I am very pleased to welcome you to the European Economic and Social Committee. It is a real pleasure to see so many participants in this room today.
I would like to start by introducing shortly the European Economic and Social Committee that I preside. The Committee is a European institution of organised civil society with the aim to advice the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament on different legislative and policy proposals. The Committee consists of representatives of employers' federations and business associations, trade unions and various interests' organisations such as consumers, farmers, environmental, women and youth organisations, and others.
I would like to congratulate Prime Minister Milanovic for the upcoming accession of Croatia to the EU. The path has not been always smooth. But I am very pleased that you will join us in the EU in a few months from now, provided the ratification of the Accession Treaty goes well. I firmly believe that EU membership will open up new opportunities for the Croatian people and can help secure the stability and prosperity of your nation.
Croatia and the Western Balkans featuring high in EESC activities
The EESC has been a strong supporter of Croatia's membership to the EU. The Committee looks forward to welcoming civil society representatives from Croatia and I am confident we will appreciate their contribution to our work. In the coming weeks or months the Croatian Government will have to appoint members to the EESC until the end of the current mandate, which is October 2015. From 1 July 2013, following Croatia's accession, nine civil society representatives from Croatia will join the EESC as full members and the number of members of the EESC will temporarily increase from 344 to 353.
Croatia and the whole Western Balkan region appear very high on the agenda of external relations of the EESC. We run quite a wide range of activities with the various countries of the Western Balkan region: we issue opinions, operate together with our partners in the Joint Consultative Committees, and since 2006 we also come together to specific Civil Society Forums with representatives of the organised civil society from the entire Western Balkan region.
The Joint Consultative Committees between the EU and the candidate country – or acceding country in Croatia`s case – allow civil society organisations from both sides to monitor the accession negotiations and prepare for the country`s accession.
Two days ago, on 11 December, the twelve members of the EU-Croatia Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee met. The members took stock of the latest political, economic and social developments in Croatia.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate both Co-Chairs of our EU-Croatia Civil Society Joint Consultative Committee, Ms Ana Miličević Pezelj as well as Mr Christoph Lechner on the EU side. This Joint Consultative Committee has provided very valuable input to the accession negotiations of Croatia in recent years. Meetings of the Joint Consultative Committee have also always been places of lively debates, and fruitful exchanges of experience among EU and Croatian representatives of civil society.
An integrated Europe – best guarantee for peace and security and economic prosperity
I am happy that in the last two years several positive moves have been made in the Western Balkans towards the EU. Serbia became a candidate country, Montenegro started accession negotiations, the visa liberalisation has been extended to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania. Of course we would all wish these processes to go faster. But let's not forget that small steps are being made each time people come together.
On Monday this week I had the great honour to attend the solemn ceremony where the Nobel peace prize was awarded to the EU. With our more than 500 million citizens, Europe today is by and large the most prosperous, social, most secure and most free continent in the world. We have been a powerful actor for peaceful change and modernisation in our neighbourhood and also further away. The example of the Western Balkans shows how the European perspective has provided more stability, security and prosperity in a region that was torn by war less than 15 years ago.
Towards a stronger role for civil society
The European Economic and Social Committee has always been a consistent supporter of the enlargement process. We advocate for an enlargement process that is inclusive and participatory in its approach and where the civil society has a possibility to express their views and share their expertise.
Civil society organisations have an important role to play in articulating citizens' concerns and engaging in initiatives to further participatory democracy. Acceding to the EU will indeed concern all citizens as they will get new rights and new duties as European citizens. You need active civil society organisations to inform the citizens about those rights and duties. The Government in turn is responsible for proper implementation of those new rights.
An empowered civil society is a crucial component of any democratic system and is an asset in itself. It represents and fosters pluralism and can contribute to more effective policies. It is also an important player in strengthening peace and in conflict resolution. An organised and strong civil society is thus necessary to assist the Government in the political process by providing inputs and expertise. The aim being to ensure that all the interests of citizens are properly represented and taken into account by the political leaders.
I thank you all for your attention. I look forward to a fruitful discussion during this event.