FOR 43 years, the 26-member Council of Europe was one of the most exclusive clubs in Europe. Its limitation of membership to pluralist parliamentary democracies kept the six European nations trapped behind the Iron Curtain from getting near the door.
With the cold war now history, the venerable body - Europe's oldest intergovernmental organization - is besieged by democracy-hungry applicants. For the council's efficient, soft-spoken director, Catherine Lalumiere, these are heady times. "Since its beginning the Council of Europe has run up against the Iron Curtain," said Dr. Lalumiere in a Monitor interview. "At long last it's in a position where it can bring about the hopes of its founders by building a democracy that works, mindful of human rights, in all the countries of Europe."
"On our scale, we're going through quite a revolution," adds the former French parliamentarian and professor.
Lalumiere is visiting the United States this week to publicize the council's role in promoting democracy in Europe. In a meeting with President Bush on Monday she urged that sporadic relations between the US and the council be regularized. She is the first Council of Europe head to visit the US, which, as a non-European state, is barred from membership.
Based in Strasbourg, France, the council is one of five sometimes overlapping intra-European bodies, each with its own assembly, that comprise the complex architecture of post-World War II Europe. These include NATO, the European Community, the Western European Union, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).
Since its founding in 1949 the organization has been the rough political and cultural counterpart to NATO, promoting constitutional reform and human rights in a Europe left devastated by World War II.
Now the council is expanding its work into regions of Europe left devastated by decades of communist rule, selling democracy the way private entrepreneurs are selling free-market reforms. It has advised Albania on constitutional reform, sent observers to elections in Romania, and helped Hungary set up democratic local governments.
Already three former Soviet bloc states - Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia - have joined the council. Bulgaria and the the Baltic States are expected to join soon.
THE council's other main imprint on Europe has been in the sphere of human rights. Its judicial arm, the European Court on Human Rights, has heard 15,000 cases brought by individuals and nations. In one highly publicized case, Greece was temporarily expelled from the council after the court found it guilty of abuses alleged by four other member states.
On a three-day visit, ending today, Lalumiere is stressing to US and UN officials that the council is more important than ever because of the role it can play in containing the centrifugal, mainly nationalist forces unleashed by the collapse of communist regimes.
"The more we have working arrangements binding the countries of Europe politically, economically and culturally, the more they will abide by the same set of humanistic values and the more we will be able to establish stability on the continent," she says.
Council membership is coveted as a steppingstone to the economic privileges of membership in the European Community. As proof of a functioning parliamentary democracy, membership is also a seal of approval that can open the door to credit lines in Western money markets.
If the opening to Central and Eastern Europe has provided new opportunities for the council it has also raised troublesome jurisdictional questions. In particular, its role has overlapped with that of the CSCE, whose influence, geographic reach, and areas of jurisdiction have expanded in recent years.
"The Council of Europe feels threatened," comments one US congressional source who specializes in European affairs. "They've done good work on human rights and other social issues over the years, and they want to preserve their role."
Lalumiere insists that the work of the two organizations is complementary, with CSCE articulating the broad principles and the Council of Europe providing the substance by helping create democratic institutions and enforcing human rights standards.
"What we do is the natural outcome of all the preparatory work done by CSCE," says Lalumiere. "We can translate the political commitments made to CSCE into legal commitments."
But like many other European commentators, Lalumiere chafes at the duplication inherent in having five interparliamentary assemblies in Europe. The redundancy will be evident next June, when Hungary will host the CSCE and Council of Europe assemblies in the same building within two days of each other.