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Didier Reynders soon at the head of the Council of Europe? Not so fast, an uncertain election against two rivals awaits

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is preparing for an election of rare uncertainty, Tuesday in Strasbourg, to choose the next secretary general of this pan-European institution.

Didier Reynders will try to become Secretary General of the Council of Europe 5 years after a first unsuccessful attempt. – AFP


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By - with Belga

Published on 06/21/2024 at 3:33 p.m.

Presented by the Belgian government, Didier Reynders is again a candidate, facing the Estonian Indrek Saar and the Swiss Alain Berset. The latter seems to be off to a good start, but his camp fears absenteeism due to the surprise elections in France and the United Kingdom, which could benefit one of his rivals.

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The three candidates have been roaming Europe for several weeks to convince as many of the 306 parliamentarians of this institution which brings together 46 Member States (or nearly 675 million Europeans) as possible. From Portugal to Azerbaijan and from Cyprus to Greenland (Denmark), via Ukraine, Turkey and the 27 countries of the European Union, the Council of Europe is the continent’s main organization for the defense of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. As such, he excluded Russia in March 2022, after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Founded in 1949, this institution, which is not part of the European Union, is best known for its high court, the European Court of Human Rights. It guarantees all Europeans the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Parliamentary Assembly constitutes a democratic forum for debate (prevention of torture, fight against corruption, protection of national minorities, etc.). Its members are also observers of various elections.

An election with an uncertain outcome

The Council of Europe renews its highest leader – the Secretary General – every five years. Croatian Marija Pejčinović Burić, who defeated Didier Reynders when he ran for this position in 2019, chose not to run again. She will hand over her position to her successor on September 18.

The Belgian, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Commissioner for Justice, can use his address book and assert his commitment to human rights, he who is responsible for respecting the rule of law. European executive. But unlike his Swiss rival Alain Berset, who was president of the Swiss Confederation in 2018 and 2023, he has never been head of state or government. This was a condition recommended in a 2006 report to Council of Europe leaders, drawn up by the future president of the European Commission, Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. A very relative condition however, since the current secretary general has never been one. Some also argue that it would be appropriate to alternate a secretary general from an EU country with a non-EU one, but here again, the mandates of the last twenty years have not reflected such systematicity. .

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Unlike 2019 when he was beaten when he seemed the favorite of the Committee of Ministers (the foreign ministers of the 46 member states), Didier Reynders appears this year in 3rd position in an unprecedented “order of preference”, transmitted by this body to the Parliamentary Assembly. Alain Berset and Indrek Saar precede him.

The latter belong to the largest political group in the Assembly, that of the “socialists, democrats and greens” (153 members, if we count the substitutes). It is likely that the votes of these parliamentarians will be spread somewhat over their two candidacies, while the liberal could hope for more support in the second most represented group, the EPP (Christian democracy, 145 members). No instructions seem to prevail for this secret ballot, where the parliamentarian can vary his vote. Didier Reynders’ group, ALDE (democrats and liberals, 92 members) has not issued any instructions. It must be said that the Council of Europe is an institution where group discipline is often subordinated to national geopolitical interests, with the East-West divide remaining significant. This could benefit former Estonian minister Indrek Saar, a member of the Council of Europe, where he served from 2007 to 2023.

The man presents the most atypical profile of the three. An actor and theater director, he defiantly got involved in politics in the mid-2000s, becoming Minister of Culture then president of the Estonian Social Democratic Party.

As for the former minister (federal councilor) Alain Berset, presented by the Swiss press as a favorite in the election, he could count on the support of large delegations in terms of number of parliamentarians: France (Emmanuel Macron would support him) and the United Kingdom (likely after Brexit to vote more for a candidate from a non-EU country). But his camp’s confidence has apparently eroded somewhat in recent days, following the surprise announcements of legislative elections in France (June 30) and the United Kingdom (July 4). The need for elected officials from these two countries to campaign on the ground risks increasing absenteeism in the Assembly seats in Strasbourg, depriving the favorite of valuable support. One source expects more or less 200 voters.

Viktor Orban.Viktor Orban.

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The vote is scheduled for Tuesday from 10 a.m. At least the first round, because it is unlikely that one of the three candidates will emerge with the required absolute majority. Therefore, a second round is planned at 4 p.m. Will the person who came last in the first round have withdrawn in the meantime? It is customary, but nothing obliges it. In the 2nd round, the necessary majority is only relative. In the event of an impasse, a third round could be organized on Wednesday.

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