Staffan Nilsson`s opening speech at the Anna Lindh Forum- Medina Session "Integrating Civil Society in Policy- Making"

Welcome to this Medina Session on 'Integrating Civil Society in policy-making'. This session has been organised by the European Economic and Social Committee, but as you can see it also involves many notable guest speakers from a variety of civil society organisations who will share their experiences with us.….I shall not name you all because I think it is important we move to the discussion but you shall all have the opportunity to take the floor.

For those of you who don't know, the European Economic and Social Committee is a public body of the EU in Brussels which is made up of civil society representatives from all the EU Members States. Our Committee has the permanent function of putting across civil society's views and policy advice on a broad range of issues to the EU institutions. I hope it is now clear to you why we are organising this session on 'integrating civil society on policy-making'. Involving civil society in policy making is in fact our core task and aim.

An interesting feature of our Committee is that we are made up of trade unionists, employers, farmers and many other types of associations and socio-professional groups, including also some NGOs. This means that we can adopt an integrated approach to civil society and provide a complete civil society view on policy topics. Of course we are not the only civil society organisation represented in Brussels. There are many NGOs, socio-professional organisations and lobbyists in Brussels who are consulted by the EU institutions or who influence EU policy. There is no civil society monopoly in the EU. The EESC is, however, the formal body through which civil society is consulted on a regular basis by the EU institutions, and this includes a response and follow-up mechanism for the EESC's recommendations.

But this session is not about us. We are here to find out and discuss with you ways of making sure that civil society in the southern and eastern Mediterranean can take its place at the policy- making table. Of course civil society cannot decide on policy – that is the role of governments and parliaments. But civil society can influence policy decisively by using its unique insight and proximity on issues on the ground.

The morning sessions at the Forum today addressed the very difficult situations which still exist in the countries of the southern and eastern Mediterranean. These include the instable political context and the question of rights, including even such basic rights as the right to assembly. The many obstacles to civil society work that are still in place need to be overcome with time and hopefully the Forum can contribute to this. But at the same time I think civil society organisations need a longer-term perspective on how they wish to influence the policy-making landscape and shape the futures of their countries, and to know what mechanisms are available to achieve this.

This session is about good practices. The EESC certainly has its practices to recommend. Our mandate in the Euro-Mediterranean region is to create links between economic and social councils in the region or other platforms for civil society involvement, to help foster the creation of ESCs and platforms, and, above all, to encourage them to be representative and transparent. Economic and social councils or similar institutions and platforms are very stable platforms for making sure that civil society's voice is heard in policy-making – especially where there is an unstable environment.

In our experience, in order to achieve good dialogue between all civil society organisations, including NGOs, and the government, it is a big help if there is also a stable and functioning social dialogue between employers, trade unions and the government. The ILO, present here today, has a key role to play in supporting social dialogue in the current transition phase. In the current context, trade unions and employers in many countries of the southern Mediterranean are undergoing internal changes. Others are still trying to establish their role. It is important to encourage the social partners' role because strong employers' organisations and trade unions can help to resolve basic rights issues, including human rights and economic and social rights such as labour rights. Because these rights are so important to civil society as a whole, social dialogue provides a good basis for a broader national dialogue between all civil society organisations on national policies. It is not the only way of establishing a broad and successful civil society dialogue, what we at the EESC call 'civil dialogue'. There are a number of examples where this has been achieved without social dialogue forming a basis. I highlight the role of social dialogue here because it is a tested approach that we have seen replicated in many regions of the world.

That is our best practice, but of course we want to hear yours: what other ways can civil society achieve regular influence over policy. Is the advocacy approach as we know it a good alternative? Or do we need a more militant approach? Should civil society organisations become like lobbyists? I'm sure such issues were also discussed at the recent World Social Forum. Above all, what models are best suited to the countries in the southern and eastern Mediterranean – what are the conditions that need to be met for a functioning civil dialogue? Perhaps you have experiences which you can share with us? What more do we need to do?

To kick-start our discussion we have a number of eminent panellists who will each give their own vision and experience on the issue of integrating civil society organisations into policy-shaping processes.

We will then have a discussion with further key speakers, which will be moderated by our colleague from the ESC of France, and I would encourage you all to take part.

In our final session perhaps we can reach some kind of consensus or operative recommendations which our session rapporteur will summarise and of course you can carry the discussion over into the intercultural fair and networking wall.

I wish us all a good debate!


Staffan Nilsson`s opening speech at the Anna Lindh Forum 2013