More than 250 representatives of the civil society organisations from six EaP partner countries and the EU, government representatives, and European institutions met in Chisinau this weekend for the 5th Meeting of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum. The meeting was held to discuss the priorities of civil society and its contribution to the reform process within the EaP. This year, discussions centered around the role of civil society in the context of Association Agreements that may be signed or initialed by several of the EaP countries, and the assessment of the role of civil society in the reform process of the EaP countries in the lead-up to the EaP Summit in Vilnius.
Speaking at the Civil Society Forum, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle stressed the importance of civil societies in shaping the future of the EaP:
“Civil Society is at the heart of the Eastern Partnership. The European Union and the Partnership are values based; this includes first and foremost human rights. Equality and non-discrimination as well as freedom of expression and assembly are core rights.”
Füle elaborated, saying:
“The European Union remains firmly committed to carrying forward the agenda that has been agreed, as far and as fast as we are able. However, it is imperative that this commitment is supported on the one hand by strong political will and genuine efforts by Eastern European partners’ governments to implement reforms, and on the other by civil society’s undeniably multifaceted role. Political reforms are central to the successful transformation towards deep democracy. Genuine cooperation between governments and civil society is necessary to establish independent judicial systems or introduce systemic anti-corruption measures, both of which are necessary elements for long-term political development and sustainable economic growth. Similarly, free and fair elections are a central element of participatory democracy. “
— Civil Society Forum (@eapcsf) October 4, 2013
Füle also expressed the belief that the strengthening of civil society was instrinsic to the success of the EaP and the upcoming summit:
“Work still remains to be done if Vilnius is to become a stepping stone in the history of the partnership. Both the partners and the European Union know what they have to respectively do to create the conditions to make Vilnius a Summit of delivery.” Elucidating on the “delivery” he hopes for, Commissioner Füle highlighted several key areas he hoped would be marked by the November gathering including the signing of an AA/DCFTA (Association Agreement/Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement) with Ukraine; the initialling of AAs/DCFTAs with Moldova and Georgia; good progress on the mobility agendas including conclusion of Visa Facilitation and Readmission Agreements with Armenia and Azerbaijan; and tangible results of cooperation across key sectors, notably in the transport and education fields.
During the plenary session, Füle emphasised the importance of turning words and declarations into deeds, signalling the EaP summit as an opportunity to demonstrate a transition from words into action. However, Füle also was careful to reiterate that Eastern Partnership countries should make a free choice on the format of relations with the European Union, without pressure, and also stressed that there is no conflict between the signing of the Association Agreement and cooperation with the countries of the Customs Union. Füle concluded by pledging the continued support of civil societies in the EaP by the EU:
“I promise not to introduce any differentiation between national platforms of Civil Society Forum of the Eastern Partnership; you all are important and equal. And I will work actively with the governments of our Eastern partners to consolidate the role of civil society, making it a true “heart” of the initiative. I take the obligation that the less you feel support from your governments, the more support will be from the European Union. You can always find me and my colleagues in Brussels and rely on our support.”
The vital role of civil society was echoed by Mr Petr Mareš, Ambassador at large for the Eastern Partnership, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, who said:
“The cornerstone is civil society and the success of all our actions depends on it. We all have expectations from this forum, and I hope they come true. Indeed, it is from you we can get the necessary information on what actually happens in your countries. Multilateralism of Eastern Partnership needs fixing and support, and I do not see them without your support. You need to convey information to those who are far from Brussels. I like the trend set in Chisinau, and I hope the time would come when we all see each other in Minsk .”
Maia Panjikidze, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, also spoke about Georgia’s hopes for the Eastern Partnership summit next month, explaining:
“I hope that we will sign the Association Agreement to the point that was made by the European Union . In this case I express my position as well as the desire of Georgian people . Civil society plays an important role in communicating with our partners. For Georgian government strengthening of civil society is one of the key objectives, and for the past 11 months we have had some success. In view of the upcoming presidential elections , all these steps are very important. The situation in Georgia now has improved compared to last year, and strengthening of civil society is a reasonsof this . The Prime Minister said that he goes to work in the third sector, as he saw real results of these efforts.”