Representatives from European civil society organisations and networks, members of the EESC and European institutions gathered in Brussels on 31 May and 1 June for the annual Civil Society Days, hosted by the EESC. The main focus of the discussions over the 2-day event was migration and the challenges and changes that this presents to our European society to make the most of it.
"The civil society days are some of the most important days for the European Economic and Social Committee", said EESC President George Dassis in his opening speech. "Civil society organisations have played a vital role in the recent migration crisis - civil mobilisation has the force to change the course of history." To set the scene for the following debate on migration President Dassis briefed those present on the fact-finding migration missions by EESC members to 11 EU countries and Turkey in recent months. The main conclusions of these missions as well as the key messages addressed to European and state leaders were published in a synthesis report based on the meetings with almost 200 stakeholders, mainly from civil society organisations actively working with refugees and migrants. Mr Dassis also mentioned the recently- launched 2016 EESC Civil Society Prize which aims to reward civil society organisations and/or individuals that have made a significant contribution to alleviating the migration crisis by helping refugees and migrants and thus promoting European values and cohesion.
"People and citizens in Europe are a lot more open and fair-minded than European governments would have us believe", said Gesine Schwan, President and co-founder of the Humboldt-Viadrina governance platform in her keynote speech. "To avoid moving backwards under the pressure of right-wing forces and to stop the erosion of solidarity in Europe we need to engage in social dialogue and we need a democratic movement that involves both local municipalities and civil society organisations". As a way of dealing with the current influx of migrants and refugees Ms Schwan proposed that a European fund be set up to provide resources for the integration of migrants into local municipalities in Europe. This fund would give municipalities and citizens the opportunity to be active and involved in the integration process. She insisted on the need for transparency and therefore on the involvement of anti-corruption mechanisms in the process.
"When it comes to migrants and refugees civil society organisations and citizens show solidarity and are ready to help", confirmed Conny Reuter, Co-President of the EESC Liaison Group and gave as an example his visits and meetings with local people like on the Italian island of Lampedusa, Serbia, Austria, Sweden and Germany. He also stressed the need to avoid the "us" and "them" discourse when referring to the refugees. “The solutions can only be rights-based and aiming at dignity of the refugees if Europe wants to stick to its values”, he concluded.
The European Commission's representative, Emmanuelle Grange, also stressed the importance of local projects on the ground and stated that the Commission was going to put forward a plan for the integration of third-country nationals. The Commission is also building a database containing best practices from the Member States, showcasing the success stories from various parts of Europe.
During the two-day event, participants in the Civil Society Days 2016 discussed various aspects of migration from the civil society's point of view: youth and education, social integration, responses to the causes of migration, freedom of expression, living together or in parallel societies and freedom of movement in the EU: challenges and prospects for EU citizens. The participants agreed that the collapse of Schengen would not solve the migration problem and it would in fact undermine European integration. The German MEP Jo Leinen said that we need both policy makers and civil society to tackle the challenges of migration. He called for channels of legal immigration to Europe, an agreement with Africa and a common asylum system in Europe. Paul Dujardin, Artistic Director of BOZAR, stated the need to also look at the added value that immigrants can bring and the important role culture can play in integration. "Europe is not a self-fulfilling collective but an open project written by the people."