Speech by King Willem-Alexander to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Strasbourg

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a great pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to find out more about how you do your work in practice. 

I just attended the conclusion of your deliberations on a subject of exceptional importance to the people of the Netherlands: holding to account those involved in the downing of flight MH17 almost eight years ago. Our hearts go out to the next of kin, some of whom are here today. I would like to thank everyone in the Assembly who is working to establish the truth and achieve justice. It means a lot to us that our fellow Europeans are as determined as we are to ensure that justice prevails.

Brute force and misuse of power can never be allowed to have the last word. That conviction is what inspired the Kingdom of the Netherlands to join with nine other countries in 1949 to establish the Council of Europe. 

The seeds for its founding were sown a year earlier, in 1948, at the Congress of Europe, in the Hall of Knights in The Hague. My grandparents hosted the event. Winston Churchill – at that time a parliamentarian, just like you – addressed the participants. ‘This is not a movement of parties, but a movement of peoples,’ he said. ‘No one can suppose that Europe can be united on any party or sectional basis (…) It must be all for all.’ 

‘All for all.’ That ideal inspired the founders of the Council of Europe. From the outset, one of the Council’s key aims has been to promote unity among its member states. 

That does not mean that we are always in agreement in Europe. In this Parliamentary Assembly, a wide range of diverging views are expressed. Clashing opinions, even. We live in a continent where there are conflicts and confrontations. But we are also a continent that has learned from bitter experience that we have to find a common way of channelling those conflicting views. 

It is an amazing achievement that 46 countries, large and small, acting of their own free will, have bound themselves to common agreements. For almost three-quarters of a century, the Council of Europe has shown that we do not need to be held hostage by the bitterness and pain of the past. That there is an alternative to violence and tyranny. That it is possible to live together in peace and liberty by ensuring that we always remain in dialogue. 

That is precisely why such huge shockwaves went through Europe in February, when one of our member states – free, peaceful and independent Ukraine – was attacked. The Russian invasion is a flagrant violation of everything that our family of European nations stands for. This cynical use of force runs counter to all the fundamental values on which the Council of Europe was built. 

It is encouraging that your Assembly expressed its support for Ukraine from the beginning. Europe has been united – in both word and deed – in defending the right of sovereign nations to determine their own futures.

Let it be absolutely clear to everyone. We Europeans do not want to see the clock turned back a century. We do not want to go back to a time in which ‘might was right’, or to an era of extreme nationalism, hateful propaganda, and terror. Those ghosts of the past must not be allowed to return. It would be a historic mistake to believe that, in 2022, Europe can be driven apart by force or that violence can be used to deprive a people of their freedom. 

Ukraine’s neighbours deserve great respect for the way in which they immediately sprang into action to receive large numbers of refugees. Many of those refugees want to stay close to home, so that they can return as soon as possible. But others have sought safe havens elsewhere in Europe, including in the Netherlands. 

I have met a number of them and been deeply moved by their stories. Young mothers with small children, who hastily packed their belongings into overnight bags. People whose homes burnt to the ground after being shelled. People who left their businesses behind when they fled. Students who want to return to Ukraine as soon as they can. 

I have been impressed by the resilience of Ukraine’s people in refusing to bow down to force. Their struggle compels us to reflect on our own history and the blessings of liberty and peace – blessings that we may have taken for granted lately. I’ve noticed that the conflict has brought memories of the Second World War into sharper focus among the most elderly of my country’s people. Anyone who experienced the bombing of Rotterdam as a child in May 1940 will have been chilled to the bone by what the people of Mariupol have had to endure.

Particularly at this time, we need to stand together as Europeans. We must realise that we have made tremendous progress in the past seventy years. Step by step, we have worked together to achieve a steadily higher level of protection. The Council of Europe has been one of the key driving forces behind these efforts. You are truly part of a proud history.

Take for example the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights. It is an incredible achievement that countries and peoples who fought one another for centuries have come together to protect human dignity and ensure that human rights are respected. Thanks to the Council of Europe, the death penalty has been abolished throughout Europe. Thanks to the Council of Europe, torture is a horror of the past. Thanks to the Council of Europe, efforts are being made to combat human trafficking and violence against women. 

Let us cherish these achievements. Let us acknowledge the strength of these foundations we have built together. Sometimes it may be tempting to disregard shared standards and cast doubt on the Court’s authority. In such cases countries should exercise great care, and bear in mind the broader importance of stability and trust within Europe. 

Each member state has its own responsibility in this respect. It’s important that we remain critical of one another, but perhaps most of all, we must have the courage to be critical of ourselves. 

The Kingdom of the Netherlands welcomes the constructive contribution made by the Council of Europe to improving our legislation and policy. Take for example the Venice Commission report published last year, at the request of the House of Representatives of the States General. The report contained guidance for improving the individual legal protection offered to citizens of the Netherlands. 

It is good to be open to well-founded suggestions from European experts. When others hold up a mirror, you can learn from what you see. The rule of law never functions perfectly. A state governed by the rule of law is not a state where mistakes are never made, but one where mistakes are learned from, as part of a continuous process of improvement. So there is no need to fear criticism from others.

When it comes to integrity, anti-corruption and the functioning of local and regional democracy, the Netherlands also takes the Council of Europe’s suggestions very seriously. 

In performing its task of protecting human rights, the rule of law and democracy, the Council of Europe has constantly faced new challenges, to which it has formulated answers. 

It began by offering protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Later, its protection expanded to rights relating to employment, social protection, healthcare and education.
Agreements on counterterrorism.
Protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
And protection against sexual exploitation and domestic violence.

And now, there are new subjects that require your attention, because they affect the lives and rights of people in Europe. Sometimes these subjects are not yet broadly understood, such as the rise of artificial intelligence. Sometimes their impact is already crystal clear, as with climate change.

The Netherlands welcomes the debate within the various Council of Europe bodies about the consequences of climate change for individual rights. Your Assembly is striving to give this subject the attention that it merits. We fully support you in these efforts. 

It is essential that we make our economies greener and transform our energy supply, basing it on renewable sources. Europe’s citizens are already experiencing for themselves the harmful consequences of rising temperatures, pollution and drought. So it is only logical that we make this subject – one that affects all Europeans – a central focus within the Council of Europe.

Another issue that requires fresh focus is the protection of journalists. In 2015 the Council of Europe launched a platform to offer journalists better protection against threats and violence.

Responsible journalism is indispensable in a free and democratic state governed by the rule of law. Journalists who work in good faith to expose wrongdoing deserve our support. It is good to see the Council of Europe standing up for them.

Mr President, the Council of Europe is an institution in which free and independent countries strive to bring out the best in one another. That explains its appeal. Within little more than three generations, the number of member states has grown from 10 to 46, each of them having joined of their own free will. Doesn’t that speak volumes?

We have all been impressed by the heroism of the Ukrainian people, who have refused to bow down to force. But let us not underestimate our own strength either. In recent years I have visited many European countries and I firmly believe that in every one of them you can find stories capable of inspiring the entire continent.

Take Poland and the United Kingdom, which played such a key role in liberating my country during the Second World War. Our Polish liberators knew that they could not return to their home country, yet still they risked their lives for their fellow Europeans.

Take the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and their peoples’ brave battles for freedom, independence and democracy.

Take Portugal, which within two generations has developed into a country that is a beacon of openness and tolerance.

Take Norway, and its tireless efforts to promote the international legal order, broker peace and build bridges.

And take France and Germany. For a long time they were sworn enemies. Now, for 75 years they have been pillars of stability and cooperation in Europe.

Your Parliamentary Assembly brings together the perspectives of people from all over Europe. You could say that the Council of Europe is the crowning glory of a long tradition of European humanism that first blossomed during the Renaissance.

One of the people who paved the way was Erasmus of Rotterdam. Five hundred years ago, this great humanist impressed on the powers of Europe that the public interest outweighs individual desires. 
Urging them to work together, he wrote that they should all join forces to achieve the greatest contentment for them all.

‘It must be all for all,’ said Winston Churchill. His words, spoken in The Hague in 1948, echoed the message of Erasmus. 

The Council of Europe can continue to count on the Netherlands’ support. I wish you every success as you continue to perform your crucial role as protectors of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. And I sincerely share your hope that liberty, justice and cooperation will prevail throughout Europe.

Thank you.