Sumario: 15 January 2008, Madrid- Speech by Benita Ferrero-Waldner European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy; I Forum for the Alliance of Civilizations.
It is a happy coincidence that the first Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations takes place in these early days of 2008, the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue- just one of many illustrations of how the EU and Alliance of Civilizations work towards similar goals, based on their commitment to the universal values of respect for human rights, rule of law and democratic governance.
Respect for cultural diversity is part of the European way of life and lies at the heart of many internal EU policies. It is underpinned first and foremost by long-standing measures to develop social cohesion and economic solidarity and to guarantee equal opportunities and non-discrimination. It is nourished by large scale exchange programmes in the fields of higher education, youth and culture, as well as our more recent efforts to address the challenges of migration and integration. All such activities may not have been carried out under the label of "intercultural dialogue", but they have certainly contributed to this goal and to furthering pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect. To respond to the request of President Sampaio we are naturally ready to share experiences and best practices.
Promotion of intercultural understanding is also an important element in our relations with our partners, be it through our political dialogues, through specific initiatives such as interfaith dialogues (as with ASEM, the Asia-Europe meetings) or actions integrated ("mainstreamed") into our development cooperation at national level.
President Sampaio has submitted for our consideration four proposals for joint initiatives to consolidate the Alliance during 2008. Allow me to single out one of them: to make the Mediterranean region one of the main strands for the Alliance.
As you are well aware, the European Union being also part of the Mediterranean region has a strategic relation with our southern Mediterranean neighbors. The Euro-Mediterranean partnership is a central part of our European Neighborhood Policy. Right from the beginning in 1995, the main objective was the establishment of an area of peace, prosperity, security and stability and one of the main pillars is a partnership in the social, cultural and human domain: developing human resources, strengthening mutual understanding between cultures and fostering civil society exchanges.
Our work until now has allowed us to develop useful experiences in several areas which are now also given prominence by the Alliance of Civilizations. The Anna Lindh Foundation is a major institution to foster dialogue between cultures, a unique body supported by the 38 Euro-Mediterranean partners, with the objective to contribute to mutual understanding through its national networks bringing people closer together from both sides of the Mediterranean, with a special focus on youth.
The European Commission has other programmes to foster dialogue: The Euromed Heritage, the Euromed youth programme including the Youth Parliament, the civil society programme, gender action, and "Euromed and the Media" are all good examples.
The Euro-Med partnership has mainly allowed civil society to come together and has, in addition to the co-financed projects, resulted in numerous Euro-Med networks of NGOs, human rights bodies, research institutes, universities, etc. which are functioning independently of our cooperation programmes.
We have designated 2008 not only as the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue but also as the Euro-Mediterranean Year of Intercultural Dialogue and we intend to multiply our efforts in this matter. In that context, the Anna Lindh Foundation has drawn a very interesting and ambitious programme for the celebration of 2008: "1001 actions for Dialogue" which will be in line with activities for the European Year.
We can only support the Alliance's initiative of including the Mediterranean as a major focus and underline our readiness to cooperate with you in this matter.
Open societies are central to an effective intercultural dialogue. We support Alliance of Civilizations activities exploring innovative uses of mass media to promote cross-cultural understanding - but these will achieve their objective only when there is effective freedom of expression and information.
A main objective of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue is mobilization of civil society. This is based on our belief that civil society has an essential role to play in promoting intercultural understanding. It must be allowed to do so. How else can we build bridges between communities and people?
National strategies for intercultural dialogue called for by the HR should have several dimensions. One aspect that should not be forgotten is strengthening human rights education so as to foster a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect and, ultimately, a culture of peace.
Last but not least, I find the gender perspective somewhat lacking in our discussions - not least since the role of women has frequently been a highly divisive cultural issue in some communities. I trust that we can all agree here, not only on the fundamental principle of gender equality and but also on the need for the Alliance to nurture respect for women's rights and to ensure their many voices are heard loud and clear in these various intercultural dialogues .
I hope these ideas are useful and we look forward to developing our cooperation with the Alliance of Civilizations.