European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
The Role of Civil Society in Transition and Transformation: Lessons from the Enlargement Policy of the European Union
BEPA seminar "Transitions in the Southern Mediterranean: Engaging Civil Society"
Brussels, 3 October 2011
Ladies and gentlemen,
At the time this Commission was formed I sought to ensure that the competences for the EU's enlargement and neighbourhood polices were united in a single portfolio.
The reason for this is simple, the two policies share similar objectives:
Both policies seek to foster democracy, stability and prosperity in our neighbouring regions and further the interests and objectives of our partners.
Both policies are in the EU's strategic interest and help us to better achieve our own policy objectives in a number of areas that are key to economic recovery and sustainable growth.
Enlargement policy has one significant difference in its favour: it offers the ultimate goal of membership of the European Union.
This goal provides an incentive which has overridden domestic concerns and specific vested interest groups. It has led countries to undertake profound transformations, politically, economically and socially.
Over the last year the completion of accession negotiations with Croatia has shown that when this incentive is expressed through a credible policy, real progress can be made.
A credible policy because when a country fulfils the conditions, which lead to a real transformation, then the European Union, respects its commitments.
This is an example not just to candidates and potential candidates but to our broader neighbourhood. And this has been one of the key principles of the new approach to the neighbourhood policy that we have set out in the 25 May communication, that is to say the principle of mutual accountability.
What lessons for the southern Mediterranean can we draw from the enlargement experience?
First and foremost the desire for transformation is not limited to eastern and central Europe, the western Balkans or Turkey: events in the southern Mediterranean have shown that here too citizens of countries with different histories, cultures and links to Europe want profound change, aspire for democracy and a life of dignity.
Second, that transforming a country requires the political will and hard work of a legitimate government, but that it also requires far more than this. It requires a change in society as a whole, it requires a population, which understands and embraces the changes and is prepared to work towards them.
Third, we have learnt a lot about the key role that civil society organisations play in this process and the challenges that they face in playing this role.
I say that we have learnt a lot. This may come as a surprise, after all what is the role of civil society organisations if not to support civil society?
The answer is that this is not always an easy role to play, especially in a climate of regime change.
Across the western Balkans civil society played a key role in the over-throw of non-democratic regimes. They protested, they resisted and they provided alternative structures.
Of course, we must also acknowledge that civil society organisations are not all defenders of our shared values. Some promulgate extreme nationalism, hate speech and violence. A vivid juxtaposition of these two very different faces of civil society is to be seen when a gay pride parade takes place often with two very different strands of civil society separated by lines of riot police.
Even with some actors opposed to change, the democratic argument and the organisations which upheld it have prevailed.
But success brought new challenges: it is very different being part of the resistance to an undemocratic regime to being an important element in a pluralistic democratic society. This is a challenge that is now emerging in the Southern Mediterranean.
An example of this is the first post Milosevic government in Serbia, which saw some of the parallel structures of civil society entering the government while others felt frustrated that they had been left on the outside. In these circumstances, it is a challenge to maintain the energy and drive of the opposition days. It is a challenge to learn the skills and knowledge required to be a part of the new political system. It can be a shock to go from being the primary interlocutor with the international community or acting as the de facto administration to returning to a more traditional civil society role. Civil society organisations need to develop an understanding as to their role in the new society.
In a democratic environment, civil society has to work in a constructive manner with governments and other partners. Civil society structures need to be encouraged to develop the necessary mutual understanding to work together. This is a key element in a pluralistic society.
However it takes time to develop a culture of co-operation. This includes not just the formal mechanisms of consultation but also the reflex to consult.
There will always be scope for organisations dealing with human rights issues. Indeed that can be vital to foster reconciliation within and between societies or to ensure that the authorities maintain the highest standards. We have seen this clearly when dealing with the legacy of the region's past: war crimes, refugee returns and other sensitive issues.
However, as society moves on from the past and towards a wider reform agenda, there will also be a need for new types of organisations in areas such as the environment or consumer protection. Within a few years they will play an important role in the development of the country and in bringing benefits to the population at large.
The European Union has sought to help Civil Society organisations meet these challenges and has gained experience in how to avoid the pitfalls. Primary among these is to avoid an environment of "professional" CSOs organisations which effectively work as consultancies for the civil sector while at the same time failing to nurture grass roots organisations.
We have taken these challenges and the lessons learnt and applied them in the development of our Civil Society Facility which has been implemented since last year.
It is not merely a financial tool: it follows a political objective. In short, the Facility sets out to encourage cooperation and partnership, the sharing of experience and the transfer of know-how in partner countries and at the corresponding EU level.
To achieve this we work at the regional level, through the so-called Multi-country component and at the national level through the national programmes.
Regionally; we provide support for local civic initiatives and capacity building to enforce the role of civil society. We have created a “People-to-People” Programme to bring journalists, young politicians, representatives of civil society organisations into contact with the EU institutions and support for partnership actions to develop networks between organisations in candidate countries and their counterparts in the EU to promote transfer of knowledge and experience.
In terms of improving the knowledge base of civil society organisations we have a multi-country approach for horizontal issues aimed at giving the organisations the information they need in the context of European integration from the rule of law and the fight against corruption and organised crime to business advocacy and culture.
To complement this regional approach the national allocation focuses on specific issues at the country level.
We have already taken this experience and applied it in the review of our neighbourhood policy and our reaction to the Arab revolutions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We will enhance our dialogue with Civil Society Organisations. It will be systematic and more structured, including, and especially at, the local level. We have to learn from the past and make the existing consultation mechanisms more inclusive. When I was in Tunis last week with Cathy Ashton, we met representatives from key civil society organisations. I attach a lot of importance to establishing a direct and frank dialogue with CSOs, which sends a signal to the authorities that we are taking CSOs as serious actors in the reform process
There is great scope to ensure that civil society are more closely associated in the preparation and monitoring of the bilateral action plans but also in the projects that we are implemented.
Secondly, as for enlargement we have created a Civil Society Facility. It has been formally adopted by the Commission last week. It has a budget of 22 million for this year, and will be operational before the end of the year. The facility will seek to support the non state actors in their monitoring of reforms and their advocacy work.
In the Communication on the new approach to the ENP policy, there is also a mention of the creation on a European endowment for democracy which will help political actors, trade unions and social partners striving for democratic change and that have not been able to benefit from EU support so far. Work is progressing on the Endowment which we hope to establish next year.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The narrative I have presented is a positive one, it portrays the best aspects of our experience with civil society in the western Balkans and I am happy to discuss these positive experiences with you further.
However, in the southern Mediterranean the future direction of the change remains uncertain. What is clear however is that the peoples' appetite for change is immense as well as their willingness to control their destiny. Different groups want to move the countries in different directions; this is only normal in the democratic process. How best to consolidate this phenomenon is something which I would very much like to hear your ideas on.
Thank you for your attention.