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Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy

Address to roundtable with members of civil society from the Arab region

Roundtable dialogue with members of civil society from the Arab region, organised by Caritas Germany

Brussels, 28 June 2011

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a pleasure to be here today to exchange views with you about the current situation in the Arab region and to look at the role that Europe can play in supporting the changes that the peoples of the region are seeking. I am sure that this debate with you will also allow me to increase my understanding about the situation and the aspirations of the civil society organisations.

What at the moment is clear to everyone is that the political reality in the region has changed. North Africa and the Middle East are witnessing a historic call for reforms. The peoples of this region, and I am fully aware that this includes you, have taken a courageous stand to defend your rights and to introduce democracy and social reforms into your countries.

What is also clear is that the EU must rise to the challenge and help you to achieve these legitimate goals. Europe has learned from your struggles and successes and has significantly changed gear in the defence of local democratic forces in the region. We have moved from what may have been termed a prescriptive process to an understanding that the new scenarios are people-driven initiatives and that is where our support is and will continue to be.

Our response to the changes sweeping across the region are set out in the joint communication on “A partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity” and further compounded in the recent communication on the “European Neighbourhood Policy Review”.

We offer our partners our experience, our expertise and our assistance towards democratic reform. But we do not offer a blueprint for this exercise of reform, nor do we try and impose our model. There can be no one-size-fits-all or blanket approach. The ENP communication, which has been endorsed by EU heads of State and government at their last summit last week, puts the emphasis on differentiation, conditionality and mutual accountability. Under the new approach, the EU will tailor relations with each partner according to their own, intrinsic needs and aspirations.

Providing greater support to partners engaged in building deep and sustainable democracy is one of the cornerstones of the new approach outlined in the ENP Communication adopted on 25 May. While again there is not one single definition of democracy, the Communication identifies some elements that are common to building a deep and sustainable democracy:

  • free and fair elections;

  • freedom of association, expression and assembly and a free press and media;

  • the rule of law administered by an independent judiciary and right to a fair trial;

  • fight against corruption;

  • security and law enforcement sector reform and the establishment of democratic control over armed and security forces.

These elements are the central benchmarks against which the EU will assess progress and adapt levels of support to its partners.

But as I said these are only some elements. We will also look very carefully at another crucial and closely related element: equality and non-discrimination. Everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, without any discrimination as to race, colour, sex, language and religion, or to social or other status. There can be no real democracy without equality.

In the next generation of Action Plans, we will suggest to partners that we focus our joint work on a limited number of short and medium-term priorities, incorporating more precise benchmarks and a clearer sequencing of actions. And it will be very important to develop appropriate benchmarks that are tailored to each country’s specificities.

We will monitor the progress made towards meeting the benchmarks through progress reports. Based on the progress achieved and on the needs and wishes of each partner, we will discuss with them our priorities for action. Progress on these benchmarks will lead to increased EU support.

To ensure a more effective setting of priorities and a close monitoring of benchmarks, we are looking to engage in more intensive political steering of our relationships with our partners. We will maintain the closest possible dialogue with our partner countries. However, if a partner country engages in unacceptable violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as we are witnessing in Syria, then our cooperation and funding will stop. This is what we have done in Syria, having suspended all the bilateral financial cooperation under the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument and also stopped signature of the Association Agreement.

Reinforced human rights dialogues will be one tool to monitor commitments in this area, including addressing cases of human rights violations. Enhanced cooperation of Southern Mediterranean countries with the Council of Europe could also help in promoting compliance. I am encouraged by the emerging cooperation between the Council of Europe on one side and Morocco and Tunisia on the other side. The Commission is ready to support this cooperation through a dedicated financial envelope.

We acknowledge that the engines of change and reform are being driven by people and as I mentioned, we want to develop a real partnership with societies. Civil society organisations and Governments should view each other more as partners than as adversaries.

There needs to be a new framework for national dialogues in all your countries. Of course, this will bring new challenges to both civil society and administrations. For civil society organisations, it means better coordination and maybe in some cases, creating a national platform or a national forum that can ensure that your voices are stronger. In this context the work done by the Anna Lindh Foundation, in particular through the sharing of best practices and experiences, is very important; and I very much welcomed their seminar last week in Tunis.

In fact, if we want to promote democracy and human rights, we need to support civil society organisations more effectively because it is clear that civil society organisations are key players for democratisation processes. That is why the Communication on Democracy and Shared Prosperity puts forward the idea of developing a Platform for civil society. We want to, where appropriate, help you with your endeavours and share this journey with civil society. Much closer contacts with NGOs are a prerequisite and complement to Europe’s engagement at a State level.

The Communication on the ENP review proposes two new instruments to channel EU support to civil society – the Civil Society Facility which will help civil society organisations develop their advocacy capacity and support them in their monitoring of reforms. The Commission intends to establish the facility already this year and allocate a substantial amount of funding. In addition, the Communication also proposes the establishment of an Endowment for Democracy which will help political actors, trade unions, non-registered NGOs and social partners striving for democratic change whom have not been able to benefit from EU support so far.

However let me stress that we are already demonstrating our clear commitment to support the civil society organisations in the Arab countries. In Egypt, we launched an immediate package of EUR 20 million in support of civil society and in Tunisia we are providing support to the political transition process notably in the preparation of elections and the development of civil society with a first package of 4 million euro. Even in eastern Libya, we are now mobilising our instruments to support the emerging civil society organisations.

Finally, let me conclude by telling you how much I appreciate this kind of events that allow us not only to exchange views but also, for me, to hear the voices of reality from the ground. I hope we will continue to have new opportunities for dialogue.

Thank you very much.

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