Opening Speech at the Civil Society Day 2013 As European as we can get! Bringing economy, solidarity and democracy together

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Welcome in the EESC, one of the houses of civil society in Brussels. I welcome also all those who are with online today, virtually, reminding you that this conference is web streamed on our website and on Euronews website under Europe section.

As I know that most of you are coming from the Member States from the national alliances for the European Year of Citizens, let me tell you that this House here is also your House. 344 members coming from the twenty-seven Member States, from employers’, trade-unions’ and other civic organisations mirroring citizens’ interests and concerns across Europe. This is who we are and all of us represent what we call organised civil society.

We are a EU Treaty based body which formulates opinions and recommendations and puts them forward in the EU policy-making machinery. And we have a duty to get more and more civil society organisations engaged. We want to be an enabling platform for them. Civil society must itself follow the principles of good governance, which include accountability and openness.

This is the fourth edition of the Civil Society Day, so this initiative is rather young however with a solid ground. And let me tell you why. The Civil Society Day is the living proof of a partnership which is dear to me and to many of us in the EESC, a partnership between the EESC and European civil society expert networks in the form of what we call the Liaison Group. It is in the Liaison Group meetings last year that the civil society alliance for the European Year of Citizens was conceived and took form. This alliance is our partner for this conference and its members, European networks and national networks are here with us today. This partnership is linked, in my view, to the very essence of our existence as Committee – that is to enable civil society in all its forms express itself and facilitate dialogue between broader civil society and European institutions.

We organise the Civil Society Day this year in the context of the European Year of Citizens. Rarely have I seen such huge civil society and institutional mobilisation as I can see for this European year.

I thank of course the European Commission for recognizing such structure and for supporting it in all respects, including financially to enable many of you here to come over to Brussels from all parts of Europe.

Last but not least, I’m extremely happy that one major media player in Europe associated with us for this conference – and this is Euronews. This conference is webcast on Euronews website today, as well as on our website, and we hope this event will also be covered by their reporters in Brussels.

Now I would like to share with you a few ideas regarding the theme we have chosen for this event and the reasoning behind the debates we propose here today.

During my mandate as president of the EESC I have committed myself and the Committee to engage people for a sustainable Europe; a sustainable Europe from economic, environmental, social and civic points of view. And I would add peace – it’s something which we take too much for granted; this is why I often link the sustainability of Europe to its peace project.

However no matter how optimistic I am about our European Union, when we make a reality check with our citizens, we do see a sort of alienation from the political life of their countries, and of their European Union. It means that we all (civil society, institutions, political parties, media) need to work more for a truly participatory European Union public sphere.

I will invite you all, straight away, to watch a short video with interviews with Europeans chosen at random, from different walks of life, different professions, different perspectives. For practical reasons, this video was made in Berlin, in a European city where Europeans from all over the EU live, work and study.  We wanted to see how European people feel in Europe and what being European means to them. Let’s watch this together now:

 

These people and their views may not be representative for all Europeans, however we get a hint of the diversity of views about the EU and the diversity of sentiments, I daresay.

The feeling of belonging to the European community has to evolve organically and this can happen by reinforcing the EU citizenship rights and by becoming more knowledgeable about the other. For me, understanding is the basis of any kind of cooperation. 

Today I want us to get as concrete as we can and make a reality check of Europeans’ economic, social and civic rights. How well are they exercised at local, national and European levels? Are these mutually reinforcing each other? I believe they are, some believe they don’t.

We talk a lot about citizenship and citizens. However I would like to remind everybody that we do have people in Europe without citizenship. Their rights should not be left aside. European citizenship is linked to the economic, social and civic life of the European project and the policies that underpin it. Is it so that economically and socially empowered citizens would be more willing to participate in the political life of the Union?

We believe that there is much more to European citizenship than the citizens’ transnational economic, social and civic rights. If we want that people truly feel connected to Europe, we need to develop their capability to exercise political power. We can develop such capability with knowledge about the political system and with mechanisms that allow for participation from the bottom-up.

This is why the focus for all our initiatives this year is active and participatory citizenship. What we want to discuss here with you is ways to foster effective and meaningful participation of citizens in EU governance and look into its preconditions. In the morning we will have some insights from engaged people in local civil society initiatives which worked.

The last intervention of this morning opening panel will offer, I believe, another good basis for our debates today. We have been given the opportunity by the European Commission to commission and use a Flash Eurobarometer to measure people's level of commitment and engagement in participatory democracy practices.

How can we create a more regular citizens' involvement in the daily functioning of European governance? At the EESC we believe in and promote citizens' participation; and let me tell how we understand this. Our way of getting citizens involved and to participate is by getting their associations, organisations and structures involved and by allowing them to contribute with their grassroots experience and their knowledge in the policy and decision-making process.

Let me give you only an example of how we engage various civil society stakeholders in policy-making processes: our work for Rio+20. We made a contribution from EU civil society after several broad stakeholders' consultations to the EU's position on the Rio+20 process. Now we follow it up as the road from Rio is as important (if not more important) as the road from Rio. This afternoon, in parallel with our conference, we hold a workshop with stakeholders to advance discussion with civil society stakeholders on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to make concrete proposals. European representatives of UN Major Groups and EESC members will have the opportunity to influence the EU decision- making process on SDGs and to identify how to influence the UN process.  The results of the workshop will contribute to the EESC's on-going opinion on Establishing Sustainable Development Goals - European civil society's contribution to the EU position. This is an example of the way we have been working recently here at the EESC, allowing the broadest participation possible of all stakeholders before we draw up an opinion on a given policy.

We have excellent speakers and participants, all we need for a Civil Society Day to remember! And again, we are streaming live online, on the EESC website and on Euronews, and we may be able to pick up comments and questions from Twitter.

I have the pleasure to have here with me several distinguished panellists: Jean-Marc Roirant, the chair of European Civic Forum and the president of the Alliance for the European Year of Citizens; Christophe Rouillon, a member of the Committee of the Regions, our good neighbour and sometimes very good partner in some of our events; he will share with us some ideas on the way locally elected citizens, such as mayors, engage people in the life of the communities they lead. Ms Antigoni Papadopoulou is here with as in her capacity as member of the European Parliament and rapporteur for the European Year of Citizens. And finally TNS Opinion and Social represented by Anthony Allen, Research Director, who will present some most striking highlights of the Flash Eurobarometer Survey on “Europeans’ engagement in participatoy democracy”.

Downloads

Flash Eurobarometer 373 - Europeans' Engagement In Participatory Democracy - Summary

Staffan Nilsson opening address at the Civil Society Day 2013