Honourable Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to have this opportunity to address the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly - one of the most recent but most important institutions of the Euro-Med partnership.
The need to enhance cooperation and deepen understanding between peoples, cultures and faiths has never been more important. You, as Parliamentarians, have a vital role to play in this, and in addressing one of the most important issues of our time: the so-called clash of civilisations.
I say “so-called” because this term is a misnomer. What we are facing today is not a clash of civilisations but a clash of ignorance.
After all, we have our roots in the same civilisations. When the Greek and Roman Empires dominated the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East were as integral a part of their cultural world as Gaul, Iberia or the Balkans.
Our major religions stem from the same root. And the principles of behaviour which guide a good Jew, Muslim or Christian have more in common than we might think.
The issues with which our societies are grappling are also remarkably similar. In all our societies we must reconcile old and new values, demographic and economic changes, and find jobs and opportunities for the young.
But despite these commonalities, something has been going wrong in our relationship. There is no denying the deep-seated resentment, anger and frustration felt throughout the Muslim world.
One element is the longstanding failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The reactions to the cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed also showed the gulf of misunderstanding between us. Around the world Muslims were outraged at what was perceived to be at best ignorance, and at worst provocation of their religion.
It is clear that also within Europe we face challenges to our ability to integrate minority populations. We are proud of our religious, cultural and linguistic diversity. Yet the scenes from Paris last year, and the revelation that London’s bombers were home-grown, underlined the degree of alienation felt by some.
It is a subject Europe has struggled with throughout history, and there are certainly no easy answers. But one element is essential: dialogue.
Within Europe interfaith and intercultural dialogue are fundamentally important, especially as we reflect on the future of the European Union and our identity as Europeans. When I address the Conference of European Imams in Vienna in two weeks I will make clear our commitment to fostering dialogue with Europe’s major religions.
Beyond our borders dialogue is equally important. We should be encouraging exchanges at every level – civil society, the media and public institutions.
This is undoubtedly a challenge against the backdrop of conflict in Iraq, the Middle East, and the difficult discussions with Iran. Which is why it is important that Europe maintain a consistent, even-handed approach.
In the Middle East we must make clear to the newly-formed Palestinian Authority that we remain committed to helping the Palestinian people, and will judge them on their words and deeds. But we stand firm on our principles of an end to violence, recognition of Israel, and maintaining existing agreements.
Mutual respect and understanding should be our watchwords. We need to make clear that Europe has heard the message from the worldwide Umma.
We regret that so many people felt offended by the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in some European newspapers. Freedom of religion is non-negotiable. It is a fundamental right of individuals and communities and entrails respect for the integrity of all religious convictions and all ways in which they are exercised. Similarly, freedom of speech is central to Europe’s values and traditions. It is also non-negotiable. But it does come with responsibilities.
Are these two principles in conflict?
That is a difficult question which has preoccupied philosophers for centuries. The answer changes with time and circumstance. But two elements are clear. First, it is unacceptable that any one group in society – Christian, Muslim, Jewish or secular – seek the sole right to fix the parameters. And second, respect and understanding are the keys to any acceptable outcome.
We need to be constantly working to improve understanding between different cultures and religions both within the EU and around the world.
It is with that in mind that I am going to Khartoum later today to the Arab League Summit. We must use every opportunity to discuss our common concerns and to develop the intercultural cooperation which is so essential to mutual respect and understanding.
That is also why I appreciate this Assembly’s proposal to discuss intercultural dialogue today. Javier Solana and I have discussed this with our colleagues in the EU’s Member States, and you have seen our paper on using Euro-med’s networks, particularly the Anna Lindh Foundation, to strengthen intercultural dialogue.
The Commission has tabled ten ideas to put the EuroMed Partnership at the service of a new dialogue between the EU and Islam. The list covers ways to make better use of the media and to reach out to public opinion; concrete actions that can be taken under existing Euromed networks and programmes; and some proposals for events to bring together civil society representatives, academics, parliamentarians and so on. I also warmly welcome your proposals to start an intensification of the dialogue between cultures in the Euro-med Committee.
Taking these steps is essential if we are to overcome the misunderstandings that currently characterise our relationship. It will not be easy – we will all hear some uncomfortable home truths about perceptions and practices. The role of political Islam and the disaffection of parts of Europe’s population are two difficult issues. But open, honest dialogue is essential.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For me, intercultural dialogue is the defining issue of this decade, in the Euro-med region and beyond. The important commitments we made at the 10 year anniversary of Barcelona last November can only be achieved against a background of improved understanding and respect.
Let me end with a challenge to us all. 2008 is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Let us take it as a target date for realising our first achievements. That means pledging today to increase cultural exchanges; improve understanding; and boost tolerance and respect.
If we are to make a success of this, you, as representatives of the people, will have an important role to play. I count on you to contribute to strengthened relations between us, and a discourse which stresses commonality not difference. It is our responsibility to rise to this challenge and to ensure that ignorance withers as mutual respect takes root.