In my view, the most important common political project we as Europeans have is to build a continent in which every state has developed a strong, stable democracy based on an underlying respect for human rights.
I discussed this fascinating topic with a group of Ukrainian parliamentarians during their recent study trip to the Storting.
Ukraine has embarked on a comprehensive programme of reforms. The clear goal? To become a natural and integrated component of a democratic Europe. In historical terms, it’s not long since this country was a Soviet republic, and it’s deeply impressive how the nation’s politicians have taken the bull by the horns and set to work on this project despite the extreme pressure being exerted by their powerful neighbour to the east. The road ahead is long, and Ukraine has suffered a series of major setbacks in recent years.
Building democracy takes time
In the full knowledge that my own country has spent more than two centuries – generally in a climate of peace – to build up our democracy, I approached the meeting with my Ukrainian colleagues with a sizeable portion of humility.
What struck me more than anything was the inquisitiveness I encountered. How are Norwegian parties funded? How does the Parliament perform its scrutinizing role? How are politicians paid? What does the Auditor General really do? How extensive is the Fiscal Budget process? And what sort of background information are the government departments expected to provide? The questions were many and varied, and reminded me that, when it all comes down to it, parliamentary work is basically a practical business.
In this context, there are as many solutions and models as there are nations. Each must find its own path and answers based on its own unique traditions, be they political, historical or cultural. At the core, however, there must be one absolute requirement: that whatever the brand of democracy, it must be real and it must respect human rights. Not least, this applies to the fundamental rights that are a prerequisite for any healthy democracy – freedom of speech, the rule of law and the banning of all forms of torture.
The idea for the visit from Ukraine was hatched by a number of my Nordic and Baltic colleagues and I during a study trip we made to the Verkhovna Rada – the parliament of Ukraine – in March this year.
The initiative was the result of a process that began in 2014, when I met the Nordic speakers and presidents of parliament during the bicentenary celebrations of the Norwegian Constitution. Several Nordic countries have become involved in democracy building in various ways through the Eastern Partnership. Over the past couple of years we’ve worked at improving our collaborative efforts on new initiatives. The objective is clear: to play our part in building democratic development in this part of Europe.
Today Ukraine is faced with an extremely demanding situation. Major economic, military and humanitarian challenges combined with the fight against corruption and the acute need for comprehensive constitutional and judicial reforms have heaped pressure on the country. The role of the parliament in this is crucial. Yet, as I found out during our visit in March, the Verkhovna Rada has met considerable challenges in the fields of efficiency and good working practices. To compound matters, a number of the newly-elected MPs lack political experience.
Inspired by Nordic support in the Baltic
While they were here, the MPs from Ukraine attended lectures and took part in meetings. These were intended to inform them about such varied topics as parliamentary procedure; the work of the Storting’s committees; the relationship between the governing parties and the opposition; how to prepare a draft bill; the supervisory function of parliament; and how the different branches of the state relate to one another.
When we were putting the programme together, we allowed ourselves to be inspired by the support the Nordic parliaments gave to their Baltic counterparts during the 1990s. The fact that the Baltic parliaments themselves are now supporting this initiative is of huge significance, both in symbolic and real terms.
I hope that in their meetings with the Norwegian MPs, supervisory bodies, press and civil servants, the Ukrainian MPs were able to improve their understanding of and commitment to the fundamental mechanisms that underlie democratic politics and collaboration. And I dearly hope that they take it back home with them and use it in their efforts to enhance Ukrainian democracy.
An added bonus from the visit was the impact it made on the political groups and administration in the Storting. Through our meetings with the Ukrainian MPs we’ve gained more knowledge about and understanding of the Storting’s international efforts and the value of the interparliamentary work we are a part of.
Coordinating with the Council of Europe
In the lead-up to the visit, and before the programme had been finalized, I met Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. In March the Council launched a comprehensive action plan to support the reforms in Ukraine. The recent visit gave MPs the chance to exchange views and experiences at a political level, a field in which the Council of Europe itself lacks expertise. Our initiative has therefore been a useful supplement to the Council’s substantial and wide-ranging programme.
For me, it’s vital that the Council of Europe plays a pivotal role in coordinating the contributions that so many different nations and organizations are keen to make. For this to work – and to make a difference – it’s important to view all such initiatives in a broader context. Only then will we be able to make best use of the resources available. In this case, the Council of Europe is undoubtedly best equipped to play such a coordinating role.