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Press Office

Athens, 21 October 2021

“Democracies facing the Covid-19 public health crisis. Sharing experiences and prospects” Conference of Presidents of Parliament of Council of Europe member states

Key note speakers of the theme “Democracies facing the Covid-19 public health crisis. Sharing experiences and prospects” were the President of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Valentina Matviyenko and the President of the Austrian Parliament,  Wolfgang Sobotka.

Ms Matviyenko indicated that the conditions that arose as a result of the pandemic were “something new to all of us” and noted that there is “always a difficulty in finding the balance between the necessary restrictions and the curtailment of rights and liberties, however, we should respect and be guided by the principles of Democracy”. She added that “there should be social guarantees”, because “without social guarantees, the respect of human rights is a midsummer night’s dream”. She also stressed that “this is why in 2020 the strengthening and integration of the social dimension in every action was made a priority within the framework of the Council of Europe”, and noted that “It is every person’s right to have free access to vaccination at a global level” and further added that “only when the world is safe, we will all be safe”. 

Furthermore, the President stressed the necessity for international cooperation imposed by these conditions, pointing out that “here in Greece, the cradle of Democracy, where the concept of human rights was developed, we need to stress how important it is to work together in order to put an end to this scourge, in a spirit of democracy, and grant freedoms and human rights to everyone”. 

The President of the Austrian National Council, Wolfgang Sobotka, began his speech by stating that "the consequences of the pandemic are a great challenge for the future", noting that "this is an international crisis, which showed that the solution cannot be but global". Mr Wolfgang Sobotka emphasised that the pandemic had shown us that we were online and that states were interdependent, explaining that "one cannot pursue a national solitary course. Here we need a strengthening of common values, a sustainable economy, the rule of law and resilience." 

The Austrian Speaker went on to say that at the moment we are in a situation where on the one hand there is the balance of goods and human rights and on the other the protection of human life.

"We need to show the people that a pandemic is not the pretext for restricting rights forever," Sobotka said, focusing on the issue of guarding democracy and this, as he explained, "concerns not only the physical security of parliamentary democracy, but also the security within the internet".

Finally, Mr Sobotka emphasised the importance of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, saying that "it is very important in order to support, to defend human rights, the rule of law and the protection of democracy in a consistent manner." 
"If these basic principles are maintained then we will be equipped for the next crisis," Mr Sobotka said.

The Speaker of the Belgian House of Representatives, Eliaane Tillieux, taking the floor, noted that the crisis caused by Covid 19 was an opportunity to formulate new rules. Τhe Belgian House of Representatives took  law measures concerning, inter alia, the restriction of freedoms in order to have democratic legitimacy. In the context of a draft law on emergency situations, a consultation and exchange of views took place with Parliament deciding to monitor and evaluate whenever an emergency crisis arises. 

Thus the House of Representatives of Belgium came up with recommendations for the working conditions of hospital staff while it was decided to set up strategic decision-making bodies.

The Speaker of the Polish Parliament, Elzbiete Witek, in her speech, stressed that the crisis has had a major impact on society, increasing inequalities. In Poland the impact on employment was relatively small due to the policy pursued by companies. However, as early as March 2020, with the "shield law", as it was named, Ms. Witek underlined, a series of measures were envisaged to reduce the impact on the daily lives of citizens as a series of extensions were given on many issues to help citizens, both families as well as entrepreneurs. The "shield law" also provided for the liquidity of businesses, the unemployed and the strengthening of tourism.

Describing the parliamentary action during the Pandemic, the Polish President noted that in the two Houses, the Upper and the Lower House, the meetings continued and the Plenary and the Committees functioned hybridly, while there was special care for those working in the health system earning bonus in return for their services.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Netherlands, Vera Bergkamp, for her part, stressed that the pandemic created a number of challenges, while in Parliament, parliamentary scrutiny had to focus on government actions and the operation of investigation committees, while it should take into account the role of the Media in ensuring the transparency of the Democracy. Voting was secured, and there was a hybrid approach to meetings. The general conclusion is that what we learned from the crisis was to serve the core values.

The member of the National Delegation of Slovenia, Igor Zorcic, stressed that the crisis - due to the pandemic - could be a turning point. He referred to the use of digital technologies for the functioning of the Parliament and noted that the toolkit of the Council of Europe was particularly useful in the handling of the epidemiological crisis by the government. He stressed, however, that the epidemic highlighted the need to secure social consensus as no crisis, he said, could invalidate freedoms.

The Speaker of the Parliament of Andorra, Roser Sune, spoke of the measures her country took in order to face the pandemic, “that restricted many freedoms”. She noted that the government and the parliament worked together in order to limit the economic and social impact on the country and stressed that “no crisis can and should restrict the democratic institutions”.

The Speaker of the Parliament of Israel (Knesset), Mickey Levy, pointed that the pandemic created many challenges that the Knesset had to face. As he noted, “in Israel the vaccines change the rules of the game”.

The Speaker of the Finnish Parliament, Anu Vehvilainen, talked about how her parliament responded to the sanitary restrictions. As she noted, the legislation hadn’t taken into account the world pandemic, and therefore the contemporary legislations should adjust to these new circumstances. 

The Vice-Speaker of the Swedish Parliament, Lotta Johnsson Fornarve, underlined that the pandemic taught us important lessons in various areas, while it led to the rapid adjustment of work to the new conditions.

The Speaker of the Icelandic Parliament, Willum Thorsson, stressed that the Minister of Health of this country was accountable and informed the parliament on a regular basis, so that its members were aware of all the developments at any time. He also stressed that the pandemic put pressure on the health care system and the economy of the country.

The Speaker of the Parliament of Latvia, Inara Murniece, pointed that the pandemic revealed the weaknesses of our society and expressed the opinion that the pluralistic media need to strengthen in order to fight misinformation. 

At the end of the discussion on the impact and the changes brought by the sanitary crisis, the Speaker of the Parliament of Malta, Angelo Farrugia, pointed out that the crisis, in spite of causing difficulties to the world, was a catalyst for the modernisation of the public administration. A key point in his speech was the negative role of fake news (misinformation) and stressed that there is a need to create a framework of accountability with regard to the content of information.


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