Forum for the Future of Democracy 2011
‘The Interdependence of Democracy and Social Cohesion’
Mr Thorbjørn JAGLAND
Secretary General of the Council of Europe
The theme of this year’s Forum for the Future of Democracy, “The Interdependence of Democracy and Social Cohesion” could not be more timely. Right now Europe is not only facing a very serious financial and fiscal crisis. We are starting to see the impact of this crisis on social cohesion as well as on public trust in our democratic institutions.
The impact of economic crises is always most acute for people who are already in vulnerable situations and at risk of exclusion. I am thinking here in particular of those in precarious employment situations or living in economically fragile regions, or elderly people, migrants and Roma.
And let me add a word on Roma in particular. Their situation, in a number of European countries, is a test of how civilised and how humane our societies are. And it is a test in which we have not yet deserved a passing note, to say the least. If we allow that the current economic circumstances slow down the efforts to improve the social integration of Roma, the consequences would be disastrous, not only for Roma, but for societies as a whole.
The present financial crisis is unprecedented in its scope. Radical measures are being taken in many countries to try to balance public budgets. This is both necessary and understandable. But at the same time, countries are running a high risk of seriously undermining the European model of social cohesion.
There is a widespread perception that social and economic justice is being neglected in an effort to safeguard the interests and profits of the financial sector. Our democracy is undermined by the growing incidence of poverty. Young people especially are reacting to the different forms of exclusion and discrimination which they encounter in political and economic life. One only has to look at the staggeringly high figures of youth unemployment in most European countries to realise the extent of the disconnection (June 2011: Spain: 44.3%; Greece: 36%; Italy and Ireland 28.6%; Portugal: 27.8%; UK and France: 20%).
We need to take these manifestations of young people’s frustration very seriously indeed. It is a common misconception to consider children and young people as “the future”, or as “citizens in the making”, who can wait until their turn comes. More and more of them complain about the “Prince Charles syndrome”. But young people are citizens now, with rights and with responsibilities as well as with expectations and competences.
It is worthwhile taking a close look at the different expressions of discontent. They feature a varied mix of new and alternative forms of democratic practice. To take one example, young people are extremely active behind new forms of democracy to be found in the ‘network society’, as can be seen in the recent youth protests in Europe and also in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring demonstrated again how strong the quest for freedom is. There is no freedom without democracy. There is no democracy without the confidence that it can change people’s lives for the better.
And democracy and human rights are also necessary for sustainable economic development. The Indian Nobel prize winner for economy Amartya Sen claimed that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any country with a relatively free press. It is not difficult to prove this argument.
While the freedom of expression may be irritating to some, its absence is always harmful to all in the society. Without critical voices, there are no safeguards and no defence against blunder and abuse in the exercise of power, with inevitable negative political, economic, and social consequences.
I am pleased to see that this Forum will be an occasion for an open dialogue between political representatives and young people who are active in peaceful youth protests, be they called “Indignados” or “Génération précaire”.
When we think about ways to fight the crisis, we must reject policies which weaken social cohesion and fight the crisis through social cohesion, by investing in social rights and in intercultural dialogue.
The Intercultural Cities programme, jointly run by the Council of Europe and the European Union, has found that successful interculturality has tangible economic benefits. Cities with successful policies of intercultural dialogue seem to enjoy higher levels of economic growth than other cities.
It is not the remit of the Council of Europe to solve the economic dimension of the present crisis. But in addition to balancing budgets, Europe needs a comprehensive political strategy to protect social cohesion: Preserving social cohesion during an economic downturn is a political choice. In fact, it is not a choice, but a necessity, if we want to preserve the model of the society which we have built over the past sixty years.
The Council of Europe can make an important contribution to issues of social cohesion in a social rights and human rights perspective, in particular relating to youth, ageing, inter-generational solidarity, migration, education and the fight against extremism and hate speech. All this will help us to achieve the ‘deep security’ which I have suggested should be an objective for the entire Council of Europe space.
The social and intercultural implications of the crisis that we are witnessing at this time underline the pertinence of the analysis and recommendations contained in the report by the Group of Eminent Persons on “Living Together”.
The conclusion of the report is very clear on two points. One, that our societies are very diverse; and two, that we are not very successful in managing that diversity. The report contains very specific recommendations on how to do better, on how to transform diversity from a potential threat to a real benefit for our societies.
For me personally, the most urgent priority is to deal with the parallel societies. People who live beside each other are always at risk of living against each other. What we need to do is to create societies in which people will live with each other. Everyone is entitled to maintain his or her identity, this is a part of our richness, of our strength, but this should not happen without or even at the expense of what holds us together as a society; of our common values which are embodied in and protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
And let me add another thought. When we speak about parallel societies we usually think of ethnic or religious communities, but in fact, such parallel societies are much more diverse.
Look at the financial oligarchs for example. People who seem to be the least affected by the current economic crisis, even if they are not completely without responsibility for its emergence, to put it very mildly. One very often has the impression that they operate in accordance with their own rules and principles and that “solidarity” within that group is much stronger than solidarity between the group and the rest of the society. And that, in my book, is the definition of a parallel society. But let me reassure you, I am not advocating any revolutionary action. I simply suggest that these people should accept their part of responsibility, for the crisis we face and for what needs to be done to overcome it.
The location of this conference in Cyprus, at the historical crossroads between the Western and the Arab parts of the world, is an appropriate setting for me to renew the Council of Europe’s commitment to the reform countries of the Arab Spring, to share its experiences at the request of their authorities.
I wish this 7th Forum for the Future of Democracy every success and expect its conclusions to be taken up by the statutory bodies of the Council of Europe and to inspire the preparation of next year’s Second Conference of Ministers responsible for Social Cohesion in Istanbul and the first edition of the Council of Europe’s International Strasbourg Forum for Democracy in October of next year.