Fittingly, before we visited the Council of Europe, we went to Natzweiler Struthof, a former concentration camp where people were forced to work in freezing temperatures. It is always hard to describe a concentration camp, as no matter how often you see images of World War II on TV and in film, the experience of visiting a camp is always deeply disturbing. It was perhaps all the more so, because the camp is situated in a forested, mountainous area, so the journey there included passing scenic towns and villages. The weather was also icy cold, despite the lack of wind, and it was quickly brought home what kind of conditions the prisoners would have to face.
The European Court of Human Rights
An hour's drive saw us entering the European Court of Human Rights, which is the Council of Europe's most famous institution. It is based in the rather odd Palais des droits de l'homme. The Court has been amazingly successful, and it has promoted the spread and development of European norms in human rights across the continent. Given that our trip had a very legal focus, I won't go into too much detail, but aside from the legal discussions over labour rights and same sex marriage (which was the subject of a judgment earlier this year: Schalk and Kopf v Austria ), the toughest challenges facing the Court today is simply the sheer scale of the workload it has to deal with. Though the Court has been around for many years, the right of individuals to apply to the Court and the membership of the Court has now really expanded, alongside the public's awareness of the Court. So in the last decade the number of applications has increased from 10,500 in 2000 to 57,100 in 2009. A lot of these are rejected, but 90% of the Court's output since its creation in 1959 has been in the years 1998-2009 (when the Commission was removed from the system).
Since a lot of discussion and debate centred around how to make the Court more effective and productive (and this problem seems to be the main one which haunts the registry), it was shocking to find out that the UK had proposed cutting its contribution to the Council of Europe by 25%, and the Netherlands had proposed a 15% cut. The registry has taken up a lot of the workload, but they appear to have reached the limits of efficiency and are haunted by the spectre of the Court being crushed under the sheer level of applications. It should bee remembered that the Council of Europe has a tiny fraction of the budget that the EU has, and the Court takes up about a quarter of this. Battles over the budget may force the question of the CoE's role - to focus on human rights and other limited areas it does well, and essentially become a pre-EU accession organisation; or to try and forge ahead with a full programme for its 47 member states?
Palais de l'Europe
The CoE itself is mainly housed in the fortress-like Palais de l'Europe, which contains the Parliamentary Assembly (the European Parliament used to use this space until their Strasbourg building was completed). The Council works in many different areas, including a project aimed at improving local government and democracy that we were introduced to. Though the presentation was probably intended to show us the wide range of activities the CoE undertakes, I have to admit that it left me with the impression that the CoE should try to focus more on its core functions (though as a law student my own focus is pretty much solely dominated by the Court). The project was voluntary and the standards it sought to promote weren't centrally set; (simplistically put) it consisted of meetings between local government members across participating local governments, and a local government award for living up to good standards, which also seemed to be nationally or locally set. The small budget for the project - €50,000 is miniscule when you compare it to EU or national projects and programmes - underlined the difference between the EU and CoE. Though I can see the value in cross-border local government meetings to exchange best practice, I wasn't convinced by the worth of the awards scheme.
There was a presentation on standard-setting by the CoE, which despite the boring name was revealing in the ways that Europe is integrating both outside the EU, and how other organisations can influence the work of the EU. The CoE works as an organisation to bring its members into agreement on binding Conventions and non-binding Recommendations, which not all member states have to sign up to - the CoE is a forum for these agreements to be made, and so it doesn't have to affect all member states. However, these have protential for European integration that shouldn't be overlooked. First, the "soft" norms that are set through Recommendations can spread throughout the member states and can bring European states closer together in our standards and practice. This can take on a harder edge, though, as the ECtHR has shown itself willing to use these Conventions and Recommendations in interpreting human rights law (see Demir & Baykara v Turkey ), even when countries haven't signed up to them (this ties in with the "living instrument" and "European consensus" doctrines that the Court uses to develop European Human Rights law - see Handyside v UK and Tyrer v UK).
Second, the CoE has Conventions on making grooming a criminal offence andagainst sex tourism. These seem to have influenced the EU's own legislative process, because there's a new directive before the Council and Parliament on these kinds of offences (see the draft law here: PDF). Though the CoE may be overshadowed by the EU, it can inspire changes in EU law. Though I haven't read it yet, there's a report, the Junker Report (2005), on how the CoE and the EU interact.
Committee for the Prevention of Torture
The CPT is very impressive for an international organ - it has the power to conduct surprise inspections of any detention area in the member states and interview all inmates/patients/detainees/guards/staff and have access to all files, including medical files, to access whether or not torture has taken place, or any practice contrary to article 3 ECHR. Though the reports are not published by the CPT, there is an expectation that the member state will publish them (and I think apart from Russia, this has been the case), as the focus of the CPT is not to punish member states but to help them adhere to the proper human rights standards under article 3. Nevertheless, the CPT is quite exceptional for the broad powers it has to independently inspect the situation on the ground, and it preforms an extremely important function.
If the EU is Europe as a kind of system of government (or governance, if you prefer), then the CoE is "Civilisational Europe". Though all European countries lay claim to the common ideas, traditions and practices that make them European, the CoE has worked for over half a century to spread the European civilisational norms across the continent, and to help ensure that standards of hhuman rights are enforced. Though we may look at the CoE as a "soft" organisation, I think it helps to provide the idea off Europe with a backbone, and an everyday, practical, cultural reality.