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European Commission

José Manuel Durão Barroso

President of the European Commission

"The rule of law as inspiration and aspiration"

Inter-Regional Dialogue on Democracy/Brussels

28 May 2013

It is for me a privilege and an honour to host the third inter-regional dialogue on democracy and to bring to Brussels the world’s major regional organisations together with the world’s universal organisation by vocation, the United Nations.

This initiative epitomises some central tenets of the European Union’s action and world view: regional integration; international cooperation; and the promotion of democracy, rule of law and human rights. It is not easy to encapsulate all this in one single event, but the platform developed by IDEA has achieved precisely that. Let me therefore congratulate very warmly his secretary-general for having launched this platform 3 years ago.

Victor Hugo once wrote that “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come”. And today, this meeting demonstrates that the idea of regionalism is taking root all over the world.

Regionalism in different shapes and forms is flourishing from Africa to South America, from the Middle East to Asia. And despite the different institutional settings and competences the legitimacy of all our organisations and its effectiveness has been significantly increasing.

The EU – and myself – are deep believers in the idea of regionalism. If regional integration made sense decades ago, when our organisations were created, its validity and pertinence is much greater today in a world where the problems know no borders and where the solutions must be collective. Regional integration is in fact one of the most effective answers to the twin challenges we all face: managing our joint interdependence and building more effective global governance.

For this it is essential that our regional integration projects, while centred in their own membership and regions, remain open to the rest of the world.

It is essential that they act as bridges and not fortresses, that they serve to better engage with the outside world and not as an excuse to retrench.

In this sense open regionalism can be a foundation for the inclusive global governance we need to develop. Our organisations and institutions can act as a bottom-up platform that enables and facilitates the decisions to be taken at global level, in the framework of the several international organisations, in particular the United Nations with its incomparable legitimacy conferred by its founding charter and its universal membership.

There could be no better motto for this Inter-regional dialogue than democracy, and there could be no better theme for today’s meeting than the rule of law.

These principles have a long history. One of the oldest and probably the clearest expressions of this is found in the writings of Aristotle:

'It is better for the law to rule (…) so that even the guardians of the laws are obeying the laws.'

And if democracy is not sufficient to guarantee the rule of law, it is nevertheless a necessary condition to do so. We can only bind governments to the law if the decisions they take are democratically made and enforced. Democracy and rule of law are two legs that march together, and every country or institution needs both to stand.

The very idea of European unification was in part born precisely from the failure of sovereign states alone to safeguard democracy and the rule of law, to protect citizens' rights, to uphold constitutional government. Democracy and rule of law are therefore twin pillars of the European Union. Both are enshrined in our DNA. The European Union is simultaneously a Union of values and a community of law.

This is mentioned right at the beginning of our basic treaty, in the preamble to the Lisbon Treaty which speaks of the signatory countries abiding by the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.’

But the rule of law is not just an inspiration; it is also an aspiration – a principle that guides both our internal and external actions.

For that reason, Europe's external action is explicitly, constitutionally based on the same principles as its internal organisation, as also described in the Lisbon Treaty (art. 10A): 'The Union's action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.'

Hence our constant search for multilateral and cooperative solutions on issues so diverse as peace and security, sustainable development or fight against climate change.

Hence our persistent backing for the United Nations system, as the pivot of the international system.

Hence our sustained investment in international justice such as the International Criminal Court and international criminal law and our support to national judicial systems.

Hence our strong support for truly representative international economic and financial institutions, enabling that everyone has a voice and that today’s economic realities are duly taken into account. And our backing for the World Trade Organisation, built on a system of law which not only liberalises but also regulates trade and makes sure the rules are fairly and equally applied to and by all.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I said, the rule of law is not only a moral inspiration but also a global aspiration – and not for the European Union only.

In the preamble of the Universal declaration of Human Rights (dated 1948) it reads: 'It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.'

Between states, as between citizens, only the law can support real freedom and sustain peace.

This is why we strongly back and commend the United Nations' work in these domains – under the responsibility of Deputy Secretary-General Eliasson – and the initiative of convening last year a High Level meeting on Rule of Law, which I had the pleasure to attend on behalf of the EU. On this occasion the EU has submitted a comprehensive list of voluntary pledges to which we are committed and where the European Commission has direct responsibility over several of them.

But I am glad that this approach is not limited to Europe. And that rule of law supported by regional integration is indeed an idea whose time has come. The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the ASEAN human rights declaration, the Arab League work on a Human Rights court, the Inter-American Democracy charter and System on human rights, the SAARC charter on Democracy and the PIF’s initiative to establish a regional ombudsman are all examples of how this agenda is espoused at global level.

However this does not mean that we can consider progress as irreversible. History has many sad examples of retrogression.

Even in countries and regions where the rule of law is deeply engrained in the political culture, this is a daily struggle which should never be taken for granted. Upholding the rule of law will always be a demanding exercise, requiring leadership and permanent dedication.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In an age of political, technological and economic interdependence, regional integration is the logical and indispensable next step. That is the rationale behind the Interregional Dialogues on Democracy, and today's meeting is once again an opportunity to drive that ideal forward, and to turn these ideas into concrete results of and between our organisations.

It is an aspiration we all share, and I hope an illuminating inspiration for today's discussions.

I thank you for your attention.

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