The European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE) are often confused given the similarities in terminology, flag and anthem between the two organisations. Many people are unaware that although they are strategic partners, they are entirely separate but complementary international organisations. The CoE, as the oldest international organisation in Europe, comprises 46 countries (compared to the EU’s 27) and is focussed on human rights, rule of law and democracy. It operates on the basis of standard-setting, monitoring and cooperation with states. The iconic European flag so widely associated with the EU, was in fact originally adopted by the CoE in 1955, thirty years before it was ever used by the EU. Similarly, in 1972 the CoE adopted Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as its anthem, which was adopted by the EU thirteen years later. All EU member states are also members of the Council of Europe.
Yet none of this is the most important point of convergence. It is the shared values of human rights, democracy and rule of law which truly unite the two organisations, creating a formidable strategic human rights alliance which influences human rights standards not only in Europe, but throughout the world. As Ireland marks 50 years of membership of the EU, it is an opportunity to reflect on the EU / CoE partnership and to emphasise the importance of strengthening it for the benefit of all.
Upon the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, a new phase of European integration emerged with an increased focus on democracy, human rights and the respect for the rule of law across all EU policies. This created an opportunity for significantly more co-operation between the EU and CoE across the three pillars of enhanced political dialogue, stronger legal co-operation, and joint co-operation programmes. The practical consequence of this is that the EU is now a major contributor to the CoE’s extrabudgetary resources, including through joint programmes. This allows the political and budgetary strength of the EU to strategically enhance and amplify the impact of the CoE’s unique standards-based expertise.
The Treaty of Lisbon also upgraded the status of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to an EU Treaty, and made EU accession to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) a legal obligation. The objective was to work towards complementarity, not divergence of standards. For 70 years, the ECHR has been a unique and invaluable tool protecting millions of Europeans and accession by the EU will further improve its practical effectiveness.
Though treaty accession is principally a matter for sovereign states, some treaties are open to international organisations. The EU, which maintains a continuous presence at the CoE in Strasbourg, has already acceded to several CoE Conventions including on the Prevention of Terrorism and has signed the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (“Istanbul Convention”). Accession to the ECHR by the EU is more than a declaratory exercise. It will help guarantee coherence and consistency between EU law and policy and the European human rights system, and will lead to a single legal space in which the EU itself is also bound by ECHR. This is hugely significant given the breadth of EU action, including under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). It will also ensure that human rights considerations in judgments of the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) are legally consistent with the European Court of Human Rights.
However, progress towards accession has been rather slow. Negotiations took place between 2010 and 2013, but in December 2014, the Court of Justice of the EU concluded that the proposed agreement was not compatible with EU law. Finally, in October 2019, European Commission informed the CoE that the EU was ready to resume negotiations on its accession, which are now progressing.
In May 2022, Ireland assumed the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the CoE. As one of the ten founding members of the CoE, this is a unique privilege and responsibility for Ireland, not least due to the ongoing war of aggression of Russia in Ukraine. Ireland prides itself as being committed to the international rules-based order and multilateralism. It is a fitting coincidence then that at the same time as holding the Presidency of the CoE Committee of Ministers Ireland holds a seat on the UN Security Council, while also preparing to mark its 50th anniversary as an EU member state on 1 January 2023.
The challenges facing Europe now and into the future require member states to redouble their efforts not only to preserve the fundamental values upon which the Council of Europe and the European Union and were built – human rights, democracy and the rule of law – but to strengthen the strategic human rights alliance between these two essential and complementary international organisations.
In partnership with the Irish Foreign Ministry as part of the Communication Europe Initiative, our Ireland EU 50 series is a selection of unique stories from writers from Ireland and elsewhere. The CEI was established in 1995 to raise awareness about the European Union and to improve the quality and accessibility of public information on European issues.