|Poland's President Alexander Kwasniewski, left, shakes hands with Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko|
The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg, France, was founded in 1949 to oversee the democratization of Western Europe after the World War II. With democracy now thriving among the 25 members of an enlarged European Union and improving among those countries that seek to join the bloc, the Council of Europe has become the continent's main human rights monitor, tasked especially with helping countries carry out political and legal reforms and exposing breaches of civil liberties wherever they occur.
All of the countries of greater Europe, except Belarus, ruled by an authoritarian government, are members of the Council. And most of those that are not members of the European Union want to join the EU as soon as they can.
Mr. Kwasniewski, as host of the two-day summit, has been pushing hard for the EU, now suffering from enlargement fatigue after incorporating 10 new, mostly former communist members last year, to keep the door open to countries further east. And first among those is Poland's neighbor, Ukraine. The Polish president says the EU has a duty to bring such countries into the European fold, if the continent is to be truly united.
"We must lend our support to all of those who want to live in accordance with European standards and democratic value in whatever region of our continent," he said.
Mr. Kwasniewski, referring to another of Poland's neighbors, Belarus, says no European country should be forgotten or abandoned to its own fate.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who is trying to get the EU to consider his country for membership, warned against the side-by-side existence of a Europe of haves with one of have-nots. Noting that his government has dropped visa requirements for EU citizens, he called on the bloc to reciprocate by simplifying visa rules for Ukrainians.
With the EU planning to set up its own human rights agency, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also monitoring Europe-wide compliance with human rights and the rule of law, Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis wants the continent's leaders to clarify his organization's mandate.
"The challenge facing this summit is to answer the question 'what is the purpose of the Council of Europe?' We cannot find the answer in the past. Instead, we must focus on the future," he said.
Mr. Davis says the people of greater Europe want more democracy, more respect for human rights and more attention paid to the rule of law. That may be so, but most of the leaders of Europe's great nations, Britain, France and Russia among them, have stayed away from this summit, calling into question the Council of Europe's relevance as the influence of the EU spreads ever wider.