Welcoming speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the conference on “Employment and Social Dialogue within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership”

16.03.2007 - Speech

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Representatives of the employers' associations and trade unions,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to welcome you very warmly to this conference on “Employment and Social Dialogue within the framework of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership” here in the Weltsaal of the Federal Foreign Office building. This afternoon, the event will continue on the premises of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

It is nice to see that the venue also reflects the nature of the conference: interaction between civil society and government. This interaction is crucial to socio-political progress in all societies and is a key element for peace, security and prosperity. This is what we are working together to achieve in the Barcelona Process.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism, the world has changed dramatically. This change is particularly visible here in Berlin. The world has been transformed into a global village. Communication technologies, free trade and the free movement of capital. Population growth, demographic shifts, and a world trade product which, in the next 25 years, will grow to twice its current volume have brought rapid change. As ties become closer and networks denser, individual nation-states can no longer represent their interests single-handedly. Of course, we can view this coming-closer-together as a threat, as an invasive trend – but in it, we can also see an opportunity for our common future. “What belongs together is now growing together” – this applies not only to Berlin, or to Germany. It also applies to the Mediterranean region, where we want to expand and intensify cooperation and exchange.

And so, during our Presidency of the EU Council, we are determined to move forward with the Barcelona Process.

The Euro-Med partners on both sides of the Mediterranean must do their utmost to come to grips with global issues. We all face the same problems: multiple risks and the potential for international conflict, such as the crisis in the Middle East, the threat of terrorism, the challenges of climate change and concerns about the security of energy supplies. These problems require urgent responses which we will find only if we work together.

In order to find these answers, we must be able to look ahead to the future. Next week, on 25 March, the European Union will be looking back on 50 years of the Treaties of Rome and on a success story which brought peace and prosperity to post-war Europe. We want to use this occasion to think ahead to the Europe of the future, to what the 21st century holds for us. It is essential that we succeed in making people understand that we cannot solve the key issues of the future by cutting ourselves off from each other, but only by interacting with each other. And that the EU not only has to continue to develop as an effective community which can tackle global challenges, but also that our everyday lives actually benefit from having the EU.

At the November 2005 summit, held to mark 10 years of the Barcelona Process, we took a critical look at how much progress we had made and to what extent we had been able to move closer to the goals we set ourselves in the Barcelona Declaration. As well as assessing the first decade of our partnership, we took concrete action by adopting the Five-Year Work Programme and the Code of Conduct on Countering Terrorism.

  • Strengthening our social systems,
  • Guaranteeing a basic standard of living, even for the weakest in society,
  • Creating new jobs,
  • Enabling everyone to participate in societal progress

are all important elements in achieving sustainable progress and reforms, stability, and peace.

Germany has now held the EU Presidency for over two months. Our Work Programme is ambitious, and encompasses a broad range of issues. One issue which for me became a focus of attention during the first third of our Presidency was the Middle East.

In Lebanon, the European Union and its Member States demonstrated that they can assume responsibility in this sensitive region. Europe not only provides the backbone of the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces, whose stationing made an end to the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah possible. Europe also gave fast, comprehensive commitments with regard to reconstruction, making more than 300 million euro available for this purpose last year alone. At January’s international conference on support for Lebanon in Paris, the European Union pledged funds totalling 2 billion euro, or 40% of all commitments. By working together in this way, we have achieved much: an end to the fighting, the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces and the stationing of the Lebanese army in the south of the country. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were able to return to their homes.

Lebanon still faces major challenges – the Government has committed itself to an ambitious reform programme, reconstruction has to move forward, and the economy needs boosting.

However, it will only be possible to master these challenges when the current domestic political crisis is resolved. All the parties involved must play their part in this process. A solution can only be found through dialogue within the democratic process and with respect for the country's democratically legitimized institutions. Violence cannot and must not be an option. All Lebanese parties and parliamentary groups are urged to oppose violence and do everything in their power to stop the situation from escalating. Lebanon's neighbours must respect the country's independence and provide constructive support. Europe is still ready to help in this process and do its part to establish a sovereign, peaceful Lebanon.

Last summer's violent clashes showed with horrific clarity just how pressing a peaceful solution in the Middle East is. And so, even in the run-up to our Presidency, I did my utmost to focus and reinvigorate the international community's commitment to drawing Palestinians and Israelis closer together. We cannot replace the desire of the conflicting parties to engage in dialogue, nor can we issue an order for peace. However, we can – and must – support and promote this desire to engage in dialogue and give the parties assistance when they are unable to make progress on their own.

This much-needed show of commitment by the international community materialized in the revival of the Middle East Quartet. Its four members – the United Nations, the US, Russia and the European Union – are the guardians of the Middle East roadmap. This roadmap is the only peace plan recognized by the international community and the two parties to the conflict. We have to find a way to return to the roadmap, and to overcome the stalemate of recent years. That is why the clearly stated goal of the German EU Presidency was to revive the Middle East Quartet. That is a goal which we have achieved. In a few weeks' time, the Quartet will meet for the third time this year. In the space of three months, then, the main actors have come together as often as they did in the whole of 2006.

Despite differences of opinion on individual issues, there was an overriding resolve at the last two Quartet meetings to take a firm and united stand for peace in the Middle East. The members of the Quartet have come to realize that our strength lies in our ability to concentrate our energy and coordinate our actions. This is the only way of achieving what is so urgently required now: on the one hand, real improvements on the ground to make everyday life tangibly better for Israelis and Palestinians (in other words, security for the Israelis, and economic improvements and freedom of movement for the Palestinians). On the other hand, there is a real need for a debate on the political outlook which we must give people in the region. We have to address the issue of how we can make the vision shared by everyone of two independent, democratic States – Israel and Palestine – co-existing peacefully, a reality.

More than ever, there is also widespread support for these efforts among our Arab partners – this is a opportunity which we want to seize. For that reason, at our last meeting in Berlin, we decided that the next meeting of the Quartet should take place in an Arab country where talks would be held with Arab States who were engaged constructively in the process. Experience has shown how important support from within the region is for any peace-building efforts in the Middle East. That is why I have pushed for the Quartet to exchange views with key Arab partners.

Tomorrow, the new Palestinian Unity Government will be sworn in. The European Union and the Middle East Quartet have expressed clearly what we expect of this Government. We hope that this Government will recognize Israel's right to exist, refrain from violence, and comply with existing commitments and agreements. The future Palestinian government's policies and actions will determine how intensive our contacts and how close our relations with it are. We Europeans respect President Abbas as a responsible political leader who is clearly focused on the justified interests of the Palestinian people and who is proactive in representing those interests. Europe's policy on the Middle East, particularly with regard to our relations with the governments of the two parties involved in the conflict, must set out to support President Abbas and encourage both sides to engage in meaningful negotiations.

There is still a long way to go on the road to peace in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Europe will support efforts to go down this road. We are under no illusions and our outlook is realistic. But we will pursue this goal with energy and determination.

In this context, the relevance of the Barcelona Process cannot be understated. For 11 years, it has been bringing us together and our cooperation is – although sluggish at times – stable and resilient. We remain committed to expanding and strengthening the foundations which we have built together. This is in the interests of us all. Our Euro-Med meetings are an important instrument for exchanging views and building confidence. They are also a forum where we gain awareness of new issues and take on joint tasks which we urgently need to tackle. I am referring to issues relating to resources and the environment, to health, education and employment policy, of course, and to social dialogue.

These are all issues which will play a major part in establishing a Euro-Med free-trade area. The free-trade area must be environmentally sustainable and promote socio-economic integration if it is to gain support.

And so it is good, indeed crucial, that today we address the issues of social dialogue and employment policy in the Euro-Med partner countries. After all, it is our hope that the Barcelona Process will also stimulate our economic activities.

Today's conference brings together trade unions, associations and companies to engage in open dialogue and exchange views on these issues.

However, this exchange should not stop when today's event draws to a close. I assume that you will take what you have discovered at this conference home with you and provide it as input to discussions in your own countries. You are the disseminators on the ground. The outcome of conferences like this must not be confined to an ivory tower.

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