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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Closing Remarks at the Agora Workshop: "The role of civil society in the intercultural dialogue"
Anna Lindh Forum
Marseille, April 2013
I appreciate this opportunity to listen to your ideas at this Forum. Listening is key to a real dialogue; and a real dialogue with civil society, and among civil society actors, is key to advancing the democratic agenda.
Three weeks ago in Tunisia, I also met with civil society representatives, where concerns were raised about renewed attacks on freedoms that had been gained during the revolution.
In fact, dialogue and engagement with civil society has been one of my priorities over the last two years, since we have launched the new approach to the neighbourhood policy.
I recognise that the issues, discussed on these visits such as freedoms of expression and association, free media, respect for minorities, the fight against impunity, good governance, etc... are equally important across the region. They are also main topics of discussions here at the Anna Lindh Forum, and at this workshop.
I have repeatedly stressed the importance of human rights for all, equal rights and opportunities for women and men, the rule of law, the crucial role of the media and of intercultural dialogue. All are critical to build deep and sustainable democracy. But it is equally important to create jobs and livelihoods for people, and to ensure sustainable development.
Key questions in moving forward on this agenda are obvious: How do we build stronger partnerships between civil society, governments and the EU or other donors? How do we ensure a structured dialogue in which the voice of civil society is heard and respected when policy decisions are made and implemented? And how can the EU facilitate this?
Many valid questions have been raised, and many good recommendations have been made in the course of the last two days here in Marseille. They have provided us with important markers on the question we ask ourselves: Are we doing the right thing? What could we do better?
If it has not been clear before, then let me say it again: the answer lies not in more restrictive laws on civil society organisations. On the contrary, the EU will do what it can to persuade our partner governments on this issue, while fully respecting the decisions of democratically elected governments.
Several of you have asked for increased support to civil society in financial terms and easier access to EU funds. Yes, more is needed, but also, more has been, and is being, provided. Since the Arab Spring EU support to civil society has been stepped up considerably. A new instrument was created – the Civil Society Facility with €34 million available over three years. In addition, the EU supports the newly created European Endowment for Democracy which aims at making funds available quickly to civil society actors who find it difficult to access support from other instruments.
Another crucial question is how civil society organises itself. How best to leverage support for common goals? How best to organise itself in order to work for the necessary space and to use it in the best possible ways? How best to organise itself to enter structured dialogue?
In this regard, several good ideas have come on the table. A mechanism for dialogue between civil society, governments and the EU and other donors seems crucial to me. Equally important is the need for cross-fertilization within the region and perhaps across regions. Important lessons can also be learned from other parts of the world.
In the Eastern Partnership, civil society has organised itself in national platforms and established a regional mechanism for dialogue and cooperation: The Eastern Partnership Civil Society platform Forum. The Forum promotes contacts among Civil Society Organisations of EaP and facilitates dialogue with public authorities. It facilitates the sharing of information and experience on the partner countries' steps toward transition, reform and modernisation. While the EU is providing financial support, the Forum is entirely governed and operated by civil society itself.
The Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum dates back to 2009. It has learned valuable lessons along the way and is consolidating itself. One of the new elements is a professionally staffed secretariat that supports the Steering Committee of the Forum, the four thematic working groups and the regular flow of information. If a similar regional mechanism were to be set up in the Southern neighbourhood the lessons from the East could be shared.
I would support such a regional mechanism that can facilitate and structure sharing of experience, developing best practices, help to make informed policy decisions and persuade individual authorities and organisations through information and examples.
On the EU side we are also exploring ways to improve our way of organising ourselves and working together. Recently, the External Action Service, the Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee, along with the Anna Lindh Foundation, have united in a much closer cooperation to strengthen EU engagement with civil society and to move from policy to practice in our support.
Let me finish by thanking you for your active participation in the Forum, and in these two workshops. This has provided valuable input to the ideas we want to develop with you and for the dialogue we are seeking.