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European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy
Address to the Anna Lindh Forum
Anna Lindh Forum
Marseille, 7 April 2013
Minister (s), Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Just over three years ago, in Barcelona, many of us that are here today came together for the first Forum organised by the Anna Lindh Foundation. The challenges and opportunities for people in the region at that time were also similar to today's. The aspirations and ambitions have hardly changed either.
Since then, significant events have transformed the political landscape across the region, while in Europe a lot of certainties and comforts have been eroded. The Arab uprisings and the European financial crisis have had reciprocal impacts on our peoples and policies.
Since 2011 we have heard continued cries for dignity from the people in many Arab countries as they rose up against repressive regimes that had denied them fundamental freedoms and basic human rights for generations. These are indeed near seismic times for our southern neighbourhood as we witness history unfolding amid the great changes and turmoil in the Middle East – North Africa region.
Allow me to start with four remarks about what this means for the European Union and its Southern Neighbourhood.
First, while there have been many sacrifices and many setbacks, people's expectations of a better future still remain high.
Second, the changes in the Arab World offer an historic opportunity both for our partners and the European Union to progress towards a neighbourhood of stability, peace and prosperity. Arab revolutions are a call for respect for human dignity and desire to participate in shaping individual and collective destiny. The lesson of history is that we cannot have “sustainable stability”, true and solid partnership and real prosperity without democracy, good governance and inclusive growth.
Third, the Arab uprisings have proved to be a turning point in Europe's relations with countries in the Southern Mediterranean, causing a major rethink in philosophies, policies and programmes. We had to reassess our relationships and undertake an honest audit of our partnerships with the different actors in the region. Once peripheral voices – civil society, women, youth and media – have moved closer to the core of discussions.
Fourth, out of an old darkness it is possible to look forward to a new dawn. While these expectations need careful management, we - Europe - must act as more than a witness to these courageous efforts at the transformation of your societies.
Europe's birth out of crisis and conflict underlined the values that we hold dear: a deep respect for diversity; the recognition of the dignity of different cultures; the importance of dialogue between cultures and civilisations as a fundamental element in constructing a culture of peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
What I said at the first forum in Barcelona in 2010 remains equally valid today: "Dialogue needs first and foremost a political and social will that can be underpinned by receptiveness, elimination of misunderstanding and stereotypes, pluralism and mutual recognition of each other's differences. Intercultural dialogue must, in my opinion, tackle, preserve and even promote cultural diversity." This is the Anna Lindh Foundation's 'calling card', this is their mandate, this is the role they are performing so well under extremely different circumstances. But we all, still, have so much to do.
The European Union is a living illustration of the ambition to reconcile people in a common destiny, overcoming the destruction brought about by division, distrust and hatred. We can lay some claim to better understanding the desire for dignity and respect in diversity. President Barroso's remarks in Oslo at the award ceremony to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for the European Union underline that empathy: "As a community of nations that has overcome war and fought totalitarianism we will always stand by those who are in pursuit of peace and human dignity."
We are trying to move from rhetoric to reality, from assertion to action in a rapidly changing world. We may not have always chosen the best partners in our relations but the message to us from the people on the ground is clear: politicians make promises but it is people who make partnerships. That is why we are now putting a new emphasis on Civil Society in efforts to make our relations more inclusive.
Overall, the voice of civil society is now more listened to by partner governments and European Union contacts with Mediterranean civil society have strengthened. Public consultations are increasing in Tunisia and Lebanon. However, in countries such as Egypt, expectations have not been met with concrete improvements, as shown in the case of the controversial NGO law.
Progress towards freedom of association and assembly is unequal. Tunisia and Libya witnessed a blossoming of new civil society organisations. However CSO registration continued to be subject to discretionary powers in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt.
While protests were largely tolerated in 2012, cases of violence and arbitrary arrest against peaceful demonstrators were reported in most countries. Women, in particular continued to be victims of this repression. We continue to witness attempts to exclude women from participation in public life with acts of discrimination and violence committed by extremist groups, and, in some cases, by security forces.
Freedom of expression increased although censorship, including auto-censorship, and other types of interference by the authorities, were recorded in almost all countries.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Against this background, the European Union is channelling additional support to civil society in line with the new approach of the European Neighbourhood Policy. This aims at providing greater support to partners engaged in building deep democracy.
We are making European Union support more accessible to civil society organisations through a dedicated Civil Society Facility and we have supported the establishment of a European Endowment for Democracy to support the actors of change in our neighbourhood that face obstacles in accessing European Union funding.
We continue to promote media freedom by supporting CSOs’ unhindered access to the internet and the use of electronic communications technologies.
We are putting our money where the message is: having learned from our past inadequacies and deficiencies, we are moving to a more comprehensive politics of inclusion.
And we're learning from effective civil society activities in other countries and partnerships. Let me offer some examples from enlargement countries and the Eastern partnership:
Croatia has established a model for the harmonisation of funding mechanisms in a more transparent manner, through the National Foundation for Civil Society support, a model that has generated interest throughout the region.
Montenegro has included civil society representatives in the accession negotiating team and in doing so has added to its collective expertise and also to the weight of its proposals.
In the Eastern neighbourhood the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum encompasses many different groups with differing backgrounds, from advocacy groups to businesses, and from charities to academic and religious organisations. Its voice is resonating more and more clearly in Brussels and among the European representatives of civil society.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Allow me to share a few thoughts with you on how I see civil society playing an enhanced role in the brave new world we are aspiring to.
I think the role of Civil Society lies in generating ideas, mobilising people, acting as a bridge between society and the authorities. Civil society organisations can act as the independent eyes and ears inside - not only in the countries of the region - but also inside the European Union, calling us to account; representing the views, concerns and aspirations of citizens; and actively supporting and promoting the fundamental values that lie at the heart of our Union.
Active, structured, dialogue between civil society and government at national level, but also through involvement with local economic and social committees, and environmental forums can help promote:
• better governance;
• transparent political processes;
• less corruption; and
• confidence in our future partners.
A vibrant civil society and a functioning democracy depend on the right of citizens to freely exercise their right to peaceful assembly and association. This nurtures open debate in society, providing safeguards against conflict and instability. The task now is for governments to engage with civil society to help ensure that reform programmes reflect and have the support of society at large.
This is why we are encouraging countries to establish a regular structured dialogue with civil society representatives to discuss issues related to the implementation of reforms. Genuine cooperation between governments and civil society is necessary in many areas such as:
• monitoring the conduct of election campaigns;
• ensuring improved access for media;
• protecting freedom of expression; and
• monitoring legislation on freedom of association.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to use this occasion to highlight the need to create a regional structured dialogue between Civil Society Organisations, the European Union and Southern partners. This will help promote and strengthen policy dialogue and sector co-operation at regional level so that regional challenges can be addressed by regional solutions.
Let me conclude by stressing that the Commission and I personally, remain fully committed to supporting real sustained transition and democratisation in our Southern Neighbourhood.
Thank you for your attention.