The idea of closer cooperation between the European countries was born in the aftermath of World War II. Ten countries, including Sweden, formed the Council of Europe as an intergovernmental cooperation in 1949. Gradually, virtually all Western European countries joined. In the early 1990’s, the Council of Europe was given a new role – to assist the former communist states of Eastern and Central Europe in the transition to democracy. The new political reality also meant that the number of member states doubled.
The devastation was great after the war and economic cooperation was considered necessary to get Europe back on its feet. In the future, wars would be prevented by the countries being more closely linked to each other. At the same time, the spread of communism in Eastern Europe posed a threat to Western democracies. In a speech on 19 September 1946, the then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill painted his vision of the future of Europe: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
Churchill was the first to launch the idea of a united Europe and soon a series of movements emerged that all worked to push the idea forward. In 1948, the co-operation organization Europarörelsen was formed, which in May of the same year gathered more than 1,000 delegates from various parts of society in several European countries to a large congress in The Hague. Among other things, it was proposed that a kind of Council of Europe, a joint advisory assembly, should be elected by the parliaments of the countries. Proposals were also made for a European Convention on Human Rights and a court to monitor compliance with it.
A few months after the Hague Congress, the Brussels Pact was formed by France, the United Kingdom and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg). The Brussels Pact meant that they would assist each other in security policy, social and cultural issues. In addition, in order to combat economic problems, 16 Western European states had formed the OEEC in the same year, the forerunner of the current OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).
The Council of Europe is born
The European movement’s idea of a Council of Europe was raised by the Brussels Pact. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Italy and Ireland were invited to participate in the planned organization. It soon turned out that there were divided opinions about how the collaboration would go. France, Italy and the Benelux countries wanted a federation: a cooperation body with supranational control over the Member States. The other group, to which Sweden belonged, advocated a confederation, that is, intergovernmental cooperation in which governments remained sovereign. Sweden also opposed all forms of military cooperation.
The Confederates won. The Council of Europe was thus not allowed to take decisions that were binding on its members, but only to make recommendations. The sensitive security policy was kept out of the Council and became a task for the Atlantic Pact (later NATO) which was formed in 1949.
According to naturegnosis, the Council of Europe Charter was signed on 5 May 1949 in London by ten countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and Sweden). Greece and Turkey also soon became members. The Council was established in the French city of Strasbourg, in the previously disputed Alsace (in Alsace, Germany).
The main ideas in the charter were that the member states must be democratic, respect human rights and have a functioning legal system. The Council drafted the European Convention, which was signed in 1950. It would be of fundamental importance for the protection of human rights in Europe.
At the same time, the federalists continued to work their way. In 1951, France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries merged into the European Coal and Steel Community, which would develop into the European Community (EC) and later into the European Union (EU).
In the 1950’s, some members wanted the Council of Europe to coordinate Member States’ foreign policies and for the organization to deal with defense issues. Both proposals were met with opposition from Sweden, among others, and did not lead to any results.
New members in the west
During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Council of Europe gained six new members: Iceland, West Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Switzerland and Malta. The European Court of Human Rights held its first public hearing in 1960 and the following year the European Social Charter was signed in Rome. The debate within the Council of Europe was mainly about Europe’s economic reconstruction and relations with the eastern states.
When Spain and Portugal became democratic in the 1970’s, they too could join the Council of Europe.
On a couple of occasions, Member States have been suspended due to non-compliance with the basic requirements. Greece voluntarily stood outside the organization in 1969–1974, when the country was led by a military junta and threatened with exclusion. Turkey was shut down for a few years after a military coup in 1980.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, six more Council of Europe member states became members of the EU’s predecessor EC. As the EC enlarged, its tasks increasingly coincided with those of the Council of Europe. When the EC’s plans for a union became concrete in the late 1980’s and additional countries applied for membership of the EC / EU, many wondered if the Council of Europe would completely lose its role.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed that picture. As long as the Cold War lasted, the Council of Europe had little contact with the eastern states, except on “apolitical issues” such as sports and culture. But when communism fell, the council was considered to have the best conditions among European organizations to influence the development of Eastern Europe.
The Council of Europe designed democracy programs that promote human rights and the rule of law. One example is the Demosthenes program, a support and cooperation program with countries in Eastern and Central Europe established in 1990. The Council participated in the drafting of new constitutions and held seminars on democracy and human rights for, for example, judges, prison staff and politicians. The Venice Commission was established in 1990 to provide legal assistance to the new members. The Council also provided financial assistance. An important task was to monitor developments in the new member states and candidate countries.
As early as 1989, a special guest status was introduced to give the countries insight into the work of the Council of Europe. Hungary became the first former communist state to join in 1990. A further 23 countries joined until 2007, when Montenegro became the 47th member state.
The only countries in Europe that are not members of the Council of Europe are Belarus (which is not considered sufficiently democratic), the Vatican City State (which is a theocratic ministry but has observer status) and Kosovo (which declared independence in 2008 but has not been recognized by all European countries).).
For the eastern states, it has been important to mark their desire to become democratic and be part of Europe. Membership of the Council of Europe has been a coveted proof that the country in question was well on its way to Western democratic principles – and thus to a possible EU membership. No country may join the EU without first being a member of the Council of Europe.