The social development bank in Europe

Address by CEB Governor Rolf Wenzel at the 117th Plenary Session of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (”Venice Commission”)

Venice, 14 December 2018

Distinguished Members,

Thank you for inviting me to address once again the European Commission for Democracy through Law. I am pleased to be back.

Last time I was here two years ago, I highlighted the steps that the CEB was taking to help its members tackle the considerable challenges posed by the migration and refugee crisis.

Today I would like to provide an update on CEB activity over the past couple of years in core areas supporting the values of the Council of Europe.

For those not familiar with the CEB, allow me to say briefly that it is the oldest multilateral development bank with an exclusively social mandate. It was established in 1956 to help European countries deal with the social issues brought about by large population movements after World War II. More than sixty years on, the CEB continues to support with financing and technical expertise projects with a highly social content in its 41 member states. Close co-operation with the Council of Europe has been and remains an important aspect of our work.

Ultimately, we strive to build inclusive societies with strong democratic values. This is how we make our own contribution to the work of the “Venice Commission”. At the same time, we also benefit from your work. Because the successful outcome of our operations is wholly dependent upon the presence and functioning of democratic, transparent institutions and procedures in our member countries; of a framework that upholds and guarantees the rule of law and fundamental human rights. Only in such conditions can our social investment flourish and make a real difference in people’s lives. 

Our activities focus on disadvantaged areas and vulnerable population groups, such as ethnic minorities, low-income families, persons with disabilities, displaced persons, migrants and refugees. The latter have been a top priority since the refugee crisis in Europe reached alarming proportions in 2015.

At the time, the CEB promptly set up a dedicated grant facility, the Migrant and Refugee Fund or MRF. The aim was to provide in the first instance emergency assistance and then also to support the receiving countries’ integration and inclusion policies. The last time I was here, the MRF had raised €18 million for that purpose. Today I am pleased to say that the MRF has raised over €28 million since it was established in October 2015. These funds have been allocated to refugee projects in CEB member countries most in need of assistance in that respect.

The latest MRF grant of €1.15 million was allocated just two weeks ago to Instituto Nacional de Gestión Sanitaria (INGESA) in Spain. It will finance support healthcare services and provide the means for a faster identification and proper registration of migrants and refugees transiting through the autonomous Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast. Both of these cities have found themselves under tremendous pressure since the refugee inflows increased dramatically.

Focused though we may have been on refugee matters, we have not neglected other important sectors in need of social investment, such as public infrastructure development. Housing, health, education and job creation are all areas in which most European countries have had considerable needs since the outbreak of the financial crisis ten years ago. The refugee crisis put additional strain in these areas in terms of government budgets. 

By financing social investment in public infrastructure, we strengthen European countries’ capacity to meet the needs of their own citizens and we also contribute to their medium- and long-term migrant integration policy.

For example, last month we approved a € 200 million loan to the Serbian government for investments in health infrastructure. The CEB is financing the upgrading of several public health institutions in the country, which will benefit close to 1.3 million persons – patients, medical staff and the wider community.

One of the areas in which the CEB has been especially active in the past few years is the infrastructure of administrative and judicial public services. We firmly believe that improving judicial infrastructure in our member countries is one of the best ways to strengthen the rule of law. And we can all appreciate the importance of a transparent, independent judiciary system for a strong democracy.

Since 2009 we have financed projects with a total value of half a billion euros generating almost €1 billion of financing for the improvement or construction of judicial infrastructure. Our main guiding principle in all these projects is to ensure full compliance with European best standards and practices.

We believe that appropriate penitentiary infrastructure plays an important role in constitutional justice and we see it as an effective way of preparing prisoners for their reintegration into society. This is why the projects we finance comprise a range of facilities for prisoners, such as healthcare and psychological support services as well as access to education, vocational training and recreational activities, among other things.

One of the projects recently approved in this sector was to the Romanian government for an amount of €177 million. The funds provided by the CEB will enable Romania to enhance the quality and capacity of its prison facilities. The project involves the construction of a high-security prison for 1,000 places and a prison with a capacity of 900 places, as well as the construction of facilities for prison staff. The design and running of the prison facilities will conform to the European Prison Rules (EPR) and help to relieve overcrowding. 

Distinguished Members,

To advance integration through social investment is to strengthen social cohesion. And this is the way to build solid democracies and prosperous societies; societies which are based on social and economic inclusion; societies in which the rule of law and respect for human rights underpin a culture of transparency, accountability and justice; societies in which all individuals, regardless of their background, gender, age and orientation have the same opportunities to develop their full potential and thrive.  

I cannot stress enough the importance of providing opportunities for young persons in particular, including young refugees, and giving them through education and inclusive policies a perspective in life. This is the best way to avoid exclusion and marginalisation, which may lead to radicalisation, extremism and lawlessness. Social inclusion, on the other hand, can only strengthen the rule of law and democracy and put in place the necessary conditions for economic growth.

This is what the CEB strives to help its member countries to achieve, doing its utmost to meet the increasing demand for social investment projects in Europe. A record €4 billion in loans was approved last year, and the latest figures show that the same record figure was repeated this year. 

All this demonstrates that the CEB continues to fulfil successfully its social mission and is going from strength to strength in supporting its members’ social policies, in collaboration with its partners and in line with the values and initiatives of the Council of Europe.

Of course, for the CEB to be able to conduct its work, a strong legal framework is needed in its countries of operation. This must be complemented by democratic, independent institutions that ensure accountability and serve as guardians of democratic values and the rule of law.  

In that regard, the CEB’s ongoing, excellent cooperation with the “Venice Commission” is vital, so I look forward to continuing and further expanding these fruitful exchanges.

Thank you.

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