Wien, 17. Dezember 2008 Rede/Interview

Statement by H.E. Michael Spindelegger at the International Conference "Europe and the Arab World - Connecting Partners in Dialogue" (english only)

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International Conference
"Europe and the Arab World - Connecting Partners in Dialogue"
Joint Initiative of Austria and the League of Arab States

Opening Panel Vienna,
17th December 2008
Statement by H.E. Michael Spindelegger,
Austrian Federal Minister for European and International Affairs

Dear Secretary General,
Your Royal Highnesses,
Dear Guests,

Let me warmly welcome all of you to the conference “Europe and the Arab World – Connecting Partners in Dialogue”, a joint initiative of Austria and the League of Arab States. Let me particularly welcome and thank the Secretary General of the League of Arab States, Mr. Amre Moussa for his personal efforts and his commitment to make this joint conference possible.

Let me also thank my predecessor Ursula Plassnik for having taken the initiative for this conference. I am glad she is here with us today.

Let me also commend all member states of the European Union and the Arab League, Turkey, the European Commission and the many non-governmental organisations, civil society initiatives and experts present here today, for their commitment.

This conference represents a colourful mosaic and an impressive picture of the pluralism and diversity of our societies – both in Europe and in the Arab world. The great variety of experts present today reflects the many different contributions Arab and European men and women are making to their countries, their societies and on the global level.

This is the second meeting between the EU and the Arab League on ministerial level (after the meeting in Malta last February) and it is the first meeting to address specific thematic issues. The Vienna meeting is also the first EU-Arab League event which brings together representatives from governments and civil society. This new partnership will help to raise awareness for the common social and political challenges societies in Europe and the Arab world face today.

Creating and promoting sustainable networks, this conference aims to bring about concrete ideas and projects for further cooperation, ideas on how to intensify our dialogue on state and society level and what next steps should be taken from here.

Europe and the Arab World share a common history – a history of antagonisms and conflicts, but an even longer history of fruitful exchange and co-existence. Our relations are often seen as predominantly shaped by the differences in religion and culture, between Christianity and Islam. This focus on differences has become stronger in recent decades – on both sides. We must escape this trap!

We have to work together to establish new common frameworks of intercultural compatibility and complementarity. We must tell the stories of cooperation and joint visions. This is not only a task for “the media”. Religious authorities can also contribute to the understanding of our common values and spiritual roots. Even more so, this is a task for politicians and experts in all fields.

The history of relations between Europe and the Islamic World dates back to the eighth century in Europe. Muslim communities have been living for hundreds of years in European countries such as Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Romania. Thus Islam is an autochthonous religion on our continent, deeply rooted and grown together with Europe. More recently, in the 20th century, migration has brought Muslims to Europe from Turkey, the Arab World, Asia and Africa. In 1950, about 800.000 Muslims were living in Europe. Today the figure is somewhere between 15 and 20 million.

Developing our relations therefore entails to ask a provocative question: Where is Europe, what is Europe? Where and what is the Arab World? We look at two regions that are defined by religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism and social heterogeneity. We are looking at two regions that have been in constant transformation. Both Europe and the Arab World are challenged to accommodate tradition with modernity and progress.

Europe has seen considerable processes of integration and institutionalisation. European identity is work in progress: Originally founded as an economic community, the members of the European Union have developed it, step by step, into a community of shared values and a community of law as we know it today - a community strong enough to unite diversity and to draw on its strengths to shape the future. The European Union is based on the solid foundation of the Enlightenment: reason, the separation of state and religion, individual and political rights and freedoms, and equal rights for men and women. The core of this way of life is to sustain pluralism.

Having said this, we must not ignore the challenges of globalisation and immigration for our societies at large – be it in the field of language, education or labour market integration, of legal, cultural or religious traditions which often hamper integration and social upward mobility in particular of women and young people.

Looking at the Arab World in its heterogeneity and complexity, we also understand that challenges differ from country to country across the region. Regional economic growth is failing to keep pace with a growing population. In some countries, 60% of the population is under 18 years of age. Youth unemployment averages over 50%: According to the World Bank, the region needs to create 100 million jobs over the next 20 years to provide for this burgeoning workforce. In some countries, women are prevented from realising their potential in society – which means that half of the population is unable to make its contribution in economic growth and social development.

The past has seen enormous cultural and scientific exchanges between Europe and the Arab World in the field of philosophy, mathematics or medicine. The Arab World had an important mediatory function in connecting Europe to other cultures and societies of the Far East.

Dialogue needs to address issues of common concern such as development, prosperity and peace. It needs to promote the values we share: good governance, human rights, tolerance, pluralism and diversity management, the rule of law.

In the "Joint Declaration of the Paris Summit for the Mediterranean" on 13 July 2008, ministers of foreign affairs affirmed their "ambition to build a common future based on the full respect of democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as enshrined in international human rights law, such as the promotion of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, strengthening the role of women in society, the respect of minorities, the fight against racism and xenophobia and the advancement of cultural dialogue and mutual understanding."

This is a common ground for a strong partnership between Europe and the Arab countries. We wish that these commitments become our common heritage.

Austrian Initiatives such as the conference of "Women Leaders – Networking for Peace and Security in the Middle East" and follow up initiatives demonstrate clearly: In order to make dialogue successful and sustainable, we need to particularly focus on women and youth and the diversity of our societies. They have become driving forces for innovative thinking in European and Arab societies. Dialogue must not be confined to the social or political elite but we need to support civil society and the grass root levels.

The participants of the Ministerial Meeting on Friday, 19th December, are looking forward to the recommendations the workshop participants are going to issue by tomorrow.

Our common task is to redraw and shape a new geography of the mind which will make our regions look like one area of common interest and shared perspectives for reform and cooperation.

So let me again welcome all of you participating in this conference - some of you I know as friends and some of you will become friends. I wish you successful meetings and a pleasant stay in Vienna.

Thank you very much for your attention!