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The Foundation of the EDL – European Democratic Lawyers



I am unable, or would not have time enough to give a complete overview of the long and complex process that led to the formal establishment of the EDL in October 1987.(1)I will limit myself to some episodes that I have personally experienced and that I consider significant in order to understand this process and to situate it in the perspective of the past years.
The first episode corresponds to what we might call the prehistory of the EDL. I go back ten years before the date of the actual foundation of the association. In the spring of 1977, I received an invitation from the Toulouse section of the Mouvement d’Action Judiciaire, a French organisation of left-wing lawyers, to participate in international conferences of lawyers on political repression at European level. The invitation arrived verbally to me by a young lawyer friend, a Catalan of French nationality, and was surrounded by a conspiratorial secret that attracted me.
I accepted, extending the invitation to certain colleagues from Barcelona whom I absolutely trusted. After a few days, I received an appointment by the same conduit: we had to be at a specific date and time in a designated place opposite the Toulouse train station; we had to wait until we were picked up to take us to an unidentified place, where the meeting was to be held. As planned, we were brought to a huge country house, isolated, in the middle of the cultivated fields, in a place called, as I heard later, Persin-Bas, near Toulouse. We were informed that the security measures were justified by the presence at this meeting of some German colleagues who had left their country clandestinely, fleeing the police who linked them to extreme left-wing armed organizations.
In this immense decadent mansion and in very precarious conditions, more than a hundred people from different countries spent two days and two nights, without leaving home for security reasons, and constituted a permanent assembly. Most of them were French people who had already set up an organisational structure, the Syndicat des Avocats de France, a large group of Belgians, but also Dutch, Italians and a good number of Germans. There were also some Basques. As for the group of five lawyers from Barcelona, who had just left an oppressive dictatorship and had no international experience, this atmosphere seemed fascinating.

Eliminate radical Divergence with the System

The central theme of the debates was the criticism of the emerging (embryonic) anti-terrorist legislation, which, under various modalities, has been implemented in most European democracies, and its consequences in the judicial sphere and in police practice in the context of a period of acute social confrontation in Western Europe. From these intense days of shared information, endless theoretical discussions, multiple proposals regarding the role of left-wing lawyers in the face of political repression, the participants retained some clear ideas: the need to organise themselves, both at national and European level, to deal as lawyers with the violation of  fundamental rights and public freedoms in the name of a security policy aimed at contaminating any criminal and procedural law and becoming an instrument available to power, valid to eliminate any expression of radical divergence with the system.
It was decided to hold a further meeting the following year, 1978, with the intention of starting to structure a European organisation of left-wing lawyers. The meeting, which I also attended, took place in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country, under the auspices of one of the previous participants and a prominent former defender of the Bandrés ETA activists, who had been appointed Minister of Justice of the Basque autonomous government. The meeting was a complete failure, caused by the political dissensions between the Basque organisers themselves who monopolised the debates, and thus the initiative failed. The practical result of these experiences, however, had been the establishment of a network of personal relationships between lawyers from different countries and legal cultures; relationships that, to a large extent, have often become permanent, and have helped to keep the idea of a European association alive. A few years passed until, within SAF, the impetus arose to take up this initiative again, and I here I have to pay tribute to Gérard Boulanger, who was the first President of the EDL. I am a witness to his overwhelming activity and his ability to convey enthusiasm and get memberships, taking advantage of this old network of contacts and relationships throughout the process of creating the current association.

Origins and (Dis)Continuities

It seemed interesting to me to explain the distant origins of the EDL, to highlight the continuity between these antecedents and some of the central axes of the EDL activity throughout its history: the continued defence of fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms; the defence of the rights of defence and the guarantees of the free exercise of our profession; solidarity with our colleagues throughout the world when they are repressed precisely to defend justice.
The other episode I want to remember took place in a very different atmosphere. Meanwhile more than thirty years ago, as President of the Catalan Association for the Defence of Human Rights, I signed the deed of constitution of the EDL, within the solemn framework of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and in a room fully equipped with the latest technology, at our disposal thanks to the Socialist Parliamentary Group. The contrast with the precarious conditions of the semi- clandestine meeting in Persin-Bas made me think.
Also, during the process of setting up the EDL, all willingly accepted that the association we were creating could not be reduced to a militant group of leftist lawyers focused exclusively on the fight against repression. The EDL was born in a very different European social and political context from that which existed ten years earlier. Western Europe was consolidating its common institutions and building a new legal architecture with the emergence of a European legislative power and judicial bodies, which were intended to prevail over national bodies.
The construction  of  the  European Union was bringing about dramatic changes in the politics, economy and society of the Member States, changes that fully affected the professional practice of lawyers. In this scenario of profound transformations, many of the founders of the EDL saw an opportunity for an association like ours. Always optimistic, they believed in the possibility of building a united Europe as an area of freedom and democracy, between two existing imperialisms at the time, American and Soviet, and under a relatively peaceful capitalism in a phase of economic growth and with few social conflicts. It was therefore necessary to take advantage of this favourable historical moment to defend our ideological heritage, which implied giving priority to the presence of the EDL, with the will to intervene, in the institutions and centres of power where the changes that affected us were discussed and decided, at national and European level.

Attempts to ›Monopolize‹ EDA

Others, like me, did not share this idyllic vision of the construction of Europe and were rather sceptical about the possibility of influencing in a progressive way within the institutions. We did not refuse to explore this option, but we continued to believe that it was a priority to preserve the independence of our association as an instrument of criticism and, if necessary, of open confrontation with institutions in the struggle for a freer and more just society. We also saw with concern the danger, represented by the toll we would have to pay to be admitted to the European institutions, of being instrumentalized by some political party.
This concern became an alarm when, at a conference organised by the AED in Maastricht in November 1988 on legal aid, a group of lawyers from Madrid, led by a brother of the Minister of Justice of the Spanish Socialist Government and who had just formed an association under the acronym ADADE, came forward seeking to integrate into the EDL. In its presentation to the Bureau of the association that was to admit them, they expressed with authority and clumsiness their claim to convert the EDL into an organisation protected by the Socialist Group in the European Parliament. Faced with the obvious coldness with which this proposal was received, ADADE withdrew from joining the EDL.

Stable Imbalances

In this intervention, I wish to draw your attention to two important moments in the process of building the EDL. By means of the metaphor of the confrontation between two scenarios as varied as a farm in precarious conditions and a highly technical room of the European Parliament, I wanted to point out that, at its origins, the EDL was a meeting point and a confrontation between two souls, who, by sharing the same democratic convictions, coexisted in the same organisational framework, with moments of tension and unstable balances.
But reality, as always, has finally imposed its law. It was quickly obvious to all that the European construction was moving in a way that was completely contrary to our objectives as an association and that our place must be next to the social and political movements fighting for the democratisation of the European Union, the extension of the rights of defence, the extension of access to the right of all citizens without dis- crimination and the radical defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms against the abuse of power, as stated in our Statutes in its Article 2.

August Gil Matamala is a lawyer and  has  been President  of AED-EDL between 2004 and 2007. Headings, subheadings and endnotes were inserted by the editorial staff. Translated from English by Mina Zapatero und Volker Eick.

(1)The Association ›Avocats Européens Démocrates‹ (AED), or ›European Democratic Lawyers‹ (EDL), or ›European Democratic Lawyers‹ (DFA), was founded on 30 October 1987 at the seat of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg;