Back 2nd Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Social Cohesion

Istanbul , 

Opening address Mrs Gabriella BATTAINI-DRAGONI
Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Building a secure future for all
Protecting and empowering groups of vulnerable persons, particularly in times of crises
Achieving social sustainability through intergenerational solidarity

Check against delivery / embargo until delivery

Distinguished Chair, Minister Cilik,

Your Excellencies,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear delegates and guests,

In opening the 2nd Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Social Cohesion I would like to thank most warmly the Turkish authorities for hosting us in Istanbul — the ancient capital of three empires; the meeting point of two continents; a multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious city, which in many respects is a model of tolerance.

I bring you warm greetings from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Mr Jagland strongly regrets that other pressing commitments prevent him from joining you today in Istanbul. He regrets his absence particularly because he shares so strongly our conviction that social cohesion is at the very heart of the European social model, and that it is an indispensable element of our "deep security".

When we speak of social cohesion, we are not just speaking about the technicalities of social security systems, of social policy or employment programmes. These are requirements for a sustainable society, certainly. But social cohesion is also built on equal rights and equal opportunities; on a life without discrimination; on shared social responsibilities; on social dialogue, democratic decision-making and full participation for all: the weak and the strong, young and old, rich and poor.

Promoting social cohesion in this wide sense is the approach to which the Council of Europe and its member states have committed themselves in the "New Strategy for Social Cohesion" adopted in 2010. This approach is the leitmotif of all our activities and instruments within the Council of Europe.

Dear friends,

This 2nd Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Social Cohesion comes at a crucial moment. We are in the fifth consecutive year of a deep financial and economic crisis. Unemployment takes a heavy toll. Income inequality "is at its highest level for the past half century, and it continues to rise", as the Secretary General of the OECD informed us just a few days ago in Strasbourg. Extremely worrying tendencies of marginalisation and social exclusion show themselves in many of our member states.

In this situation it is vitally important to address the situation of vulnerable groups — the first of the two topics which this Conference will discuss. We will only be able to achieve a secure future for all if we manage to stop and reverse the trends towards the marginalisation and exclusion of entire segments of society.

[Addressing the situation of vulnerable groups]

If we do not want our societies to fall apart, protecting and empowering vulnerable groups is imperative.

On the one hand, we need to assure equitable access to social rights, social justice, and the maintenance and strengthening of social protection mechanisms. Here, Council of Europe instruments such as the Revised European Social Charter, including its Collective Complaints Procedure, and the European Code of Social Security form a solid framework for all member States.

On the other hand, we need to reinforce activation and self-activation mechanisms, to reduce dependency and to foster the ability and capacity of persons in situations of vulnerability to lead an active and independent life. We must provide empowerment to individuals in order to make them more autonomous. Short-term crisis management and long-term strategic thinking are not alternatives; they must be pursued simultaneously.

A good example of this combination of immediate measures with longer-term strategic thinking can be found in the Council of Europe's "Disability Action Plan" covering the decade 2006-2015.

[Intergenerational equity]

The second major topic of this Conference will be the question how to achieve social sustainability — a "secure future for all" — through intergenerational solidarity.

Today, we are faced with a dramatic rise in youth unemployment. In some of our member states, over half of the under 25-year olds cannot find a job. Millions of young people feel abandoned. Some experts speak of "a sacrificed generation".

In his recent, scathing report to the Parliamentary Assembly, the Italian Member of Parliament Luca Volontè said, "the worst employment situation in decades has caused a real social and economic trauma that threatens society's long-term development. The financial and economic crisis is turning into a social crisis." "The risk we are now running is that of clipping the wings of young people just at the age when their minds are most vibrant and when they are keener to engage and create than at any later time during the rest of their lives."

Youth is — and must remain — a priority theme. Democracy cannot be built without the commitment, active involvement and creativity of young people; otherwise, democracy will die. And who will in the future defend human rights and the rule of law, if not young people? This was also the context of the 9th Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Youth, held three weeks ago in Saint Petersburg, to discuss innovative approaches of youth policy strengthening the access of young people to rights.

"Intergenerational solidarity", the topic of our Conference here in Istanbul, is of course much more than a mere recognition that something is wrong, or that something must be done. The "New Strategy" of 2010 gives quite a few hints towards areas of action — from pension schemes to environmental sustainability, from "social justice in a situation of limited material resources" to future generations' right to well-being.

Nobody should be under any illusion that these issues are "fair weather topics", which can be put aside when stormy times are approaching. They are instead very complex, often controversial and sometimes extremely costly issues. Ignoring them now, will only make matters worse tomorrow and in ten years from now.

Young people are very much aware of these burning political requirements. We know this because the Council of Europe, with its "co-management" model, is systematically involving young people in the definition of policies that concern them. Young people are vociferous in demanding an honest chance for leading a future life in a sustainable, just and cohesive society, where the burdens are shared fairly between the generations.

Intergenerational equity does not stop there, of course. It is a principle that also includes the interests of senior citizens, who justly demand that old age is not identical with poverty and exclusion — which is a real danger, particularly in times when the welfare state is cut back under the impact of the financial and economic crisis.

And it includes the interests of children, who are full members of society, not just "mini people" with "mini rights"; this is why the Council of Europe's work on children's rights covers important areas such as children's access to health care, and child-friendly justice.

[Implications for participation and democracy]

Dear friends, By addressing these two dimensions of social cohesion — the situation of vulnerable groups and the need to achieve intergenerational equity — we are in fact discussing some of the crucial parameters of democracy.

If the social fabric is thin, worn or torn; if the gap between rich and poor is widening; if the distribution of wealth is perceived as unfair; if large segments of the population are unemployed, underemployed or living in poverty; then the result will be that frustration rises, and confidence in the political system falls.

One consequence is that voter turnout in elections is low, and active engagement in political parties is even lower. Politicians are despised, rather than respected. In a number of countries, mass demonstrations have replaced the political dialogue. Populist political parties, often appealing to xenophobic attitudes and referring to an imaginary "golden past", are on the rise in many of our member states.

We have the collective responsibility to rebuild the trust in our democratic institutions and in our fellow citizens who are ready, as politicians, to take over responsibilities for the community as a whole. We must restore our sense of social justice.

[Implications for the management of cultural diversity]

The debate at this Conference will also show the deep implications of social-cohesion policy on the democratic management of cultural diversity.

Social cohesion can only be achieved if we build a secure future for all members of society, on an equal footing. We must build deeper, stronger and sustainable relations between individuals, societies, cultures and religions.

Over almost two decades, the Council of Europe has conducted ground-breaking work for setting the foundations of a modern policy of intercultural dialogue.

The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, adopted in 1995, was the first ever international convention to mention the "spirit of tolerance and intercultural dialogue" as a principle for securing social cohesion of our societies in terms of majorities and minorities.

"Living together as equals in dignity" was the title of the "White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue", launched by the Committee of Ministers in 2008, which broadened this approach to all aspects of cultural diversity, and summarized the European standards, case-law and benchmarks in terms of legislation, governance, education and the responsibilities of non-state actors.

Building on this, in 2011 a group of eminent European personalities reviewed the current requirements of intercultural-dialogue policy. Their report appeared under the title "Living together — Combining diversity and freedom in 21st-century Europe", and it concentrated particularly on immigration and the growing criticism of "multiculturalism" as a policy approach.

All these initiatives — together with the many operational programmes of the Council of Europe, which translate the political principles into practical action — show that the cultural dimension is a major parameter of social cohesion. The "diversity factor" needs our full attention.

[Concluding remarks]

Dear delegates and guests,

The opening ceremony of a ministerial Conference is always a precious moment. One can take a good look at the starting points for the forthcoming debate. One can review recent achievements. And one can place the Conference themes in a wider political context, linking it to current developments.

My message at the beginning of this Conference is this: social cohesion plays such a crucial role for democratic stability and the sustainable development of our societies, that we cannot permit ourselves to fail our responsibility.

This is not new in itself. In the late 1990s, I was personally involved in streamlining the Council of Europe activities on social security, social policy and employment into the more modern – and appropriate – concept of social cohesion. We have come a long way since then. We have realized, I think, that without a strong, cohesive, fair and just society we are doomed to fail.

May the Istanbul Ministerial Declaration "Building a secure future for all" serve as a major guideline for effective and innovative social-cohesion policies, and for concrete action in member states.

I thank you for your attention and wish you a very fruitful and stimulating Conference.