Speech by the President of the Republic Katerina Sakellaropoulou at the central event of the Greek Chairmanship of the Council of Europe (Temple of Olympian Zeus, Wednesday, 08.07.2020) | “The Council of Europe in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic: new challenges for democracy and the Rule of Law”

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this event organized by the Greek Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. We are truly pleased because, after the easing of the restrictive measures, the event is being held live, in the presence of the ambassadors of the member States of the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe has played a distinctive role in consolidating democracy, human rights and the Rule of Law in post-war Europe. Only three months after the founding of the Council, in August 1949, Greece became a member and, since then, has uninterruptedly cooperated with the Council’s statutory organs and institutions save for the time of the dictatorship. Eminent personalities represent Greece in the independent institutions of the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly, the European Court of Human Rights, the Venice Commission, thus ensuring an effective channel of communication and interaction in the fields of politics and law. Constant cooperation with the Committees for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the combatting of discrimination and racism, and the adoption of anti-corruption policies has proven both constructive and beneficial.

It is a nice coincidence that the 4th of November 2020, the day on which the 70th anniversary of the signing of the most iconic text of the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), will be celebrated, falls under the Greek Chairmanship. Prior to the 1975 Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights had not been given sufficient attention by the Greek legal order. After the restoration of democracy in our country, the Convention gradually entered legal reasoning and is now an integral part of legal practice. This dialogue between the national judge and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights revealed major deficits in our national legislation, particularly in the areas of delivery of justice, freedom of expression, detention conditions and religious freedom. The Convention reshaped administrative practices, influenced the role of the legislator and even informally changed the text of our Constitution. Furthermore, it strengthened our ties with the rest of Europe and played a pedagogical role, in the sense that it taught us how to better respect the rights of minorities and diverse identities, thereby covering many aspects of self-determination: gender, sexual orientation and private life. Greece adopted the European acquis on human rights and also contributed, with the peculiarities of its own Constitution, to enriching the legal order of the Council of Europe and making it more pluralistic.

The pandemic has redefined the Council’s priorities and the themes chosen by the Greek Chairmanship. The key theme is ‘The protection of human life and public health in a pandemic situation-Effective management of a health crisis in full respect of human rights and the principles of democracy and the rule of law’. A theme which under such emergency circumstances is fully in line with the mission and values of the Council of Europe.

The successive crises in the last decade have shaken the solid foundations of democracy and the Rule of law in Europe. The economic crisis significantly affected social rights and benefits provided by the state in the sectors of healthcare, education and social security. The latest large-scale recession in Europe stoked the fires of populism and euroscepticism. The refugee and migration crisis brought disintegrative tendencies and fomented nationalism to the fore. The faultlines in European cosmopolitanism grow deeper and the ideal of a United Europe has faded as people are lulled by national protectionism into a false sense of security. Many seriously underestimate liberal democracy, the legacy of the Enlightenment in Europe, which is served by European Institutions, such as the Council of Europe.

The Pandemic has only made contrasts starker. Throughout Europe, there is rising concern about public health and popular prosperity. Protection of human life and health is the bedrock upon which our Social Charter was built, the fundamental agreement between those in government and the citizens, forming the basis of political and social life. The virus reminded us of the value and universal nature of public service. The State has once again regained its status in our collective conscience as the most powerful guarantor of our life and liberty.

Greece has become a role model for the rest of the world because of the way it handled this public health crisis: we trusted the experts, organized and strengthened our National Health System. Τhanks to the tireless efforts of the medical and nursing staff, we limited fatalities to the greatest extent possible. It was not just the State that set a good example; Society as a whole followed suit. Everybody showed discipline and adhered to the strict measures imposed. Solidarity was offered to vulnerable groups and frontline workers showed self-sacrifice. The pandemic was a lesson in ethics and politics: we realized that every action we take in such emergency situations not only does it affect us as individuals, but also affects others and protects them. We saw that when the State acts wisely and operates according to a plan, it lives up to our expectations and rallies the nation behind a common cause.

European societies were hit hard by the pandemic. Sanctity of life is non-negotiable in our civilization where every life lost is unique. European countries did not suffer equally. Italy and Spain found themselves in the eye of the storm, counting many confirmed cases and thousands of deaths, with the virus spreading faster. The heart-wrenching scenes of people in despair and unburied bodies, we saw from hospitals, were not merely pictures of people in Spain and Italy, they were pictures of Europeans, pictures of all of us.

The pandemic made clear that international and supranational coordination is required to handle the crisis. Our common vulnerability to the virus has highlighted the infinite possibilities for cooperation between States and international organizations. From the very first moment, members of the scientific community joined forces in a tireless race for the vaccine and cure. Vigilance at the international and national level ensured the unobstructed movement of food, drugs and medical supplies. The Eurozone demonstrated quick institutional reflexes and took relief measures to provide material support to the population in a timely manner. Fiscal discipline rules were loosened. The new funding package did more than inject liquidity, it provided optimism and hope for our European future. This move proved wrong those who rushed, once again, to predict the collapse of Europe, underestimating its power and the dynamics of the bonds that hold us together. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the first priority is to reduce inequality and make sure that citizens achieve autonomy in meeting their material needs. The political response to alleviate the consequences of the pandemic is to revitalize the lung of our democracy, that is, to safeguard social mobility of European citizens, particularly of young people who see their life prospects dwindling or being frustrated by high unemployment and weak economic growth. Europe cannot withstand another protracted recession.

The main aims of the Greek Chairmanship include a strong democratic element. They are clearly developmental and social in character and exhibit the strong political will to support and give impetus to younger generations as they will give shape and form to our European Future.

In this new pandemic environment, preventive measures restricting our freedom of movement have a horizontal effect; they have an impact on work, education and communication. State and society are undergoing transformation and rapidly entering the digital era. The Greek chairmanship is digital, not only from a technical point of view, making smart use of online events and conference calls. Digital technology is our most powerful counterweight to the crisis. One of the core priorities of the Chairmanship is to familiarize children and young adults with the fundamental values of Europe and democratic culture, through the use of all modern digital technologies. Education is the driving force of democracy and active citizenship. This however requires providing our youth with the appropriate cognitive tools to develop their IT skills on the basis of self-determination. Promoting democratic pluralism and an open public sphere does not mean tolerating misinformation and fake news, which proliferate in times of crisis and disorient the public debate.

Educational policy is part of a broader European Programme on the protection of minors as a vulnerable group. Protection against poverty, violence, human trafficking, forced labour and all forms of exploitation. Greece has shouldered the main burden of receiving large refugee and migrant flows, including many unaccompanied minors. Children that have suffered traumatic experiences because of abandonment and the war ravaging their countries. It is our duty to offer them material and psychological support in suitable accommodation facilities. It is also our duty to take full advantage of the digital opportunities offered during this crisis to speed up registration and asylum procedures, thus reducing the time children and migrants spend in administrative detention.

We delve deeper into our common European conscience and strengthen it further by protecting our rich cultural heritage against another modern threat, a ‘pandemic in slow motion’ as it has been aptly called: climate change. Archeological sites, cultural symbols which attest to our origins and common trajectory in European space and time are at the mercy of extreme weather conditions for which we bear sole responsibility. The integrity of monuments and historical places is under threat, and if they are damaged, our collective memory will also be shattered.

Scientists and International environmental organizations have sounded the alarm: climate change, along with other environmental disruptions, may provide fertile ground for the emergence of new infectious diseases, like COVID-19, and it may change their transmission model. We are running out of time to raise environmental awareness. We all have all witnessed the isolation and abandonment caused by the pandemic, but we have also noticed the reduction of the pollution levels and the refreshing of the waters on the planet.

The pandemic, brought us back, albeit dramatically, to a life where less energy is being wasted. Clean and sustainable development policies not only do they guarantee the material integrity of our monuments but also ensure the immaterial dimension of our daily lives, our cultural way of life. The Green Deal is our roadmap to a climate neutral Europe by 2050. It contains actions to restore biodiversity, reduce pollution and make efficient use of resources, thus paving the way for a clean, circular economy.

It is true that when there is a pandemic we are all at risk. Some of us, however, are more vulnerable than others. Vulnerable groups are not only determined by biological factors, age or the underlying diseases of people who experience this risky situation more intensely. The public healthcare system has rightly given them absolute priority to bring the number of casualties down to as close to zero as possible. However, we are also surrounded by socially vulnerable fellow citizens, those who suffer the most from the pandemic and the measures restricting their freedom, be it physical, professional or even social. One of the main aims of the Greek Chairmanship is to combat discrimination: cases when public or private discourse diverges and becomes directly or indirectly racist, family violence which is exacerbated in conditions of confinement, stigmatization of minorities where the pandemic is used as a pretext. The protection of the Social State is equally important. Preventive Care in the form of screening tests to detect the virus and measures restricting movement were the immediate response by the State when the crisis broke out. In the long term, though, these solutions need to be complemented by the Welfare State in the form of welfare benefits. What comes first is targeted support to socially vulnerable groups: the unemployed, the most deprived, single parents, people with disabilities, inhabitants of remote mountainous or insular areas. Providing support to businesses and employees for whom physical distancing is not an option, supporting tourism and seasonal work. Equal access to public goods and protection of labour rights, in a society battered by the crisis, constitute a safety net for many people and guarantee social cohesion.

These are European matters of the highest order, which is why one of the aims of the Greek Chairmanship is to promote the implementation of the European Social Charter. As the crisis unfolds, predictions by international organizations such as the ILO (International Labour Organization) are bleak: global unemployment is expected to rise to higher levels than those of the 2008 crisis. Social protection is not only linked to the adjustment and implementation of labour legislation but also to a viable transformation of the economy and the use of the digital model of remote working to the benefit of society , businesses and employees. Many opportunities and challenges appear before us: new digital networks and energy infrastructure, the development of electronic services, such as the production of software for remote working, electronic money and digital signatures, and much more. The Social State is being reinvented according to the digital triptych of labour-health-education, with the promotion of teleworking, biogenetics, artificial intelligence and tele-education. Our world in the post COVID-19 period should not be a world of stark inequality, with the digital divide separating the digitally literate from the electronically illiterate. On the contrary, Europe should act in an inclusive and unifying manner; it should try to bridge differences and smooth them out.

The challenge facing Europe and the Greek chairmanship is also institutional. Independence of institutions, particularly justice, is at the core of the Rule of Law and among the top priorities of the Greek semester. Europe is first and foremost a union of law, with justice being effective and impartial. Democracy and popular sovereignty cannot exist without the Rule of Law, the independent courts and the checks and balances that guarantee protection of minorities and prevent from the tyranny of the majority. This promotes the quality of democracy; it increases citizens’ trust in the State and European legal order which shares common rules and values. The judiciary is in a dialogue with politics, through the review of the constitutionality of laws, but does not depend on it or its political agendas: it remains the guardian of legality and social peace. The independence of judicial bodies is directly linked to the judge’s mission and constitutes an essential element of the right to effective judicial protection and a fair trial. The appointment and tenure of the members of the judiciary, particularly in supreme courts, the autonomous exercise of their duties and their imperviousness to interference by external interests do not just safeguard the delivery of justice. They act as a shield for democratic institutions and their representation to the citizens. Having served as a supreme court Judge myself for many years and President of the Council of State, I would like to assure you that citizens perceive justice neither as something abstract nor as the ‘the mouthpiece of Law’, as Montesquieu once said, a law that is often complex or even irrational and ignored by citizens. Justice is their last resort for a judgment that is fair and impartial; it is an institution they turn to in the hope of acquiring equality and freedom when they feel wronged. The pandemic will bring, or rather has already brought along with it, new challenges in the area of legislation. Judges will be called upon to rule on the law regarding COVID-19, this time the law of sanitary need. It is clear that when confronted with contemporary populist ideologies across the political spectrum, justice reserves the privilege of sobriety and reference to the rule. The Rule of Law and liberal democracy are a historical and cultural achievement of Europe. The Supreme Courts, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights played a determining role in this regard by defending the values of European Modernity.

The pandemic has not only been an unprecedented public health crisis for all of us. It has also been a major political test; problems facing institutions and societies in Europe were precipitated, the most vulnerable and fragile aspects of our co-existence were brought to the surface. The crisis became a catalyst for economic, social and political developments which we cannot yet fully grasp or the outcome of which is unpredictable. Procrastination in establishing a European Political Union, a democratic deficit and the crisis of the welfare state were here long before the virus struck. There is now an even more imperative need for a paradigm shift in our co-existence in Europe towards an open society, not just financially but also culturally, a society with a robust human-centered character. A European society that fosters equal opportunities and inclusion, not exclusion and division. A new Europe will emerge in the wake of the pandemic. A wind of pessimism about the future prospects of Europe may be blowing across the Continent and the voices of dissent and introversion may be growing louder but we all know that Europe is a great place to live in and a privileged way of life .

For Greece, which has struggled in the face of adversity in the last decade but has remained on its feet thanks to the sacrifices of the Greek people and its EU membership, the assumption of the Chairmanship of the Council is a unique opportunity. It will allow the country to showcase its European identity and contribute, especially now, to carving out our common European path and finding a way to exit yet another crisis. Europe’s response to these difficult times should not only be to manage the situation and solve financial problems. It requires that we go back to the fundamental ideas envisioned by Europe’s founding fathers, like Jean Monnet. Important European decisions, those that blaze new trails and broaden our horizons, should be political decisions par excellence.

The Presidency of the Hellenic Republic will avail of all the appropriate means to actively support the Greek Chairmanship, the activities and events that will be organized during its semester. It is the least we can do as part of our duty to contribute to the work of the Council of Europe, the promotion of its values, rules and its institutional acquis, at this critical crossroads for our European future.