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European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Joint programme EU- Anna Lindh Foundation for the revitalisation of Arab Civil Society
Opening session of High Level Advisory Group of the Anna Lindh foundation
Brussels, 22 November 2011
Good morning and welcome to the European Commission
It is appropriate that we should gather in a room dedicated to the memory of Walter Hallstein the first President of the then European Economic Community (EEC). Hallstein championed intercultural dialogue in those early days by stating that the process of European integration would be underpinned by ‘a celebration of diversity without reservations’.
The Countries of the Euro-Mediterranean area reflect a large range of cultures and socio-economic situations. Some of them are benefiting from the European Neighbourhood Policy and others are part of our enlargement process. All are included in my current portfolio. And this makes the intercultural dialogue one of my daily concerns.
In October 2003, the High Level Advisory Group, many of you with us here today, presented its report on ‘The Dialogue between Peoples and Cultures in the Euro-Mediterranean Area’ to the European Commission.
The report - your report ! - proved to be both far sighted and practical. The report’s rationale of a failure to invest in culture and the consequent danger of cultures being hijacked for ‘retrograde and criminal’ ends remains valid today.
The report’s principal conclusion heralded the establishment of a Euro-Mediterranean Foundation, and 18 months later the Anna Lindh Foundation opened in Alexandria.
Since then, the region has undergone many tumultuous transformations - particularly in the past ten months. We witnessed history’s pages in the Southern neighbourhood turn at a rapid pace.
Europe too has changed. We now have a greater understanding that the new scenarios are driven from the bottom up by the population.
Our old prescriptive policy has needed to adapt to the new reality.
The engines of change and reform are being driven by people. In this context, civil society organisations have become a crucial element:
The hope now is that civil society organisations and Governments (provisional, putative or real) view each other more as partners than as adversaries.
What can we offer in this new landscape?
We responded quickly to events in the region. This response is set out in our two Communications of March and May on ‘A Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity’ and ‘A new Response to a changing Neighbourhood.’
Both communications reflect and react to the great work done by civil society and aim at a new level of commitment.
But we have offered more than words on paper. 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. Diversity and differentiation are the key-words. Each partner must tailor their relations according to their own, intrinsic needs and aspirations.
There are many bridges that could be built or re-built between North and South to consolidate understanding and networks between institutional and non-institutional actors.
The enlargement process has given us considerable experience of bridge building of all kinds.
The Enlargement process allows us to be actively involved in a constructive dialogue with civil society actors. We encourage all governments to follow this policy, too. This helps inter-cultural dialogue to be flexible, to develop itself across and beyond the borders and to rely on citizens' willingness.
We have developed instruments such as the Civil Society Facility in the Western Balkans and Turkey. This supports a pluralistic dialogue between persons with different cultural, religious and social backgrounds. We have just launched a similar instrument for the Southern neighbourhood.
Our strong relationship with civil society in the Balkans and Turkey is one track. We also provide substantial support to state institutions (and churches to a lesser extent) notably to restore heritage sites that represent cultural jewels for all.
Last but not least, contemporary culture is also needed when inter-cultural dialogue is at stake. We support efforts to give a voice to creativity, innovation and research. These are often the source not only of more tolerance but also creative industries and new jobs.
I trust that citizens from the Western Balkans and Turkey could provide interesting testimonies and share their expertise with those of the southern side of the Mediterranean Sea who are now living in a society in transition.
The Foundation's next forum, most likely to be in Istanbul at the end of 2012 may be the occasion to build on the experience gained by civil society and other partners from Turkey and the Western Balkans. I would encourage more interaction between your Foundation and my services dealing with the EU enlargement process.
Let me return to the role of the dialogue between peoples and cultures.
To paraphrase one of the report’s findings, the dialogue between peoples and cultures can no longer be relegated to a secondary element of Euro-Mediterranean relations.
Rather it should extend beyond the frontiers of its specific areas of action. It should become a cross cutting element. It should inform all aspects of our relations with a “common and collective civility which embraces difference and respects origin and fosters a will to live together.”
The political landscapes and contexts are changing rapidly. But the fundamental ethos of intercultural dialogue does not, it just grows more important. I would like to be able to say that we have laid the ghost of Huntingdon’s apocalyptic theory of a clash of civilisations. As the report suggests, it has proved to be ‘a fiction manipulated by some and hoped for by others.’
However, I believe that there is more work to be done. Some in the west have expressed concerns that the success of moderate Islamic parties in recent democratic elections is the start of a move away from deep democracy. Islam has too often been seen as a problem linked to a threat against the West, against democracy, against universal values.
Such thinking can have a negative impact on our efforts in the region. Such thinking is simply wrong. There needs not be a trade off between religion and democracy. Europeans urgently need to rethink these attitudes. The Arab World and Islam are not immutable essences, but equally open to such influences as Europeans and their various faiths have been.
In Europe we have a long tradition of mainstream political parties having their roots in religion. Greater cultural dialogue and understanding will help reduce these misunderstandings.
All of which brings us back to the Anna Lindh Foundation and the pivotal role it plays in this regard. Your crucial work in areas of exchange, partnership and mutual understanding during the most tempestuous of times has demanded great courage, vision and determination.
Now, as the European Union faces up to the new political realities in the region we need, more than ever, partners such as the Foundation as we attempt to help the evolving and transforming societies in their legitimate struggles for reform and democracy. Our objectives for the region are similar to the Foundation’s. We need consistency, clarity and coherence in our actions with partners to achieve those objectives.
Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion, let me return to the two key questions asked by President Prodi when he commissioned the report by the ‘Groupe des Sages’:
1) How can we contribute to the emergence of a ‘society of peoples and cultures’, alongside the society of states, in the Euro-Mediterranean area?
2) What shape should such a dialogue between cultures take, a dialogue conducted primarily among the peoples who inherit and pass on those cultures, bearing in mind that it should be governed by at least the three principles of equality, co-ownership and cross-fertilisation?
Those are the questions that have informed and steered the work of the European Union and the Anna Lindh Foundation together. Your report, its analysis and recommendations, has been more than just a legacy but a guiding light towards that Utopia that all Partners dream of.