Ceremony for the handover of the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe from Greece to Germany under the Greek Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, M. Varvitsiotis and German Minister of Foreign Affairs, H. Maas (Athens, 18 November 2020)

“From 15 May and for the next 6 months, Greece ‘steered’ the Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. Today, the Greek Chairmanship concludes precisely as it began: online, as the first e-Chairmanship in the history of the Council of Europe”, stressed the Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Mr Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, during his speech at the ceremony for the handover of the Chairmanship to Germany, held via video conference due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

“During a period of social distancing and alienation, the Greek Chairmanship managed to bring European citizens closer to the institution of the Council of Europe, sending a clear message: that the Council of Europe remains ever vigilant, ever ready to defend democracy, the rule of law and human rights during a period as crucial as the pandemic we are living through”. This message is more timely than ever, added the Alternate Minister, “as Europe is once again being tested by serious asymmetrical threats such as terrorism. There is no room for religious extremism. We are mounting a united and decisive front to continue defending these values against any threat and any challenge”. The Greek Chairmanship highlighted these very principles and values from the outset, adjusting its main theme accordingly as follows: “protection of human life and public health in the context of a pandemic – Effectively responding to a health crisis, with absolute respect for human rights and the principles of democracy and the rule of law”.

Reviewing the work of the six-month Greek Chairmanship, now known as the E-Chairmanship, Mr Varvitsiotis underlined the importance of and possibilities offered by technology for the successful completion of the work at hand, given that physical presence was impossible due to the special conditions that the health crisis imposed and continues to impose. More specifically, 77 video conferences was held, including a trilateral meeting with the Secretary General and the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, 4 joint trilateral statements with the institutions of the Council of Europe, 12 online meetings with ministers or Deputy Ministers of the member states in order to present the priorities of the Greek Chairmanship, 4 video conferences with the Standing Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 26 international seminars and events, 10 digital discussions in the context of the ‘In discussion with’ series, and 11 important international cultural events.

The Alternate Minister then stressed the Greek Chairmanship’s two legacies for future generations: the Observatory for History Teaching and the Declaration of Athens. “We worked intensively to prepare and adopt this powerful legal text, aiming at reaffirming our commitment to the fundamental principles and values, as set forth in the European Convention on Human Rights. On the 70th anniversary of the signing of the ECHR in Athens on 4 November, we sent a strong message: that the ECHR remains timely and at the heart of our priorities and European values”. We wish to send the message that “Europe is not just a space in geographical and economic terms, but a set of values, a way of life, based on timeless humanitarian values and a long tradition of promoting democracy and the rule of law”, noted Mr Varvitsiotis, adding that human life was placed above economic activity.

The Greek Chairmanship took on the moral responsibility of underlining the true meaning of the principles and values of the Council of Europe, stressed the Alternate Minister. “Democracy, the rule of law and human rights cannot be collateral damage of a crisis. No matter how much the coronavirus has affected our way of life, we cannot allow it to change our core values”, he underlined.

With respect to the Observatory for History Teaching, he noted that “we must invest in the power of history that unites”.

In closing, the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, Mr Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, thanked the heads of the other bodies of the Council of Europe, among others, for their excellent cooperation, stating: “All of us at the Council of Europe have a duty: to defend and promote democracy and all the core values of the organisation. Because nothing must be taken for granted, and it is absolutely vital to monitor and continuously reaffirm our commitment to these core principles and values”.

During the online handover ceremony, Mr. Maas thanked Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs Miltiadis Varvitsiotis “for the excellent work” done by the Greek Chairmanship, emphasizing the difficult conditions that prevailed due to the coronavirus pandemic. “In these difficult circumstances, you managed to make significant progress, upon which we also want to build” the German Foreign Minister said.

Joint statements with German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas – Statement to Greek National Broadcaster

The six-month Greek Chairmanship of the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe that concludes today “highlighted issues concerning democracy, the rule of law and human rights in the context of a pandemic”, as well as “the unique cultural and political role played by Greece in the context of a Europe of 820 million people and 47 member states”, underlined Alternate Minister for Foreign Affairs Miltiadis Varvitsiotis during the statements he made after the handover ceremony to the German Chairmanship.

“We sent the message that we are the defenders of the values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, even during a period when they are restricted, that is, the Covid-19 period, when we have all been prohibited from moving freely, accessing our workplace, accessing justice and seeing our loved ones”, he stated.

As he stressed, “during such periods it is very important for the measures imposed to be temporary, proportionate and under continual scrutiny”. He stated that Greece is delivering to the German Chairmanship a Council of Europe that has become digital, has set new priorities and, of course, leaves behind both the Declaration of Athens and the founding of an Observatory for History Teaching as its legacy.
“To us, the Council of Europe is the home of the principles and values of Europe, and I believe we treated this home with the care that a good homeowner lavishes on his own home”, noted Mr Varvitsiotis.

During the handover ceremony to the German Chairmanship and to German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, Mr Varvitsiotis underlined that it was very important that the priorities set by Germany were commensurate to those set by Greece during the last six months, and stressed that Greece will support the German Chairmanship in every possible way.

Finally, he underlined the responsibility undertaken by Germany, to simultaneously hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the Chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which sends a message: that one of the great forces of Europe reaffirms its commitment to the principles of Europe and promotes the European spirit throughout the whole continent and its 820 million residents.