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Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy

The role of civil society and cultural dialogue in the EuroMed relations

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

Opening Ceremony - Anna Lindh Foundation Forum

Barcelona, 4 March 2010

Minister, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to represent the European Commission in this important and most significant event. I would, firstly, like to thank the Anna Lindh Foundation for the invitation and, above all, for having this initiative that I believe will mark a turning point in the dialogue between cultures in our region. The presence here in Barcelona of around 950 organisations not only testifies to the importance of the subject but also offers great encouragement for the Anna Lindh Foundation to carry on with its work with you, its partners, a central part of its ambitions and strategies.

Given the mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, religions and civilisations which make up the Euro-Mediterranean region, mutual comprehension and dialogue are essential for peaceful coexistence and joint development. The Barcelona declaration of 1995 already underlined this aspect. By paying particular attention to the social, cultural and human dimension of the Partnership, and the dialogue among cultures, it enshrined the principal aims of that Partnership: the establishment of an area of peace, prosperity, safety and stability for the region.

The launching of the Union for the Mediterranean, in July 2008, underlined that the Mediterranean is, today more than ever before not only a strategic space, but also the crossroads between cultures connected by a common destiny.

We ask ourselves the same questions, we cope with the same challenges, but above all, we seek the same opportunities. If we work together, challenges will be surely easier to surmount.

To this end, faced by the combined threats of intolerance, fear, ignorance and incomprehension, we have to make it possible to choose a dialogue based on knowledge, tolerance and respect.

The Mediterranean basin has been a symbol of culture and traditional coexistence for a long time and this despite the numerous conflicts which have blighted the region. Indeed, today like yesterday, Mediterranean people have not ceased to promote trade, share knowledge and to enjoy a common cultural heritage.

Such efforts prove even more fundamental and necessary now, when mutual comprehension is called into question.

We cannot turn a blind eye to the deep-seated resentment, anger and frustration sometimes felt in the Muslim world towards Europe. Nor can Muslim nations ignore mounting European concerns about violence, economic deprivation and political frustration in parts of the Muslim world.

Dialogue needs first and foremost a political and social will that can then be underpinned by receptiveness, elimination of misunderstanding and stereotypes, pluralism and mutual recognition of each others differences. Intercultural dialogue must, in my opinion, tackle, preserve and even promote cultural diversity.

I deeply believe that cultural diversity, the idea of the "other", does not have to be perceived as a threat, but as a challenge and an opportunity. Not as something to fear, but as something to aspire to. The dialogue between cultures has a crucial role in the construction of bridges, to overcome prejudices and cultural barriers.

In recent years, the Euro-Mediterranean partnership has been very active with regard to cultural cooperation, encouraging the dialogue between cultures and bringing people together. Our regional programmes - EuroMed youth, Heritage, Audiovisual, support of civil society, EuroMed and the Media, Erasmus Mundus and Tempus - offer good testimony to these efforts.

But, more important still, during these years, the dialogue has been extended to include previously forgotten or marginalised voices, for example - intellectuals and academia, women, youth, media and, of course, that of civil society.

These programmes help us to overcome stereotypes and misunderstandings, to bring people closer together in hope of building a better, more just and safer world.

While we are conscious of the importance of cultural cooperation and the work carried out until now, we are nonetheless aware that much still remains to be done.

It is abundantly clear to the European Commission that these essential ambitions and aspirations cannot be achieved without the involvement of citizens in these efforts. This Forum is therefore the ideal place to call for this joint work.

You have a vital role to play. You are important actors in the dialogue among cultures. With your work, you provide the essential elements of the way cultural images are publicly comprehended, of the way in which other cultures are presented, in the construction of the perception of the "other". You have the power to translate abstract concepts - such as the universality of human rights and the respect for cultural, religious and ethnic diversity - into realities with which people can identify.

Allow me in this respect to praise the work of the Anna Lindh Foundation for dialogue between cultures - for many reasons, but principally because the Foundation continues to carry out its determined, autonomous and dedicated work in a sector which we all agree, I think, is not an easy one and in circumstances that, we should all agree, have been difficult.

This has been possible thanks to the courage and the vision of the people that work on it, from its President, Andre Azoulay, to its executive director, Andreu Claret and most importantly its team in Alexandria and in each partner country. You, the national networks have been the underpinning force that has allowed the ALF to maintain focus, and stay steady on its feet in a moment when lots of people were wondering where EuroMed relations were going.

You have asked the secretariat to legitimise its work responding to your demands and at the same time you have given it the legitimacy to keep working. You have asked for dialogue instead of conflict, you want the politicians to face the fact that dialogue and political will is necessary for the resolution of conflicts in the region.

At the European Commission, we wholeheartedly support the Anna Lindh Foundation, both economically with half of its budget, but above all politically. We are convinced that a Foundation, supported by the combined will and force of its national networks and free to develop its own professional and independent work, can live up to our expectations. These hopes, I imagine, are shared by all of you: the establishment of an area of peace, prosperity, safety and stability in the EuroMed region.

Thank you very much.

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