Seminar in Budapest, 23 April 2004

The enlarged possibilities of Women NGOs and their cooperation with other NGOs in the European Union

Presentation by Laura Finne-Elonen, President of ECICW

Women and the EU


Dear madame president Dr. Judit Asbot Thorma, distinguished guests and speakers

Dear Sisters,

It is a great honour for me to be invited to speak here today on the eve of the new era in the history of Europe. In one week ten new countries will join the EU, which will then get about 80 million new citizens. Tomorrow is a very exciting day, as there will be a referendum in Cuprus. Let us hope the result is positive and both parts of Cyprus will accept the plan of Kofi Annan and join the EU as one country.

I have been listening to the opinions here, and they remind me very much of the time when my home country Finland was about to join the EU in 1995. The feelings were changing between positive and negative all the time, from big expectations and deep doubts, the women being the most critical of the membership.

Our motives for the membership were above all – for historical reasons – the psychological guarantee of peace and security. Other wishes on the top of the list were that the EU could do much for the environment, to combat the spreading of drugs and criminality accross the frontiers.

We were afraid that our Nordic welfare model would be ruined and that our social security system would weaken, that the food prices would rocket up and that people from other EU countries would come and buy all our summer-houses and small cottages by the lakes (a very important institution in Finland). We were also afraid of loosing our cultural identity.

We do not have to be afraid of loosing the cultural identity, time has shown that EU supports the cultural differences, small languages and the characteristics of the regions, even if we have the same constitution, legal system and „bad English” as our common language.

It is probably true that the new candidate countries joining the EU will experience many structural changes and passing periods of insecurity maybe in the labour market, in the industry, in the economic field, all caused by the competition from other countries. There might be a period of structural unemployment before new firms are established, instead of the old nonprofit-making ones and so on.

But as a member state of the EU the country and its citizens will get so many new possibilities in the big economic area with access to the common market. The country gets funds from the EU for example for agriculture. Here I would like to take as an example Ireland, formerly a poor agricultural country and now florishing as the result of well used EU funding and projects.
I am sure that Hungary will make fast progress as it is already a country where economic progression and growth have been well above the European average.

In the EU there is free movement of goods and services, young people can study abroad and the professional and university degrees are valid in all countries. The aim of the EU is that for example after 10 years 3 million students can study in other countries, as well as 50 000 adults.

What do ordinary people for example in Finland think about the EU now? When asked about the membership in gallups the majority supports the membership but otherwise I suppose they do not think much about it at all if there is not something very shaking. But not even the coming elections seem to increase the interest in the EU. I am ashamed to tell you that in Finland, we had a lower percantage of people voting in the elections in 1999, only 33 % voted.
The EU is often accused of being too far away from the people. Its decision-making procedure is very complicated to understand and the issues may not seem to be so very relevant in the eyes of the citizens. This although 60-70 percent of the decisions concerning the legislation in a country are being made in the EU.

This leads me to the question of the legitimacy of the whole union, if the people do not believe in it, do not support it, it has lost its legitimacy, it has no credibility.

When the EU was founded after the second world war, it was strongly felt to be a peace-making process easying out the situation in Europe. People supported it strongly and were committed to it. It had a great legitimacy. After that period we now have to find legitimacy for it from other points of view, such as economical issues, and make it more able to compete with the USA, Japan and China in the future.

But these issues do not very easily reach the minds of the average citizens. This despite the extensive EU charm-offensives to the citizens before each and every Inter-Governmental Conference.

The enlargement of the EU will certainly bring the issue up again because of the motives of the new countries for joining the EU differ even more from the original aims of the Union. For example the membership in NATO is felt much more as a guarantee for peace than a membership in the EU.

Personally I am very much concerned about the trends in the present discussions – I find it unbelievable that the present members are so unwilling to take their economic responsibility for the enlargement and also want to restrict the free movement of people, which is one of the basic ideas of the EU.
I also think that we talk too little about the social dimensions of the EU which has to be deepened and strengthened as well as the cultural facts so that we all can feel we are belonging to the same Europe where every individual is important, where she or he is cared for even if he or she is a member of a minority. Everyone should get a chance to education and better life.

The NGOs have a very important role in the shaping of the social Europe. On the local grassroot level they are the first ones to notice unfavourable changes in the society. They are capable of taking the very first actions to help the situation and to bring forward the message to the decision-makers and also to suggest what to do in a particular, perhaps even in a very difficult case. And by tradition it is mostly the women who notice these changes, because they care as mothers for the future of the society.

The NGOs are also willing to follow up and monitor the decisions made on different levels, in the community, on the national and European level. Thus the NGOs are important in the development of democracy in the society. The better possibilities they have to function the stronger is the democracy. Good functioning of the society leads to economic growth.

The various levels in decision-making ought to recognise the NGOs as realiable and important partners and start a real dialogue and make it possible for the NGOs to have an input as well as on the local level as in the EU. The trade unions already have a status as social partners in the EU, the other NGOs ought to get one as they by tradion have one in the United Nations.This would bring the EU closer to the citizens. Citizens in the member countries working together on the grassroot level improve better understanding and thus contribute to maintaining peace.

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The enlarged possibilities of Women NGOs and their cooperation with other NGOs in the European Union

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