Brussels, 4 December 2015
I am particularly happy to be here with you, and I am glad for this opportunity to meet once again with representatives of civil society organisations. Whenever I travel abroad – both inside the European Union and beyond our borders – I always give a high priority to meetings with the civil society.
I cannot think of one place where this did not happen. This is not simply because of my background – some of you may know that my first public engagement was in NGOs. This is part of politics, you cannot do politics without the civil society. I believe that the civil society has a crucial role to play in any policy and in our foreign policy. It is not only a key player, but a main driver for change in all societies, in terms of democracy, good governance, resilience, cohesion, promotion of fundamental human rights.
It is clear for everybody, and certainly inside this room, that we live in a much more complex world than just a few years ago. Power is more diffuse. National governments are not the only player in their own country – sometimes they are not even the main player, for better or worse. This is why our support to civil society organisations and networks goes beyond the "simple" financial aid and constitutes a powerful policy tool. It is also a way of reaching out to a country’s internal dynamics of change.
The Nobel Peace prize to the National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia is a powerful symbol. It has acknowledged on a global stage the civil society's potential to promote human rights and national reconciliation in times when this seems impossible to achieve.This example is a very powerful one, not just for the civil society but for the whole political sphere. We know the limits of the Tunisian experience, but its example is important for the whole region. This is why this Nobel prize was so important.
We need civil society organisations to play an active role in the life of their countries, to the benefit of everyone. We need them to raise their voice on human rights as much as we need institutions to do so. But we also need them in the fight against radicalisation and terrorism. There is no better antidote to the terrorists' propaganda than a healthy and open public space within societies. To defeat terror we surely need law enforcement tools, and this is something everybody is very much focusing on in these days. But this has to go hand in hand with a deep, under-the-radar work inside societies: a work to secure inclusion and open spaces for participation and expression to all.
Freedom of expression is one of the most powerful weapons against radicalisation and terrorism. To better protect our citizens we need above all to build strong democratic institutions and a healthy democratic dialogue. I am very often asked whether security should not be the main focus, more than human rights. But there is no security without human rights. I know this is not an easy message to pass, and I know how hard it is for you to pass it. But security cannot be guaranteed without democracy. Passing this message is a work we need to do together – we are all in this together.
So, this is why we are engaging with civil society relentlessly, in our neighbourhood and beyond. But before I get to the difficulties of civil societies and human rights worldwide, let me just quickly mention the situation inside our Union. This is an argument I made repeatedly over the past few months, and I would like to repeat it here. This was not an easy year for human rights in Europe, and it is important to recognise it, as it strengthens our credibility. Usually when I say this I don’t see people nodding with their head, as you’re doing here: many tell me “don’t think of what happens in Europe, think of the rest”.
For the first time ever, our Union is confronted with a humanitarian crisis inside our own borders. Many in Europe were caught off-guard by the refugee crisis. This is not the case for many of you. Civil society organisations have often done a great job in welcoming the refugees, for over a decade. But you cannot do this alone. It is never healthy when institutions do not manage a crisis and civil society is a substitute. Civil society and the institutions need to work side by side.
The years ahead will continue to be challenging for the EU: we will have to address root causes and conflicts, but we will also have to build inclusive societies and equality of rights while receiving asylum seekers and migrants. It is one further challenge that calls for our joint efforts.
The European Union needs to stand up to this challenge. Our credibility abroad as a champion of human rights depends on what we do here at home. If we don't guarantee the highest human rights' standards in Europe, our external action will also be weakened.Wherever I go – in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East – my interlocutors tell me: you talk of human rights, but look at yourself. Of course the European situation is not comparable to that of many other places, but coherence between our internal and external action is crucial.
Civil society organisations in our neighbourhood and beyond need our support more than ever. During the last years, the space for civil society has shrunk in many countries.
Efforts to bar, restrain, or control the work of civil society are frequent. Their input to policy making gets limited. Restrictive laws have emerged, imposing arbitrary and cumbersome procedures for the registration of associations or restrictions to their funding, in particular from foreign sources. I have met many of your friends and colleagues who are living this situation.
Threats and violence is also exerted by militias or private companies, such as extractive industries. States have failed in many cases to protect, investigate and prosecute.
These trends demand a redoubling of our efforts in the human rights sphere. The European Union, the institutions and myself personally, will do all we can to protect civil society organisations fighting for human rightsand protect human rights defender on an individual basis. Sometimes we are urged to be more vocal in showing our support. Let me be totally clear on this. I personally and relentlessly raise human rights in all my visits and meetings, with all interlocutors, beyond any strategic considerations, even when not all my colleagues and all the Member States do the same. I have raised the issue with all interlocutors, no exception.
But our strategy for human rights cannot be limited to being vocal. Issuing a strongly-worded statement is not always and necessarily the most effective tool we have. We need to work case by case, country by country, to find the right mix between vocal statements and engagement with local authorities. We need to mind about the effectiveness of our actions. Sometimes, the protection of human rights or the success of an individual case require that we engage with those governments whose record is far from perfect, that we challenge them in public and in private, that we use all diplomatic tools available. I couldn't be more serious on this: this is about human lives, the lives of people fighting for human rights.
So I come to what was supposed to be the main subject of my speech… The EU’s second Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy outlines our priorities on human rights in external action and details our strategy for the years to come. It testifies to the common will of the EU – not just theinstitutions but also the 28 Member States together – to continue and improve their global efforts. It commits to the mainstreaming of human rights into all EU's policies, and thisincludes development co-operation, migration, counterterrorism, trade. It puts high on the agenda the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment. It will serve us to measure coherence and coordination between our internal and external policies.
The Action Plan looks at what the EU can do with its own means, and how it can better cooperate with our partners. On the one hand it aims at using all the instruments we already have, which we often don't even know or don’t use completely. This includes of course a responsible trade policy: the link between business and human rights is crucial to our international credibility. Social and economic rights must be integral part of any policy on human rights, as Pope Francis stressed multiple times during his recent trip to Africa.
On the other side, the Action Plan focuses on empowering local actors and civil society organisations in this confrontational landscape. Our strategy has to take into account the different local environments. In most cases, other regional organisations, such as the African Union, are much better positioned than we are to act effectively. Peer pressure can be much more powerful and constructive than external pressure. A patronising approach should always be avoided.
At the same time, our work does not end – but begins with the adoption of the Action Plan.The real job begins today. Putting it into practice will be a living process, where all actors can and should make their contribution. I want you and need you to be part of this process, together with the EU institutions, EU Member States, national institutions and local authorities.
We also need to make the EU commitment to human rights more visible. In this respect, I am envisaging for 2016 a number of public events related to the Action Plan's key priorities. Such events could give to us, to you, to member states and national actors the chance to discuss our course of action and our strategy together. Together we can work towards making our action more coherent, more effective, and also more visible – which can be an encouragement for many.
Our approach to civil society has not always been perfect. Too often our institutions have a tendency to be patronising, to tell you what you should do, and how to do it. The European Union does not need to be your mentor, you don't need a mentor. It needs to be a serious and reliable partner. And we ask you to be a partner for us and to be, with us, an independent actor at our sides in external action. Our support to you in your daily work is and remains key for us, and for me personally. This is the kind of relationship we are all interested in. We have different roles: there are things that civil society organisations can do and things that you cannot do. There are things the institutions can do, things we cannot do and things we should not do. But there is so much we can do together. Count on me, if that can help, as I count on you.