BrexitEuropean UnionSpeeches

Rishi Sunak – 2023 Opening Remarks at the Opening Session of the Council of Europe

The opening remarks made by Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, in Iceland on 16 May 2023.

Addressing a huge crowd on the streets of Strasbourg in 1949 Winston Churchill, one of the founding fathers of this Council spoke about “le génie de l’Europe.” [the genius of Europe]

He was talking about what makes our continent so successful, the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

The same spirit we’ve seen again and again that led Vaclav Havel to broadcast his messages of freedom during the suppression of the Prague Spring, that brought down the Berlin Wall and that leads Ukraine to defend its sovereignty with such valour, inspiring us to stand with them all.

The Council of Europe has nurtured that spirit for three quarters of a century.

And it must do so again now.

Because today, we are facing the greatest threat to democracy and the rule of law on our continent since before the Treaty of London was signed.

With Russia waging a war of aggression on European soil, and China growing in assertiveness the world is becoming more contested and more volatile.

The challenge to our values is growing.

And the moment to push back is now.

Democracies like ours must build resilience so that we can out-cooperate and out-compete those who drive instability.

That’s why we’re working so closely with our friends across Europe through the G7, NATO, the Joint Expeditionary Force, the European Political Community and with a welcome new tone in our relations with the European Union.

Friends, the UK may have left the EU, but we have not left Europe.

We remain a proud European nation.

And we must work together to defend the values we all hold so dear.

The Council of Europe, with its huge reach, has such a vital role to play.

And we need to think about how this Council should react to the realities of today.

We showed great purpose in expelling Russia last year – acting decisively together within days of the invasion.

Let’s bring that dynamism to the issues before us now. And let’s send a message from this hall, loud and clear that we will stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes.

We will hold Russia accountable for the horrendous war crimes that have been committed.

And we must also learn the lesson of this war – by being prepared to confront threats to our societies before they become too big to deal with.

That includes acting on cyber security and AI and it means tackling illegal migration.

The moral case for action is clear.

We can’t just sit back and watch as criminal gangs profiteer on people’s misery.

Illegal migration exploits the most vulnerable. It risks crowding out those with a genuine case for asylum. And it strains the trust that our citizens have – not just in our domestic borders, but in the international system.

That’s why so many of us are already acting at the national level. And why we need to do more to cooperate across borders and across jurisdictions and to end illegal migration and stop the boats.

The Council already plays a vital role but I urge leaders to consider how we can go further.

Because we know what we can achieve together. Just look at this Council’s extraordinary legacy: protecting human rights, abolishing the death penalty in Europe, supporting media freedom and championing democracy across Central and Eastern Europe after the Cold War.

So let’s take heart from that, and keep rising to the many challenges before us, true to our enduring values and certain that, as Churchill went on tell the Strasbourg crowd, the dangers before us are great… but great too is our strength.

Thank you.