The seat of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. In the other photos: Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni with Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and French President Macron. Beneath: the CoE Secretary General Jagland with Uefa President Čeferin, and the Palace of the European Court of Human Rights
“Nationalisms are gaining ground”. In their many expressions, populisms “gain pace in elections held across a number of European Countries. These are a disturbing phenomena…”. Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni paused before continuing to speak, as if to underline widespread concerns marking the present stage of the Continent’s history. The Council of Europe, where Battaini-Dragoni serves as Deputy Secretary General, has drawn up a broad and in-depth study (“Populism – How Strong are Europe’s checks and balances?”) on the democratic checks and balances of contemporary societies. It’s the annual Report of the Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland, presented at the session of the Committee of Ministers in Nicosia on 19 May 2017. The high-ranking officer of the organization founded in 1949 and which now has 47 member countries welcomed us in her office on the third floor of the Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg in response to our invitation to engage in a conversation across-the-board, “because – she said – it’s a very critical moment in time.” Italian, born in Brescia, married, with three children, after completing her academic studies in Venice and Nice she started working for the CoE in 1976, appointed chair of Social Cohesion and Education and Culture before being elected deputy Secretary General in 2012. The projects she advanced include cultural heritage, democratic citizenship, intercultural dialogue, teaching human rights in schools, along with projects for young and in the area of sport.
We were speaking of the return of nationalisms across the Continent, typical of the post-world war II period when the Council of Europe was created – tasked with promoting democracy, Rule of Law and human rights, including through the Convention on Human Rights and the Court of Strasbourg -. What worries you in particular today?
Nationalism – requiring a set necessary clarifications in order not to tar everything with the same brush – is a threat to international cooperation and dialogue between nations, that constitute the cornerstone of peace. It aims at the prevalence of national interests even at the expense of those of the European and international community as a whole. Nationalisms tend to give precedence to so-called “material” interests, irrespective of the fact that Europe is a “community of values” that bring us closer, and unite our peoples and States. Nationalisms lead to closed doors and barriers. Nationalisms represent the exact opposite of what our countries need today, as they are unable to face global challenges alone. Just consider the demographics: all in all we are a small continent with less than one-twelfth of the world’s population. I believe that in the medium term this risks weakening us also at economic level. The European project, which is also carried out in European Union institutions, offers a path of openness and solidarity, namely, togetherness prevents us from becoming meaningless, it strengthens our democracies and our economies, it ensures the protection of citizens’ rights.
What about populisms?
The annual report of the Secretary General highlights the importance of being precise in the definition of populism that damages democracy, limiting debate, delegitimizing dissent and reducing pluralism. Democratic governance is key. That is why the Council of Europe fosters education to citizenship programs, because the root problem is of a cultural nature, involving citizens’ civic and personal responsibility toward their local community and towards their Country. We should devote special attention to the young, to promote critical thought, democratic culture, along with the values of solidarity and participation.
Moreover, citizens could have good reasons to be disappointed by the political realm. Do you agree?
For sure, there are certain elements which draw citizens away from democratic institutions and fuel populisms.
Misgovernment, for example, the inward-looking attitude of politics and parties …
Just consider corruption in its various forms: an endemic ill of our societies, which is monitored, denounced and countered by the Council of Europe. It interrupts the bond of trust between citizens and those called to represent them. It should be added that the economic crisis that broke out ten years ago, which continues to afflict many Countries with heavy repercussions on employment, has caused deep suffering, and it triggered widespread anger. On top of this we need to acknowledge the inflow of migrants into Europe, into its Mediterranean Countries in particular. Despite the commitments and the major reception efforts of some Countries that include Italy, the migratory tsunami has been badly managed at European level. In this respect the Council of Europe has developed a “role model” programme.
The “Intercultural Cities programme.” European and world cities (126 in 5 continents participating in the programme), can gain enormously from the entrepreneurship, variety of skills and creativity associated with cultural diversity by adopting policies and practices that facilitate the intercultural interaction and inclusion of the migrant population.
You are a staunch advocate of intercultural dialogue, promoted by the CoE with special focus on religious faiths.
We are aware of the inherent value of the dialogue between cultures and of the important role of religions in our societies. On these grounds, we promote meetings and opportunities to promote dialogue, enhance relationships and respect for diversity in our countries, with two guiding principles: the right to have, not to have or to change religious belief and the cooperation between institutions and religious communities, while respecting their respective roles and without undue interference.
Human rights is one of the main areas of intervention of the CoE. What is the state of human rights in Europe with Countries like Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan?
There are serious problems in some Countries, including those you mentioned, but we shouldn’t focus on these cases alone. In many Council of Europe member States the rights of many people and social brackets are at risk, especially the most vulnerable groups, such situations include overcrowded prisons, obstacles encountered by people with specific forms of disability and mental disorders, marginalization of Roma, lack of security for journalists, resurgence of homophobia. On top of this domestic violence heavily affects increasing numbers of women and children. In many cases it involves persons with no legal capacity. These are problems of absolute gravity on which we must all be vigilant.
Sport also falls within your responsibility, that is of special interest given the ongoing World Cup.
The Council of Europe has been a pioneer in enforcing regulatory measures in the area of sport. There are three Treaties with a global bearing: the Anti-Doping Convention, the Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions and finally the Convention on an Integrated Safety, Security and Service Approach at Football Matches and Other Sports Events.
One last question on the Council of Europe. There has been news that the credibility of the Parliamentary Assembly has been questioned, Countries have distanced themselves from the Organization or refused to fund the Strasbourg budget. What’s happening?
These are extremely complex issues, to which the Organization has given concrete answers. As regards the Assembly, a group of three independent judges were appointed to carry out an inquiry into alleged cases of corruption. The independent investigation body enforced sanctions based on MEPs’ code of conduct. As regards the financing of the regular budget, it should be emphasized that all Member States that have chosen to join the Organization are under the obligation to pay contributions. The Council of Europe provides a common legal framework for citizens, ensuring the enforcement of their rights and protection, with around two hundred conventions of international law on issues such as human trafficking, terrorism, corruption, violence against children. This area is now being threatened by the previously-mentioned nationalisms and populisms. For these reasons, the Council of Europe has a extremely important role, now more than ever before.