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Štefan Füle

European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy

Towards a new strategy for civil society engagement in the Eastern Partnership

Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum

Poznan, Poland, 28 November 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Participants and Guests of the Civil Society Forum,

It gives me great pleasure to address you today at the third annual meeting of the EaP Civil Society Forum.

As I look around, I am struck by just how far the Forum has come since its first annual assembly two years ago. And how appropriate, too, that this meeting should take place in Poland, in which civil society through the 'Solidarnosc' movement played such an important role in bringing about significant change at the end of the last century.

It always gives me great pleasure to meet civil society representatives. I am struck by the passion that you bring to your causes; by the immense courage that many of you show in fighting for change; and by your clear determination in the face of significant challenges.

In my view, the Civil Society Forum is about harnessing that passion, courage and determination to create a clear and coherent vision for the role of civil society in achieving our shared ambitions.

Today, I'd like to speak about my vision for the crucial role of civil society in the Eastern Partnership, and about the ways in which we will support you in achieving this potential.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There have been a number of important developments in the Eastern Partnership since we met together in Berlin last year. Following extensive consultation, including with many of you here, we set out a revised approach to the European Neighbourhood Policy as a whole through a new EU Communication in May. At the Eastern Partnership Summit in Warsaw in September, we also agreed a renewed agenda for the Eastern Partnership itself.

This renewed approach reinforces the central importance of those core values that have always been at the very heart of the Eastern Partnership. The need to secure democracy, basic freedoms and rights is fundamental and non-negotiable, and must continue to be the key strand running through all of our work if we are to achieve our aims.

At the same time, we also committed to extending cooperation in a range of important sectors, including economic integration, energy and climate change. I know that you will be discussing many of these issues during the course of this assembly.

In all of these areas, it is clear that we will be unable to achieve our goals simply by engaging with governments. We require your participation, both as individual organisations and through the Civil Society Forum. This was a point strongly reinforced by the declaration from the recent Summit.

Indeed, the crucial role that civil society organisations play, as well as the huge challenges that you face, has been starkly demonstrated by the recent developments in Belarus.

Following the crackdown since the Presidential elections last December, the EU has been clear that further cooperation with the Belarusian authorities will not be possible until significant progress is made to establish basic rights and freedoms.

In particular, we strongly condemn the recent sentence given to the key human rights figure, Ales Byalyatski. This conviction was clearly politically-motivated, and we have called on the Belarusian authorities to ensure his immediate release and rehabilitation, along with all other political prisoners in the country.

In circumstances such as these, it is clear that cooperation with civil society organisations, including many of those here today, assumes an absolutely crucial role. It is essential not only in enabling us to continue our fight for basic human rights and freedoms, but also in ensuring that we maintain our support for the Belarusian people, and continue working to achieve our shared ambitions for the country.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you consider your strategy over the course of the conference, I believe that you have a tremendous opportunity to agree a clear plan for the way in which the Civil Society Forum will help to shape and implement our renewed agenda.

There are a number of important areas in which I believe you can make a particularly important contribution:

First of all, it is clear that you have a crucial role to play not only in pressing for reforms, but also in monitoring their implementation. Your close involvement with developments in your countries makes you particularly well-placed to do this, and you should ensure a clear plan for coordinating this work.

Secondly, a key aspect of the renewed approach to the Eastern Partnership is the need to tailor our approach more effectively to the specific needs of each country. The National Platforms that have been developed have the potential to make a crucial contribution to this goal by harnessing your understanding of the situation at the national and local levels. It is therefore important that we ensure that these Platforms function as effectively as possible.

Thirdly, while not underestimating the challenges involved, it will be important for you to work constructively with all relevant stakeholders in your countries. The National Platforms will again play an important role in this regard, and I welcome the first meeting of these Platforms with government representatives in September, facilitated by the EU delegations in each country. I hope that this delegation-facilitated dialogue can continue in a structured way.

Finally, while I have focused on your work at the national level, one of the most important goals of the Civil Society Forum is of course to build networks between your organisations at the regional level, and to share experiences on different issues. I believe that the sharing of good practice, including from EU member states, will be essential in maximising the effectiveness of your work.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is clear that you will not be able to achieve this single-handedly. We do not underestimate the challenges that you face, and we are therefore keen to support you as fully as possible as you work to achieve our shared ambitions.

We are keen to offer you financial assistance, and I would encourage you to make the most of these opportunities. In particular, we recently launched the first call for proposals under the newly-created Neighbourhood Civil Society Facility. The importance we attach to this initiative is demonstrated by the fact that, for 2011 alone, we have set aside €22 million for its activities. And of course this is in addition to the €9 million already committed to EaP civil society work in 2011 through existing instruments.

We are also working to establish the new European Endowment for Democracy, which will offer additional support for your work to achieve democracy.

The facilitation of visas is another key area where I believe we can aid you in your work. In my view, increased mobility is of real value in facilitating interpersonal contact and the exchange of ideas. To this end, we already have mobility partnerships in place with Moldova and Georgia, and have just signed one with Armenia. We have also established visa facilitation and readmission agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and are working towards full visa liberalisation with Ukraine and Moldova.

Finally, we will continue to work to increase your involvement in all aspects of the Eastern Partnership and to encourage governments to create inclusive processes for your participation. While there is clearly still work to do, you are now invited to participate in a wide range of key meetings, including those of the EaP thematic platforms.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to reiterate that this assembly comes at a crucial time in the development of the Eastern Partnership. We have a renewed agenda, and a strong belief that the role of civil society is essential in achieving it. You now have the opportunity to agree a clear plan for the way in which the Civil Society Forum will contribute to implementing this exciting and ambitious work.

Thank you for your attention.

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