Riga NGO Forum

Riga, 3. mars 2015

Statssekretær Ingvild Næss Stubs tale ved Riga NGO Forum 3. mars 2015.

Introductory remarks

Prime Minister Straujuma, members of the Society Integration Foundation and the European Movement – Latvia, ladies and gentlemen and friends of civil society,

Thank you Prime Minister for your introduction and kind words. 

It is an honour and pleasure for me to be here today.  In fact, the first time I was here in Latvia, in 1998, it was as part of an NGO exchange between young pro-Europeans from all the Baltic countries and Norway. I realised then, and I still believe today, that civil society is both an essential part of a well-functioning democracy, and, especially for young people, an important arena for political and democratic education.

I am glad to have this opportunity to give you an overview of our relationship with the EU, outline what we want to achieve with the EEA and Norway Grants, and explain why we attach so much importance to supporting civil society.

(Common values)

A united European Union based on peace, democracy, freedom, solidarity and respect for basic human rights was the vision of the founders of the European Movement back in the late 1940s. Their vision has been fundamental in the establishment and shaping of the Council of Europe and the EU.

The EU today, with its institutions, treaties and legislation, plays an important part in strengthening democracy and human rights in the member states. The EU recognises the fundamental role that civil society plays in safeguarding European values. The Lisbon Treaty gives both individual citizens and civil society organisations the opportunity to provide input to the EU’s decision-making processes. 

However, the financial crisis and Russian aggression in Ukraine (e.g. Russia’s annexation of Crimea) are poignant reminders that we should not and cannot take peace, prosperity and the rule of law in Europe for granted.  

Surveys and reports from the Council of Europe and the EU have shown rising xenophobia and discrimination based on religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. This is a threat not only to individuals and groups in Europe, but also to democracy itself.

We must remember that democracy, human rights and equality are not achieved once and for all. Constant nurturing and attention are required.

While not a member of the European Union, Norway is closely integrated with the EU, and deeply committed to European and universal values. These common values form the basis of our cooperation. At the same time, we see that we need joint solutions to shared challenges.

There is broad support both among the Norwegian people and in the Parliament for Norway’s continued participation in European cooperation through the EEA Agreement, the Schengen Agreement and our other agreements with the EU.

The EEA Agreement is the cornerstone in our relationship with the EU. Under the agreement, Norway is a member of the internal market, and harmonises its legislation on trade and the movement of goods and people with the EU rules.  

Within the framework of the EEA Agreement, we also seek to supplement the wider EU efforts to reduce social and economic disparities and promote democracy, stability and prosperity across the continent. We do this through the EEA and Norway Grants.

A second aim is to strengthen bilateral relations between donor and beneficiary states. We all gain from closer cooperation and the exchange of skills and knowledge.

The Grants play a key role in Norway’s cooperation with many EU countries.

(What is Norway supporting?)

For the 2009–2014 funding period, Norway, together with Iceland and Lichtenstein, is providing a total of EUR 1.8 billion to reduce social and economic disparities in 16 EU member states.   

The areas supported include environmental protection, climate change, human and social development, justice and home affairs, research, and civil society.

Support for civil society is a priority. It is one of the direct ways that we can promote the fundamental European values of democracy, human rights and equality. Norway has committed itself to providing nearly EUR 160 million to support NGO programmes in the 16 beneficiary states. This makes Norway one of the largest donors to civil society in the region, and reflects our recognition of the role of NGOs as a fundamental building block in the development of fair, democratic and sustainable societies.

We are also building on our own experience in these efforts. The role of civil society in Norway as a watchdog, as a consultative body, and in engaging citizens has been, and continues to be, of great importance.

It is vital that a critical mass of civil society organisation has autonomy from the state, a pro-democracy agenda, and the ability to build coalitions. With this in view, we provide support for capacity-building, and for network- and coalition-building. 

We know that it is not possible to develop resilient and pluralistic democracies unless the voices of a wide spectrum of society are heard, and their interests taken into consideration in governmental processes. That is why we support a broad range of organisations and initiatives at local, national and EU level.

At least 10 % of the total allocation to the NGO Programmes is channelled to children and young people’s organisations and activities targeting children and young people. In Latvia we support the project “Empowering National Youth Council of Latvia”. The target group is young people and the aim is to increase the Youth Council’s role in the implementation of Youth policy, becoming an important cooperation partner for youth organisations, policy makers and implementers.  This project is also an example of cooperation with Norwegian organisations. The Norwegian Children and Youth Council is a partner.

Civil society, with its huge body of knowledge and experience regarding the situation of ordinary people, plays a crucial role in mobilising citizens and raising key concerns – for both the general public and decision-makers – in the public debate. NGOs can also provide expert advice to the public authorities in connection with policy development, and serve as instruments of policy implementation.

We also support NGOs in their efforts to give a voice to the poor and discriminated, and thus enable them to influence government policies. 

The fact that NGOs are independent of the state puts them in a unique position to promote accountability and enhance the legitimacy of the public sector. In many countries, they can play a key role in restoring public confidence in the functions of the state. 

In Greece, for example, we are providing support through the Grants for the DemocracIT project, which is designed to increase citizen participation in decision-making through improvements to open consultation mechanisms and the use of ICT equipment.

We are also supporting civil society efforts to strengthen social justice, democracy and sustainable development. Examples include awareness-raising about environmental issues, activities that increase the involvement of NGOs in policy and decision-making processes at all levels, and the empowerment of vulnerable groups with a view to strengthening human rights.

A concrete example here is the project to support local democracy entitled ‘Citizens’ Budget for Zakopane: Let’s Choose Together’ in Poland. This involves citizens over the age of 16 taking part in public consultations on the allocation of local government funds for 2014–2015.

In Slovakia, a project on civic participation has provided training for women and for the Roma community on municipal policies and politics. Local actions groups have been formed to identify concerns, and the participants shown how to design project proposals and raise funds.

NGO programmes also address horizontal concerns such as hate speech, extremism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. For example in Lithuania we support the Lithuanian Gay League’s work to raise awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’s rights and mainstream these rights in the decision-making process.

A recent evaluation of the NGO programmes shows that they have increased the capacity of civil society in Central and Southern Europe and enabled citizens to voice their concerns and actively engage with governments. This is very encouraging.

Although the legal framework for civil society involvement in decision-making is in place, there is a need to strengthen its capacity to fill this role. Both the evaluation I just mentioned and other studies show that the civil society sector is still weak, and individual organisations small, in the beneficiary states. This is a challenge both for the sustainability of these organisations and for their ability to voice their views. 

Genuine cooperation between governments and civil society with an emphasis on transparency and mutual trust is crucial in order to maintain healthy democracies.

As I mentioned earlier, a united Europe based on peace, democracy, freedom, solidarity and respect for basic human rights cannot be taken for granted. We need NGOs that can raise the voice of the general public and of vulnerable groups, and ensure that it is heard. That is why we attach importance to continuing our support to civil society.

(Concluding remarks)

There  is huge interest in our NGO programmes. I also interpret this and the   impressive number of organisations present her today as a sign of great  commitment to fundamental European values.

I am confident that you all will make good use of the roadmap to be agreed at this Forum to strengthen the civil dialogue and the involvement of citizens, and thus improve policymaking both at national level and at EU level.

We are proud to have contributed to this process through the EEA Grants.

I wish you a successful meeting.  

Thank you.