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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
EMI Congress "CSOs challenge public authorities"
Congress of the European Movement International
Istanbul, 11 February 2011
Ministers, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very happy to be present today at the opening of this Congress of the European Movement. Today, we bring together Civil Society Organisations from the enlargement countries, members of national governments and parliaments and representatives from European institutions.
Overall, around 300 participants are present. This is an impressive response. It confirms the interest of the European Union and key stakeholders to discuss together policies and actions to strengthen civil society and its impact in the Western Balkans and Turkey.
I am also happy to be back in Turkey. I am sure you are all aware of the recent poll which has highlighted that many in the region see Turkey as proof that democracy and Islam can coexist …. that different lifestyles can coexist.
This makes Turkey a relevant example for the whole region, and we have to applaud Turkey for this achievement. At the same time we have to encourage the government to make further progress. They have a very important responsibility to uphold such a privileged position.
Let me now turn to my speech. I'd like first of all to address the role that civil society plays in ensuring good governance.
Secondly, I will briefly mention the importance of the "Civil Society Facility", which is one of the main instruments of the European Union to support civil society in fulfilling this vital role in the Western Balkans and Turkey.
Ladies and Gentlemen, good governance is an essential element towards meeting the political criteria for any country to be able to join the European Union. This means that civil society has to be included in any decision-making.
Citizens, both individually and via Civil Society Organisations, should be in a position:
They must be able to do that through direct participation, not as a distant voice far from the action.
Of course, with participation comes responsibility. For their part, Civil Society Organisations have to show that they are committed and therefore responsible in their intent, for their credibility comes from their ability to reflect the different opinions of different segments of the population.
We have all seen the power that civil society can wield. Solidarnosc and Charter 77 have both demonstrated what is possible when the majority of the population supports an organisation that fills a democratic vacuum and provides hope for a better future.
In a participative democracy, the role of civil society is of vital importance in providing an alternative perspective and on occasion in filling a void left by the elected authorities.
Our host, the European Movement, is a prime example of such an organisation: generating change through education and dialogue with citizens and government around Europe.
Ladies and gentlemen, the basic values of the European Union member states include a government’s ability to take into consideration and accept critical and informed views from civil society.
It is therefore vital that the respective governments of the Western Balkans and Turkey continue to improve their legislative environment in order successfully to obtain a strong, vibrant civil society.
Civil Society Organisations today continue to face numerous obstacles that hinder the development of civil society as a whole. Most importantly, a new mind-set is required. Civil society and governments should view each other more as partners than as adversaries.
In this, it is the responsibility both of governments and of European institutions to ensure that the role and influence of Civil Society Organisations are strengthened and made effective. In many cases new legislation may be required along with new working methods. Crucially, the right to express diverging views freely, without the fear of prosecution, needs to be safeguarded in a clear and unambiguous manner.
This will allow civil society to play a fundamental role in helping citizens of the enlargement countries not only to become aware of common European values, but also to actively promote those values.
This will mean Civil Society Organisations in the region working closely with their own public authorities as well as building partnerships between themselves and with their European Union counterparts. Since 2005, in the context of enlargement the EU is promoting civil society dialogue between EU Member States and candidate countries aiming at improving mutual knowledge and encouraging a debate regarding society and political issues.
I am pleased that today’s Congress will look into ways how to best achieve these goals. I hope you will have very fruitful discussions, and let me assure you that the Commission will be glad to take any suggestions that may emerge to day into account on how to best support the development of civil society to actively participate in public choices and how to promote a conducive environment in order to make national reforms more effective.
Let me also make an explicit point here. You will not be alone in dealing with the challenges I have just set out. The European Union is with you, and provides support to help you meet these challenges..
This is done through political dialogue and financial assistance. In this context, we have introduced the “Civil Society Facility” specifically to strengthen civil society within a participative democracy, stimulating a civil society friendly 'environment' and culture in the enlargement countries.
Introduced in 2007 as part of the European Union’s Enlargement Strategy, this Facility has continued to be developed strongly ever since. Financed by the European Commission from its Instrument for Pre-Accession it aims “to promote dialogue and civil society development” notably through capacity-building and exchange projects.
In November 2007, the European Commission underlined the importance of civil society’s role in a participatory democracy and stressed the need to make further efforts “to deepen the freedom of association, to put in place regulatory frameworks and public incentives for the development of civil society organisations”.
Since then, over € 80 million have been dedicated to the promotion and implementation of the Civil Society Facility in the Western Balkans and Turkey.
For instance, in Turkey the EU prepared some “Guiding Principles for EC Support of the Development of Civil Society in Turkey” based on a broad consultation of all stakeholders. The aim of this initiative was to refer in more concrete terms to the civil society development aspects specific to Turkey, including financial support under the Civil Society Facility and under the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights in Turkey
To give you another example, we have also established a special “People 2 People” Programme to bring journalists, young politicians, trades union leaders, teachers and others into contact with European Union institutions.
Many of you here have benefited from this support, and I am sure many more will benefit from it in the future. Yesterday, we had a “kick-off” event for 32 projects to strengthen civil society’s role in the region, for a total value of about € 10 million.
Mr. Chairman, distinguished guests, I wish to conclude with the following thought about how to proceed in the future.
There is a need to develop a new sense of cooperation rather than competition between governments and civil society. For the new civil society culture to flourish, it is extremely important that any new legislation and principles are accepted by the population as a whole.
Let me in this context refer to the expectations the European Union has as regards the full and timely involvement of civil society in the drafting of a new Constitution in Turkey. I am aware that Civil Society Organisations and citizens are currently working on a "civil constitution" initiative. We welcome this process, which we believe is a crucial one for the constitutional changes that are needed.
Let me conclude: our common agenda has to be to put civil society in a position where it can effectively assist governments in their design of policy and its implementation. In order to do so, it is indispensable to put the necessary regulatory frameworks in place. These frameworks must allow for the deepening of the freedom of association and provide public incentives for the development of Civil Society Organisations.
This is where the conclusions and outcome of this Congress are crucial and I look forward to learning the results of your discussions. Thank you very much for your attention.