new needs and has gained growing recognition.

The Centre nowadays focuses on dialogue and cooperation between Europe, the South of the Mediterranean and Africa. It builds a global citizenship based on human rights and citizens’ responsibilities. It fulfils the dual political role of representing “the voice of the South” within the Council of Europe and of promoting and transmitting the values of democracy and human rights that are central to the Council of Europe’s mission in neighbouring regions. Building on the experience, knowledge and network of contacts established over the years, the Centre has become an important asset of the Council of Europe and is making a crucial contribution to the Organisation’s neighborhood policy.

It is fortunate that in the last years the North-South Centre has been joined by several new member states, including non-European countries such as Morocco, Cape Verde, Tunisia and Algeria. It also benefits of a strong support from the European Commission. The institution presently counts 21 member States.

I was lucky and happy to have been associated over years with the creation of the Centre, first within the secretariat of the Parliamentary Assembly, later after the Centre’s creation as Director of External Relations, and even after my official retirement from the Council of Europe for a short period as interim Executive Director of the institution.

I hope that my story may help in creating a better understanding of the objectives of the Centre and its importance for the Council of Europe member States and beyond so that more countries may join and support it.


[1] Set up by the UN, the World Commission on Environment and Development was presided by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Prime Minister of Norway.

[2] Resolution 747 on “Global prospects: human needs and the earth’s resources” called for the organization of a conference on “Europe’s contribution towards improvement of North-South Relations and better preservation of the earth’s resources with the objective of debating Europe’s contribution towards a fairer sharing and better preservation of the earth’s physical resources”.

[3] While in exile (1970-1974) Mario Soares had been invited regularly to the Council of Europe by a political group. Much later, in 2005, he told me at one of the meetings of the North-South Centre that he could not return to his country in that period because of a planned attempt to his life.