Shared Social Responsibilities: Finding new ways to enhance social cohesion in Europe
The European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe (CoE) extend their work in partnership with a series of discussions on social cohesion, a topic dear to both bodies.
The partnership between the EU and the CoE could not have been better illustrated than through the presence of both José Manuel Barroso, President of the Commission, and Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the CoE, at the opening of a one-day conference co-sponsored by both organisations which took place in Brussels on March, 1st . Its aim was to discuss a new concept called “shared social responsibilities” (SSR) with a view to incorporate it into a future European Charter. The conference gathered around 400 people from the civil society, academia, local and regional governments, as well as officials from both the EU and the CoE. It was preceded the day before by a seminar attended by roughly 200 people from the same backgrounds to elaborate this new concept in depth.
In the view of its defenders, promoting SSR is a useful attempt to foster social cohesion at a time when it is particularly tested in European society for a number of reasons: the financial and economic crisis; a rising mistrust of the citizens towards “mainstream” political parties, with the collateral rise of nationalism and extremist movements and a growing lack of interest in representative democracy; a looming demographic crisis; and the issue of migration. All these factors generate a sense of fear of and uncertainty with respect to the future, so that peaceful co-existence in an increasingly multi cultural environment seems to be jeopardised.
The concept of SSR is defined in the draft text of the Charter “as the state or ability of individuals and institutions to take action and be accountable for the consequences of such action or failure to act, in the context of mutual commitments entered into by consensus, agreeing on reciprocal rights and obligations in the fields of protecting human dignity, the environment and common goods, the fight against poverty and discrimination, the pursuit of justice and social cohesion, with due regard for diversity”. In brief, according to the Head of the Social Cohesion Research and Development Division of the Council of Europe, it entails “a redistribution of power”, whereby power is understood as “one’s capacity to act”. It aims at “revitalising values like reciprocity, commitment for the common good and the search for consensus”. It is called to become the “main pillar to build social cohesion in the 21st century”.
Three strategic lines were emphasised in order to foster SSR amongst citizens all over Europe: 1. innovation and learning processes to develop competences and knowledge among all social actors; 2. the inclusion of all stakeholders, with their legitimate demands and expectations, as well as their specific contributions; 3. the importance of deliberative processes to empower people and nurture confidence, with a specific focus on the local level, seen as crucial for the engagement of citizens by many participants of both the seminar and the conference.
The first strategic line clearly echoes the EU2020 strategy of the EU, especially its headline target on education. Surprisingly, education was nevertheless not explicitly mentioned either at the seminar, or at the conference. As far as consultation with stakeholders is concerned, the EU has already had some experience, even though it may be criticised for not being wide-ranging enough. As to deliberative processes, the EU has recently finalised a Regulation providing for the “procedures and conditions” required to organize a European Citizens’ Initiative (See Europe Infos, No. 135). However, that new tool seeks to foster democracy at the trans-national level, less so at the local one which is seen as crucial by the participants.
The CoE's analysis of the danger to social cohesion in our society is timely and relevant. Some may wonder whether a new concept and a new Charter are the best way to tackle the issue. Nevertheless, the reflection process of the seminar and the conference has the merit of bringing the issue to the fore. Obviously, such discussions will not replace specific practical initiatives: starting at the local level and reaching out to other level of governments, but first of all engaging citizens.
Hervé Pierre Guillot SJ