The European Economic and Social Committee, the EU advisory body which represents European civil society, welcomed some 25 NGOs from the southern Mediterranean rim and from the European Union this Friday 9 September 2011, in order to review the tumultuous changes that have taken place over the past 9 months in the region, and to assess the challenges that lie ahead in constructing democratic and participative societies. Many of the NGOs present were part-initiators of events in the Arab uprisings.
One of the main points of consensus to emerge from the symposium is that democratic transition in the region is not a certainty - the ongoing abuses of individuals' rights, even in the countries that are undergoing transition, illustrate this. The participants believe it is essential for civil society in the region, and for the EU, to continue monitoring the situation and to make a maximum effort to consolidate democratic gains. However, participants said that the EU had some soul-searching to do as regards its past activities in the region and made it clear that its future strategy for the region should include a stronger civil society component, and not just high-level relations with the states.
This means enhancing the capacities of civil society organisation, improving links between them, including between NGOs and socio-professional organisations, supporting overall political, social and economic development, and putting pressure on governments in the region to open up channels for dialogue with civil society. "The Arab Spring was the autumn of dictatorships and democratisation can only be brought to full fruition with the active involvement of free civil society", as one of the participants put it.
The symposium is the first event organised by the EESC which focuses specifically on NGOs in the Euromed region. It helps to pave the way for the Euromed Summit of Economic and Social Councils and similar institutions for which the EESC is the main organiser and which will take place in Istanbul, Turkey in November 2011.
The "EESC-Euromed NGOs Symposium" brought together a wide range of organisations from Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Algeria. They include movements calling for political and social reform, associations fighting for human and women's rights, and NGO networks advocating civil society empowerment and participatory democracy.
The symposium studied four key topics: (i) lessons learnt and the road ahead, (ii) enhancing links between socio-professional groups and NGOs, (iii) the future relationship between the EU and Euromed civil society and (iv) regional civil society cooperation. Besides interacting with EESC members and NGOs from the EU on the above topics, the NGO representatives were also able to table questions and made proposals to representatives of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the European External Action Service (EEAS).