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Thank you very much Shahira [Mohamed Amin, Al Monitor], thank you Said [Salhi, Ligue algérienne de défense des droits de l'Homme] – c'est un plaisir de vous revoir ici. Thanks to all of you for coming – once again for those of you who have been here already in this forum – to Brussels.
It is for me always a pleasure to meet you, either in this format or in any other opportunities we have to exchange. It is for me a pleasure – always. First of all, because I think that you have instruments that we do not have to see reality in your societies, to understand trends in your societies from a national perspective but also from a regional perspective, that sometimes are not necessarily captured by the institutional dynamics. And this is why it is a must for me every time I visit a country, inside or outside of the European Union, to have meetings with civil society organisations. And I recognise some of your faces around the table, having met in different places.
This because, again, it is not just you needing our support, but it is also us needing your support and your inputs. Whenever we think of policies, anytime that we implement policies or anytime that we have institutional dialogues, your perspective is always a fundamental complement to whatever institutional approach we can take.
This forum represents something important to us – to me personally. You might know that my personal background is in civil society itself, so it is quite natural for me to be biased positively in this respect. But today's Forum marks also a turning point in our conversation, because from our next meeting, you will be fully in the driving seat. I hope, and I believe, you are already quite a lot in the driving seat. This is not completely new but it is the next stage in a process that we started a few years ago.
I know about your meeting in Tunis a couple of months ago. I know that you came up with a set of recommendations – and I am very much looking forward to hearing from you recommendations. I remember very well last time we met – I think it was two years ago – I said it is good for me to talk, but it is also very good for me to listen and take notes.
And so I hope that this session today – even if it is not too long, it is one hour – would provide me good input, reflections, suggestions, recommendations, that we can then follow-up. And I would be really pleased if in our exchange you could not just put questions but (also) simply observations, because it is my chance to get your views – not the only one luckily, but a good one. So, I will be in a listening mode in a few minutes from now.
But, as I was saying, from the next forum we will be in a different mode, in a different modality. From later this year, civil society will be fully in the lead. You will come up with your ideas for the management of the next edition of this forum. And I am quite proud of this happening – even if at the same time I see this as the most natural and obvious thing to do. Because, as I said, we need your support, and not only you need ours.
You need our support because in so many parts of the world, of our region and of our countries, civil society is under attack. It is a trend that we are seeing – and it is a very worrying trend. Civil society organisations, NGOs are often accused of being a threat to the stability of a country or of the region. But on the opposite we believe in the European Union that when civil society comes under attack, when democracy is restricted, when free speech is mistaken for subversion – this is the perfect recipe to foster instability. And that there is no strongest support we can give to democracy and stability than the support we give to civil society organisations.
And this is why you can count on the European Union to be the strongest supporter of civil society organisations in our region and of active participation of our citizens to our societies.
We understand your role, we also understand our role. We also know that you need strong institutions, open democracies where institutions know what their role is. And to me the role of institutions is always that of facilitating an active participation of our citizens in all different forms.
We, Europeans continue and will continue, not only to listen to you but also to work to empower you. And I know that this is the most difficult thing to do in some countries. We will continue to stand by human rights defenders, providing them with legal support, helping them face threats – sometimes threats against their lives, we know that very well. We will keep working with civil society, whether to support migrants or to rebuild a country. Because we know very well there are things we cannot do unless there is a strong civil society in place.
Some believe that there was an era – some even think that there is still an era - when governments can make peace or war or be strong economic countries on their own. I believe that if there was ever an era like that, that's over, and that without strong resilience, civil society, including youth in civil societies, there is little that governments can do.
It is very clear when you look at some of the conflicts in our region – if you look at Syria, or Iraq or Libya-, you realise very well that after years of conflicts, wars, mistrust, violence, the fabric of society is so much damaged and fractured that without civil society, without local communities being able to engage and being strong enough to be confident to reengage; any process of post-conflict or peace is an illusion.
This is something governments or institutions cannot do alone. We can accompany, we can facilitate, we can support national or local reconciliation. But reconciliation itself is up to the people, of each country, of each community, and people who are actively participating to the life of their community and country and region.
We in Europe understand this very well. It is part of our history, this is also part of our Global Strategy [for Foreign and Security Policy] we adopted last year, and it is a driving force of our daily work.
We know that we need to engage with different actors: civil society organisations, local communities, trade unions, mayors, faith leaders, private sector, associations, charities and the list could continue. Because there are different forms of civil society organisations and to us, there is no other way to build peace, to spark sustainable development, to support democracy, than this. I would say, even to build security, because the European way to security is sustainable security and sustainable security is rooted in strong open societies. I often say, we are not looking for the strong man of the day, we are looking for strong resilient societies, that is what makes a country secure.
At times, the best thing we can do if we want to invest in sustainable agriculture or vocational training, is to support a civil society initiative that is already working in that field. We do not need to reinvent the wheel every time; there are good things already ongoing that we can simply support.
In other cases, our support is essential to create the space for civil society to flourish. For instance, to create the links between the authorities, the NGOs and the private sector. Or to support innovation, as in your proposal on Tech Hubs where civil society organisations could meet technology entrepreneurs.
And I am glad to see here how much energy has come from the Young Mediterranean Voices Plus initiative. Something I am very proud of and our idea was to create a new channel for engagement, between young people from our region and the European institutions. Then, we also had a sort of extension in the Sahel, that I think was quite exciting. But now that the channel is open, it is such a good opportunity
now to bring in new ideas and new inspiration to our work, to our institutional work; and we count on your input, your energy, your fresh ideas to make that work.
This is also why you are taking over the management of this forum from us. We need your views, we need your expertise because I believe there is a lot of knowledge and expertise on your side. And we need also your passion and energy that can be I think a vital contribution to our institutional work.
I believe, we believe civil society is an indispensable partner for our foreign policy. And the European Union is determined to continue to be an indispensable partner for strong, resilient and free societies all around the world and in particular in this region.
I finish by saying that my impression is that this year we meet in conditions that are a little bit more difficult than before. If we look at especially the work we are doing on human rights and on opening space for active participation of our citizens in our societies - and I look around in the world-, I fear the European Union is not just the strongest supporter for your work but is to be a little bit more lonely in this work. So we need to partner, we need to partner keeping all our differences and distances. And we will continue to fight as friends and partners, but being aware that there is a growing tendency in the world that this is irrelevant/negative; while we in Europe we are convinced that this is vital/extremely positive.
And here we are on the same side; we can disagree on some things but I think we have to recognise each other as key partners in this moment of the world history that is quite a challenging one. And I think we have a responsibility towards our fellow citizens and towards our region to preserve and to increase the space for democracy and active participation, because there is something that is at stake here that is a little bit bigger than single policies.
I thank you very much and now I enter into the listening mode.