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Distinguished members of civil society,
It is a great pleasure for me to address you here today.
The report of the Group of Eminent Persons, “Living Together” has gained substantial ground in Europe since its publication this Summer.
I have since travelled all over Europe to discuss it and everywhere this fundamental issue has received strong interest: how are we going to live together in Europe given the increasing diversity of our societies?
This is a simple question, but to answer it is a complex process. Complex because it relates to the fundamental question of who we are and who we want to be.
The report is a first attempt to start this process.
Civil society groups are among the key players in turning the debate into concrete action – as the report said: “mastering diversity and making it a benefit for society.”
Let me also welcome civil society representatives from the Southern rim of the Mediterranean to this forum.
We all know that civil society played a crucial part in the Arab spring.
People in your region want freedom, democracy and human rights. The same as everyone else. The quest for freedom is a natural urge in a human being. This is why we also have universal human rights.
The Council of Europe has developed a new neighbourhood policy to support democratic change. It has been designed to respond to concrete demands in the spirit of co-operation, not interference.
I often wonder how our standards and principles of human rights are experienced from the outside? We urge countries of the Arab spring to develop democratic institutions and to apply human rights. But are we applying the same rights when receiving citizens from these countries who seek a better future in Europe?
How can we expect our neighbours to be inspired by the European liberal and tolerant model if we cannot cope with the issue of diversity ourselves?
The answer to this is also part of how we are living together in Europe.
Living together in 21st-century Europe is probably the most important issue Europe is facing.
Discrimination and intolerance has been increasing in Europe. With the current financial crisis this will only be reinforced.
Minorities like Roma and Muslims are marginalised and stigmatised;
anti-Semitism is on the rise; xenophobic parties have been gaining popularity in many European countries.
European political leaders declare that multiculturalism has failed. The debate on integration and immigration has become increasingly polarised. There is a growing feeling that something has gone wrong - people are living next to each other in our societies, but not together. We see parallel societies emerging.
We know from history that migrants are the first to feel the impact of financial crisis’.
The findings of the Living Together report are clear: Diversity is a fact of life in Europe today. If Europe is to remain a peaceful and prosperous place we must not only live with diversity, but we must benefit from it.
What does diversity mean? It means the right to keep your own identity and the obligation to respect and live in accordance with the culture, standards and values that are accepted in Europe.
But diversity requires something that holds us together in Europe.
On a continent of 800 million people spanning 47 Council of Europe member states, the balance between rights and obligations in a democracy has bound us together. The values which Council of Europe member states have chosen to recognise as their common heritage.
If there is one common denominator in Europe today, these are the standards enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
The Living Together report clearly argues that if Europe wants to remain a region of peace and prosperity, we have to embrace diversity. This must be based on equality before the law, respect for human rights and sharing certain rights and obligations in our societies.
The purpose of the report has been to launch a process of debates and action. The first part we have been very successful with, but we have barely started on the second part.
That is why I am very pleased to be here today with you.
All actors have their share of responsibility in finding common ground to overcome an issue crucial to furthering cohesion and unity within and between our societies.
Increased diversity brings tension in society and all actors have a responsibility to prevent and ease tensions.
We need to tell the facts - that cultural diversity is part of Europe and that Europe needs immigrants to cope with the decline in its workforce.
We need to recall the fundamental European values and stand up against extremism, discrimination, racism and intolerance.
And we need to seek a creative and pro-active strategy at European level and not just crisis-management measures at national level.
Governments need to be held responsible to alert public opinion on problems and to educate the public to overcome stereotypes.
A voice also needs to be given to those who are marginalised and stigmatised.
And we all need to bring the youth onboard.
Let me now give the floor to my good friend and distinguished rapporteur of the Group of Eminent Persons, Mr. Edward Mortimer, who will present in detail more the conclusions and recommendations of the report.