This week the 50th anniversary of the European Parliament and the Spring meeting of the European Council coincide, but neither event, it seems to me, will leave much of a political footprint. The Parliament's triumph has been overshadowed by a squalid row over expense payments that has served only to draw attention to its size and cost as well as, yet again, the gesture politics of its monthly Strasbourg plenaries.
Nor is the Spring European Council expected (I write before it has begun) to generate much enthusiasm with its semi-technical discussions on the economy and markets, climate change and energy, important though these may be to our future well-being. Still, who could have imagined in 1998, when the Council met in Edinburgh, that ten years on a devolved nationalist government would be running Scotland, and a (then) barely established state running the European Union Presidency? How quickly some things change.
Others, however, do not. They endure generation to generation. The oppression of the weak, the role of women, the need to stand up and be counted; such threads spin from the dawn of human experience. We heard something of this last week, when an international conference of women leaders from all over the world met in Brussels
Among them was Margot Wallstrom who rehearsed Aristophanes' tale of Lysistrata. Concerned at the havoc wrecked by years of war among the feuding city-states of Sparta, Lysistrata and her sisters conclude that this martial activity by their menfolk is tiresome. So they engineer a sex-strike, forcing the generals to settle their differences amicably and return to hearth and home.
Though the idea is original and romantic, I suspect that it didn't work then, and of course hasn't since. That does not necessarily mean that the idea was faulty. Think of Leonardo's helicopter.
Mrs Wallstrom's, Lysistrata's, and indeed the conference's argument was that women ‘bring a perspective on politics, ........ which does not make distinctions between political rule and managing daily life; (and which) makes... social and political co-operation possible between women that cuts across class and nations.'
The conference may have been longer on aspiration than practicality but that it took place at all, with so many important figures present, is remarkable. Here was an attempt to move us forward along an agenda focused on the human rights of individuals and which cut across the mainstream concerns of markets, energy, defence and so on.
Naturally, this focus turned towards women. Violence and intimidation of men towards women disfigures even the most civilised of our European societies. Elsewhere, wars across the globe provide a seam of violence towards women so nightmarish that editors are reluctant to retell the awful details.
Then there is the violence in the name of religion, the so-called ‘honour' killings, the viciousness and prejudice of Sharia law, the compulsion on girls and young women to accept arrangements of behaviour, dress and marriage without pity or option. And not forgetting, of course, the evil trafficking of young women into the brothels of the developed world.
The release of women from traditional stereotyping and prejudice has enhanced European society. The European Union has contributed substantially to this process. But there is still a long way to go, even here in Europe to ensure that each and every woman is guaranteed the simple rights to which the law entitles her.
Nor is the abuse of human rights something that affects women alone. Our pluralistic European society comprises minorities of every sort. Discrimination and persecution on the grounds of race, religion (or apostasy), sexuality, appearance, gender, disability abound as do ethnic tensions. We, in Europe, are far from being the universal beacon of enlightenment that we would like other others to perceive.
We are fortunate in having a Court of Human Rights. Nevertheless, this body cannot speak out in defence of fundamental freedoms and against the flagrant abuse of rights in general wherever they occur. Which is why we need another institution.
Take for example the case of Mr Mehdi Kazemi, a student, who came to Britain from Iran to study. He happens to be gay and his boyfriend was recently executed by the Iranian authorities, simply for being homosexual, but not before he had ‘confessed' Mr Kazemi's name.
Besides being outraged by his friend's execution, Mr Kazemi not unreasonably feared for his own life should he return to Iran and so applied for asylum in Britain - which was refused. So he fled to the Netherlands. Citing the Dublin convention, which says you have to claim asylum in the country in which you arrive, the Dutch are returning him to Britain.
Admittedly British immigration must be in something of a dilemma. They dare not contrive a situation in which an Iranian (of whatever persuasion) who turns up at Heathrow with a compromising photograph and gay porn in his luggage will be automatically granted asylum. Besides there are plenty of other brutal and homophobic regimes.
The problem here is not with Britain, but with Iran. And Europe should be saying so. For it is something that affects all Europe.
After all, our own past is littered with similar homophobic evil. So many ordinary and extraordinary lives tortured and extinguished by ignorance, prejudice, machismo. In this ocean of tragedy, the banal death of Federico Garcia Lorca, one of Europe's finest poets, shot by phalangists one sunny August morning in a field of cabbages and the corpse hurriedly buried somewhere still unknown, encapsulates the futility of this kind of hatred.
Of course we have seen far greater tragedies than the loss of a poet. Mass killings, in all their ugly forms, still blight many areas of the world. Persecutions, unjust laws, execution, stonings, torture, enslavement, imprisonment without trial, occur with such regularity as hardly to warrant comment.
Yet if Europe stands for anything it stands for human rights. Individual freedoms need to be promoted and protected from intimidation. Diversity, freedom of expression, are sources of strength, not weakness. But realising this strength requires a voice in elevated councils. That is why Europe needs a High Representative for Human Rights to speak up in defence of minorities everywhere, to investigate and expose abuse without fear or favour and not afraid to embarrass governments or religions. Wherever in the world, Mr Kazemi might feel safer with the eye of a High Representative upon him.
14.03.2008, By Peter Sain ley Berry, euobserver comment, The author is editor of EuropaWorld