Speech/statement | Date: 2017-06-06 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs
EEA and EU Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen's opening remarks at the conference "Working Together for a Strong Civil Society in Europe» in Oslo 6 June.
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It is an honour and great pleasure for me to welcome you all to this conference "Together for a strong civil society in Europe".
With this conference we want to highlight the role and the importance of a strong civil society in a democracy, and how the Norwegian society has and will contribute to the development of civil society in Europe.
I hope that by the end of today you will leave this conference more informed and more inspired, and with a strong desire to join forces.
Back in the late 1940s, the founders of the European Movement had a vision of a Europe based on peace, democracy, and solidarity.
Their vision has been fundamental in the establishment and shaping of European integration and cooperation ever since.
They worked for a united Europe based on shared values and fundamental rights and freedoms.
These values are preconditions for securing peace and stability, both within and between states.
However, recent signs and trends are worrying. The dream of a united postmodern community and the triumph of Europe is still a dream.
- In several countries, we have seen elections demonstrating a lack of trust in political institutions and disillusioned young generations.
- We see reports of increased xenophobia, antisemitism, and discrimination based on religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender.
- We see attempts to restrain media and free speech.
- We see increased pressure on civil society, attempts to silence critical voices and curb the activities of civil society.
All this give cause for great concern. This is at the same time a reminder that democracy, human rights and equality are not achieved once and for all. Constant nurturing and attention are required.
We must strive to upheld and expand human rights – also in Europe.
In this environment civil society – non-governmental organizations or the third sector, has a crucial role to play – or rather – many different roles to play:
- NGOs contribute to holding governments accountable for their actions.
- They are an important arena to learn how to become a good, responsible and active citizen.
- They help bring citizens' concerns to governments, and secure citizens' fundamental rights.
- They give voice to the few that cannot speak for themselves, (among others).
Civil Society is, in my opinion, both a partner for the government as well as a watchdog. NGOs that are independent are in a unique position to promote accountability and enhance the legitimacy of the public sector.
All European states have acknowledged that the civil society sector is a fundamental building block in our open and democratic societies.
Although the legal framework is in place, there is still a need to strengthen NGOs capacity to fill their role. Civil society sector in many countries in Central Europe is still weak, and individual organisations small. This is a challenge both for the sustainability of these organisations and for their ability to voice their views.
Strengthening and supporting civil society is therefore an indispensable element in Norwegian policy to defend and promote democratic values in Europe.
Through the EEA Grants we have for many years attached great importance to support civil society – and we will continue to do so.
At the same time, we are also building on our own experience here in Norway.
As a politician for many years, I know how useful it is to cooperate with NGOs. I do not always agree with them, but I truly value their input to the debates, and they do have influence on our policies.
Our aim is not to divide. NGOs involvement and engagement help us reach the good compromises and focus on the common good. Historically, civil society was very important in developing the Norwegian welfare state.
The Norwegian NGOs are many. 80 percent of all Norwegians are members of at least one organisation – most of them more than one.
And now - To the Norwegian NGOs and institutions present here today that have been involved as a partner under the EEA Grants, please pay attention! I would ask you to stand up.
On behalf of the Government I would like to thank you all for the engagement you have shown for your partners in Europe. You deserve a heartfelt applause for your efforts. And now you may sit down again.
I know many of you have stories to tell of highly fruitful cooperation. We will later this morning, revisit some of the results we have achieved and which you have contributed to.
I would also like to thank the Norwegian Helsinki Committee for serving as contact point between NGOs in the beneficiary countries and organisations and institutions in Norway. They have had an important role in providing information and guidance on possibilities for partnerships and for facilitating exchange of knowledge and best practices.
But a real strengthening of civil society cross Europe has to be developed from within, based on citizens' engagement and needs.
To ensure that the NGO-programmes serve the needs in the countries, they are operated by local fund operators in the partner countries. I so, to those of you in the audience that represents one of the local fund operators. Please pay attention now!
I ask you to stand up.
- You have given our NGO programmes local ownership.
- You have carefully executed your administrative responsibilities.
- And you have contributed to the empowering of local voices and organizations.
On behalf of the Government I would like to extend our gratitude and our warm applause. And now you may sit down again.
Together with thousands of NGOs we have made civil society stronger.
We have seen laws been modified and changed.Rights for vulnerable secured and improvedNear half a million people gaining access to basic services
And most importantly: more people have been engaged. More people have been turned into active citizens.
However, we still have to continue our common efforts. Democracy, human rights and equality cannot be taken for granted - as a natural ending point in the evolution of our societies.
As mentioned, our common European values need constant nurturing and attention. Our Grants will continue to be a fertilizer.
I hope everyone of you, existing and potentially new partners, will join us in working together for a strong civil society in Europe.