The Brief: Council of Europe in hunt for relevance

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

The Council of Europe is in disarray. Its president has been told to resign, its members have been accused of corruption and there are doubts about its relevance in the modern world.

The Strasbourg institution is tasked with upholding human rights. It has chalked up notable victories in the past, including working to abolish the death penalty in Europe. But the Council’s glory days are behind it.

Current President of the CoE Pedro Agramunt, for one, is a divisive figure. His work in Azerbaijan on political prisoners has been accused of bias and he thought visiting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad last month with a bunch of Russian politicians was a good idea.

That trip led to calls for his resignation, with the Ukrainian and Armenian delegations among the loudest voices.

Agramunt faced a special hearing yesterday, where he refused to answer many questions about his Syria jaunt.

If he survives this week’s sitting of the CoE he’ll be a lucky man.

But he’s not the only thing wrong with the venerable Strasbourg institution. Corruption allegations are widespread and ‘caviar diplomacy’ is allegedly alive and well.

The most famous case is Italian politician Luca Volontè, who is accused of accepting millions of euros from Azerbaijan to influence decisions on its human rights situation.

The Council has finally launched an independent, external investigation into many allegations of corruption. It is a belated attempt to stop the rot though.

But this is about more than fish eggs and expensive carpets. Even though the CoE predates the EU (it was founded in 1949), it fell behind the Union long ago in terms of relevance and importance.

It makes no binding laws and it shows no real interest in punishing the sins of its members.

NGOs have branded Azerbaijan’s elections “deeply flawed” but that elicited no more than a strongly worded slap on the wrist from the Council.

Russia is a member of the CoE. So is Turkey. Neither are exactly known for their love of human rights, the main thing the Council is there to protect.

To the institution’s credit, its leaders yesterday decided to reopen a monitoring process against Turkey because of serious concerns about the rule of law in the wake of last year’s failed coup.

The CoE’s hunt for relevance could actually bear fruit because that decision might finally put the nail in the coffin of Ankara’s EU membership hopes.

But it’s the end of April. And denouncing Turkey is in vogue at the moment.

If the CoE had done this last year, while the EU was hesitating about offending Erdogan for fear of seeing the refugee deal torn up, it would have rightly earned its title as Europe’s guardian of human rights. But it missed the boat.

Corruption spreads in the dark, when people push an issue out of the spotlight, when they don’t care. That has happened with the Council of Europe.

Maybe people should care. If not about safeguarding human rights then about the half a billion euros spent every year on the institution by its members…

The Roundup

The Commission pitched the new EU social pillar as well as a legislative proposal updating parental leave rules and a reflection paper on social policy.

Member states are deeply divided over issues like employment policy so a lot of today’s content will likely remain a wishlist.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras is confident a deal on debt relief will be met by the 22 May deadline. The European Court of Human Rights told Slovenia to pay a man €85,000 after his house was sold from under him in order to repay a debt he owed.

A new poll shows that Brits are largely against a unilateral deal guaranteeing EU nationals’ rights in the UK after it leaves the bloc. Is Brexit confusing you? Probably. Check out our new infographic with all the main dates and events.

The European Commission issued a point-by-point rebuttal to Hungary’s controversial ‘Stop Brussels’ campaign. Budapest’s MEPs insisted they will do politics their own way.

The French extreme-right is wooing Jean-Luc Melenchon’s voters. The far-left candidate refused to endorse either Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen after being eliminated in the first round.

Coal-dependent Poland hopes promising to build its first nuclear power plant will give it a useful bargaining chip in talks with the EU. Warsaw fears the Winter Package regulations will stunt its economic growth. It relies on coal for 80% of its energy.

26 people have died in protests in Venezuela. One ALDE MEP has complained to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini that Brussels’ ambassador in the country should not have held talks on improving trade ties, given the human rights abuses already denounced by the European Parliament.

Scandal-hit United Airlines is facing another PR disaster. A giant rabbit touted as the largest in the world died on one of its flights from the UK. Simon’s “very famous” buyer was reportedly very upset.

Views are the author’s.

Look out for…

Commissioners on tour. Jobs Commissioner Jyrki Katainen will be in Madrid to discuss the Juncker Plan and defence. Tax chief Pierre Moscovici discusses all things eurozone at Brussels’ Saint-Louis University. Regional Commissioner Cretu will meet Croatia’s prime minister as nine new EU-funded projects are launched. The General Council of the EU will finalise draft Brexit negotiations.

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