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European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy
Transformation in the Southern Mediterranean: it's all about dialogue
Anna Lindth Foundation
Naples, 28 October 2014
Excellencies, President Azoulay, dear friends,
It is with mixed emotions that I address you today as Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy. On the one hand, I am sad that our joint work is coming to an end but on the other, I am also proud of what we have achieved. Last night you presented me with an award for my contributions to civil society and dialogue in the Mediterranean. I thank you most sincerely once again for this valued recognition.
I am so glad, dear André, that you are here with us today. I appreciate that you must also be running a similar emotional gauntlet. This is one of your last acts as President of the Anna Lindh Foundation, a role you have performed with great vision, courage and wisdom. So let me, at the very outset, congratulate and thank you most sincerely for all that you have done for our common cause.
Much of what we have achieved over the past five years in the Mediterranean could not have been done without the Anna Lindh Foundation: without your guidance, without the inputs from the advisory group and certainly not without the dedication and hard work of the networks and most importantly of the Executive Director Andreu Claret and the Staff in Alexandria, who are the very heart of the Foundation.
In my five years as Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, during which we have witnessed tumultuous changes in the neighbourhood, there have been setbacks and some successes. Throughout, I have tried to ensure that civil society is present in the different relations between Europe and the neighbouring countries, and that those relationships are based on fairness, equal participation and transparency.
This has not only been a professional obligation for me, it is also personal. You know that from my background and the struggles of my own country to break free from repression and to finally take its place at the table of democratic countries. I remember the men and the movements that made many sacrifices in the pursuit of freedom and democracy. They have helped inform my thinking and given me reassurance in times of doubt.
In my political career I have been inspired by Vaclav Havel, who, like some other famous international statesmen of our times, made the unlikely transition from prisoner to President. It was he who said:
"Without free, self-respecting and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is peace among citizens and between the citizens and state, there can be no guarantee of external peace."
Those words reverberate now as we strive together to bring peace, prosperity and security to the Southern Mediterranean region.
Allow me to make three remarks about the task of helping our Southern Neighbours.
First, the ownership of this whole transformation and transition processes lies strictly with you, our Southern Neighbours, and you should be the ultimate architects of the required changes. The European Union has no intention of imposing a model. We, the European Union, in a spirit of partnership, will be in the forefront of helping you achieve these goals and ensuring they bear the fruits of your impressive efforts so far on the path of political transition. It is not only our responsibility, but also our obligation and in our self-enlightened interest.
Second, Europe has tried, not always successfully, to help bring the people into the complicated equations of governance in the region. And then in 2011 you rewrote the script. You said enough is enough. You took to the streets with your protests and demands for freedom and dignity. You won your way into the living rooms and hearts of the watching world. Your bravery came at a huge cost. Europe responded, and continues to adapt to the new circumstances. We have got some things right and some things wrong. We too have had to rewrite our script and are still on a learning curve. We need to not just change our programmes and policies, but also our mind-sets. We could have done better. There is lots of room for improvement. I do not want to talk about success or failure except to say that we tried and continue to try. The real failure is in not trying.
Third, the challenges in the Southern Mediterranean still remain huge and they grab our attention every day in the media headlines: Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Middle East Peace Process, 'ISIL/Daesch', etc. Along with the conflicts there are also the other political and economic challenges that you know only too well, like alarmingly high youth unemployment, extremism and lack of trust in all established institutions.
And now there is this new challenge also: how to manage the expectations of those who have suffered and witnessed many sacrifices in their quest for reform and dignity?
Democracy will not appear overnight
–as experiences in the 'old Europe' the East and the Balkans will testify
–but the path to reform is irreversible.
Dear President, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, I am not going to give you a balance sheet of the programmes, policies, instruments and financial flows from Europe to the Mediterranean over the past five years. Those figures are readily available for you. I would rather, in the spirit of the occasion, and in recognition of the award, concentrate on the real advances we have made together on the tortuous road to a free, inclusive and just society.
But first a question: What is Europe's motivation, our rationale, in helping our neighbours?
Europe's birth out of crisis and conflict is a living illustration of the ambition to reconcile people in a common destiny, overcoming the destruction brought about by division, distrust and hatred. It has helped us have a better understanding of the desire for dignity and respect in diversity. As President Barroso said on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union in 2012: "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 now working to move from rhetoric to reality, from assertion to action in a world in which democracy knows many definitions.
Democracy is about a series of freedoms – expression, association, movement. It is freedom from fear. Democracy is about a series of freedoms about representation, inclusion and accountability. That is why I have always put an emphasis on Civil Society's participation in efforts to make our relations more inclusive.
We want a relationship that puts people at the heart of the policy agenda, and projects our joint values and interests.
Do not underestimate the part you can play in these transitional times. Your role lies in generating ideas, mobilising people, acting as a bridge between society and the authorities. You can provide a way for citizens to get directly involved with the hopeful reforms in your countries. You can act as the independent eyes and ears inside - not only your own countries - but also inside the European Union, calling us to account; representing the views, concerns and aspirations of citizens.
The political and legal frameworks within which you have to operate continue to change. Some progress has been made with greater freedoms of expression and association. But, unfortunately, we also see tendencies in the opposite direction in some countries where steps are being taken to significantly restrict freedom to operate independently.
I regard Civil Society's input as the most important on the long road towards freer and fairer societies. You are a central actor in the creation of dynamic spaces, in the creation of the trust and the confidence to promote tolerance, cooperation and coexistence.
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, providing safeguards against conflict and instability. Governments need to engage with civil society to help ensure that reform programmes both 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, for example, when it comes to:
• monitoring the conduct of election campaigns;
• ensuring improved access for media and the public to information; and
• protecting freedom of expression and association.
In the end it is all about dialogue. But dialogue is not a fig leaf for passivity and inaction. We are promoting it as a complement, not as an alternative, to active support for political and societal reform.
These are the primary principles that underline the Regional initiative for mechanisms for dialogue that many of you in this room have been working with us over the past 18 months. I am delighted with the progress you have made since the initiative was launched in Marseille at the Anna Lindh Forum. I have kept my side of the deal and made €1 million available for a series of activities in a pilot phase to test out the possible mechanisms for such dialogue.
And you are certainly keeping your side of the deal too. I have been impressed with the depth and breadth of your recommendations in the different consultations and working groups. The pilot phase is now underway, as I requested it should be when I spoke to you in Brussels last April. My only regret is that I cannot accompany you along the rest of that road. But I am comforted by the fact that the initiative now has its own forward looking dynamism and is in good hands, your hands. And I can reassure you here that this initiative, and civil society's best interests, will continue to enjoy the political and institutional support of my successor, Commissioner Johannes Hahn.
Dear President, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me finish by repeating something I have said many times: "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 tackle, preserve and even promote cultural diversity." That is the Anna Lindh 'calling card' this is their mandate, this is the role they are performing so well under extremely different and difficult circumstances.
The Commission has always been a strong supporter of the Anna Lindh Foundation and intends to remain so! I believe that we have demonstrated this support not only through our discussions but also through our financial support. In fact, we are preparing a new contract of 7 million euro that we will sign before the end of the year; we hope that other donors will also continue to support the Foundation.
And let me stress that our continuing support is rooted in a sense of necessity and urgency.
Necessity because, across the Mediterranean, we are faced with the same challenges, we share common interests and we seek the same opportunities.
A sense of urgency also, because we are faced by the combined threats of intolerance, fear, ignorance and incomprehension.
More than ever, there is a need for dialogue based on knowledge, tolerance and respect among the peoples bordering the Mediterranean, in particular to address stereotypes and dispel growing fears and misunderstanding.
Dialogue needs first and foremost a political and social will that can then 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.
I deeply believe that cultural diversity, the idea of the "other", does not have to be perceived as a threat, but as a challenge and an opportunity. Not as something to fear, but as something to aspire to.
So once again, congratulations to the Anna Lindh Foundation on this milestone Tenth anniversary. It has been a pleasure and a privilege working with you and having the honour to share in these celebrations. And as the famous old saying goes: "We only part to meet again."
Thank you very much.