Amigas y amigos, representantes de las organizaciones de la sociedad civil de América latina, del Caribe y de Europa,
Mr. Cabo, Ms. Sullivan, Mr. Santibáñez,
Dear representatives of the Diplomatic Corps,
Allow me to start by thanking you very much indeed for inviting me to be the first guest speaker at the opening session of this Forum. It really is a pleasure and an honour for me to be here with you today.
As many of you know, I myself used to be an active participant in civil society through my work with several Italian and European NGOs. I understand and value from my own experience the important role that civil society plays. And I know very well how hard each of you is working in your organisations here in Europe and in Latin America and the Caribbean, with great energy and enthusiasm!
I warmly welcome you to Brussels - the heart of Europe, which is not only the capital of EU Institutions, but also of civil society.
I am very pleased that the EU will be hosting the next Summit between CELAC and the European Union. From the very beginning of my mandate I have been highlighting the EU´s determination to give a renewed impetus to the relations between the EU and CELAC.
My priority for the Summit in June is very clear. This Summit should demonstrate that our relations are re-launched and we jointly put more dynamics into it.
This is not only an expression of good intentions. On the contrary, this is something I firmly believe in. For me, the EU-CELAC Summit in June is one of the most important and forward-looking commitments. I believe that for Europe, the Europe that our Founding Fathers managed to visualise in the most dramatic and even tragic moments; the Europe of solidarity, of equity (as that extraordinary personality Pope Francis frequently and opportunely reminds us); the Europe of economic development and innovation that must also go hand-in-hand with social responsibility. For this Europe, which I represent here today, you are very important interlocutors. For this Europe, it is fundamental to engage in dialogue with the civil societies of a continent which is, as a French intellectual and diplomat described it so astutely, our "Far West".(*)
It is no accident that my vist to Cuba has been brought forward, in order to resume a dialogue that I consider important and promising for the future. Just as it is no accident that, in my first months as Vice-President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs, I have already received many delegations and personalities from Latin America and the Caribbean (with the first meeting of my mandate being with President Santos) and I personally went to the CELAC Summit in Costa Rica. These are not "diplomatic gestures": they are political and institutional commitments. This means valuing, from the very highest European institutions, the fundamentals of democratic participation and human rights, civil and political, as a further commitment that the Europe of peace must take into its hands.
Taken together, the EU and CELAC represent sixty-one States, about one-third of United Nations members, and more than one billion citizens. Faced with the pressing challenges that affect us all, Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean are in many ways the two most like-minded regions in the world. This is the result of our shared history, our cultural affinity and strong social economic ties and trade and investment relations and contacts, and of our shared principles and values.
The strong working relationships that you and your organisations have established among yourselves and across the Atlantic are an excellent example of the affinity between our peoples - and the real added value that is created when a bi-regional partnership like this one is nourished by citizens working together at the grass roots.
Let me stress - the political and economic and social partnership between our regions is all about building prosperous and sustainable societies for our citizens. The whole point is to improve people´s quality of life – which brings me back to the essential and central role played by civil society.
Creating synergies between public authorities and civil society organisations makes a real and tangible contribution to tackling poverty and inequality more effectively and building genuinely sustainable development. Those synergies are vital elements for reinforcing democratic governance.
We believe that promoting and respecting spaces for civil society participation in policy-making is vital everywhere.
We are supporting independent, pluralistic and active civil society through our political dialogue with our partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Governments in many of our partner countries have strengthened their engagement with civil society organisations or are working towards doing so, and this is something we very much welcome. I was struck just recently by a wonderful example : the Comité por la Diversidad y la No Discriminación which has been established in Chile between the Ministry of Defence, the Armed Forces and civil society organisations, that is working to tackle arbitrary discrimination, including women´s participation and homophobia, in the armed forces.
Another significant example, which I discussed directly with my friend, President Juan Manuel Santos, is the participation of Colombian organisations and institutions, of civil society, of the victims of the internal conflict, of the most vulnerable and most affected social sectors, in the process of peace negotiations that is taking place in Havana between the Government of Colombia and the FARC.
In some countries, dialogue with civil society organisations is limited and the space for engagement remains narrow or is even, in some cases, shrinking. The EU will continue to encourage and support all of our partner countries to promote the meaningful and structured participation of civil society organisations in domestic policy dialogue, and to respect the independence of your organisations.
Let me say a special word of thanks here to CONCORD, our European co-hosts of this Forum, for your excellent report "Mutual Engagement between EU Delegations and Civil Society Organisations – Lessons from the Field" which is a rich source of feedback for us about the way our Delegations are engaging with civil society on the ground. There are a lot of good ideas for what more we can do and what we might do better. This is another really good example of the added value that comes from listening to each other and moving forward together!
Today and tomorrow you will be looking at how to promote socio-economic equality in CELAC and in the EU. You will discuss how to boost human rights and welfare through the bi-regional relationship. You will consider what more can be done to promote democracy and citizen participation in the two regions.
At the Summit in June, upon our proposal, your representatives will be able for the first time, to convey directly to the Heads of State and Government the main recommendations that emerge from this Forum.
I am convinced this is the best way of building, concretely, our dialogue, and through our dialogue a real cooperation: between civil society organisations and institutions, across the Atlantic – because we always have to remember that when we speak of stong Transatlantic relations, we don't only refer to the North Atlantic, but also to the South.