Romano Prodi

The terrible events of 11 September emphasised the need to expand intercultural dialogue. The Education and Culture Directorate-General of the European Commission, and more specifically the Jean Monnet Project, held a conference on intercultural dialogue in Brussels from 20 to 21 March 2002. This was attended by high-ranking politicians, academics and religious leaders, including the Chief Rabbi of Brussels. Representatives of Judaism, Islam and Christianity took part in the discussion, and welcomed the fact that recent years had seen a considerable increase in readiness for dialogue between religions. We reprint below the opening address, “Why Dialogue is Important”, by Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission. He emphasises, with great commitment, that the European Union must make every effort to expand dialogue with its neighbouring countries, especially in the Mediterranean area, which is where the three great religions originated. Copyright: European Commission 2002

Why Dialogue is Important

We have invited you here today to continue the dialogue between the representatives of civil society from around the Mediterranean.

The topic before us – dialogue between cultures and peoples – is an idea I am very keen on and is especially relevant in the context of Euro-Mediterranean relations. But it is not simply an idea. It gives us an agenda for action too. The peoples on the shores of the Mediterranean share a long history. Now they have an opportunity to develop harmonious relations as neighbours, based on tolerance, mutual respect and fairness.

We must work at this together, without let-up, on a daily basis. And our efforts must not just focus on economic and political issues, they must extend to the whole scope of our relations.

What does ‘working together’ imply? Henri Teissier, the archbishop of Algiers, when referring to the work of Vatican Council II on the position of other religions, Islam in particular, said that, however significant such studies were, they could not bear fruit without a joint undertaking by Christians and Muslims to work towards truth, justice and peace.

I fully endorse these views. They imply an original approach to dialogue and culture. Many scholars have worked to define culture. But since we ourselves are totally immersed in it, culture is not easy to pin down: it dictates the very way we think and speak. The words of Archbishop Teissier help us understand that culture is a collective effort to establish shared knowledge and values.

I am convinced that this meeting will contribute to this collective effort. With an eye to the meeting of ministers in Valencia in April and the meeting on culture in Beirut in September, I hope that your conclusions will give impetus to the measures we need to take. They must be seen as credible and realistic by policy-makers throughout the Mediterranean.

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The European Union – and especially the Commission – recognised the importance of intercultural dialogue well before the 11th of September. Constant responsiveness to the cultural dimension of Euro-Mediterranean relations has always been an integral part of the partnership launched in Barcelona in 1995. We are all aware of that project’s weaknesses and shortcomings. That is why, at a time when the Union is preparing for enlargement, our objective is to develop a special relationship between Europe and the Mediterranean, as part of our policy towards neighbouring countries, using all the instruments available.

We have devised various programmes with civil society in mind – promoting the education of young people and knowledge of our different traditions. Let me quote some examples:

1. We launched the Euromed Youth programme to promote the integration of young people in the 27 Euromed partners. We have already extended the Tempus programme of university exchanges and we will look into the possibility of doing the same with the programmes for continuing and vocational training.

2. Next year we shall be able to extend the Netdays (Netd@ys) network for schools to the Mediterranean region. We are also looking into the possibility of setting up a Euromed programme on the lines of the Fullbright programme of study grants. It would be part of a comprehensive new programme of cooperation in higher education with countries outside the EU.

3. Other Euro-Mediterranean programmes cover audio-visual communication and the historical heritage. They seek to help foster a spirit of mutual tolerance through better knowledge of the region’s priceless heritage.

Further action is now needed. The point we have reached is not the end of the road. We must create more opportunities for civil society to develop interchange. Dialogue between us must be more visible and accessible. Various projects are under way. For instance, our proposal to set up a Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for dialogue between cultures. It will collaborate with like-minded public and private bodies. This will provide more continuity and step up the impact of events such as today’s.

I am also considering the possibility of setting up a group of “wise men” – and of course women – in the framework of the Jean Monnet network to continue studying the issues we are dealing with today and tomorrow. The Barcelona European Council has approved the setting-up of a fund for boosting Europe’s private and public investments in the southern Mediterranean countries. The Commission and the Spanish Presidency had a more ambitious project in mind. This has not been possible at present but it is still on our agenda. Other actions will follow.

Dialogue is not something that takes place only elsewhere, beyond our borders; it has to start here, in Europe itself, in our inner cities, which are all too often the seedbeds of intolerance and prejudice. We must rediscover and draw on our shared cultural heritage with an eye to mutual respect and understanding.

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These actions will only succeed if we are clear about the foundations of our cultures and civilisations.
The Mediterranean region gave birth to the three great monotheistic religions that have shaped our thinking and forged our view of the world and of the human race.

I have made this point on several occasions. Throughout history, religions have often been the cause of conflicts, even of major wars. But they have always been a source of hope too, and of creativity and wisdom. Religions can – and must – make an essential contribution to goals we all share:

 

  • a future free of fear

  • peaceful progress for the good of all

  • defence of human values against violence, hatred and discrimination

 

Religions must work to bring all Mediterranean peoples closer together. They must induce them to work together more closely in combating poverty and injustice.

Let’s not forget that charity – in other words love for one’s fellow human beings and the precepts that flow from it – forms the common basis of these three religions. And of others too.

Our present-day societies have drawn on these shared precepts in their search for principles of organised collective solidarity.

This solidarity at the heart of our societies can hold together only if it is underpinned by a wider solidarity. This was the point that Chief Rabbi Sirat was making last January when he called on “the leaders of nations to make every effort to create and consolidate, on the national and international levels, a world of solidarity and peace based on justice”.

Solidarity is thus grounded in justice. Speaking in Assisi, the Iranian religious leader Ghomi urged us to heed “the cry of those who refuse to bow down to violence and evil” and to “make every effort possible to offer the men and women of our time real hope for justice and peace”.

And, on the subject of peace, the Pope reminded us in the aftermath of the 11th of September that: “there is no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness”.

In 1999, the United Nations decided to make 2001 the “Year for Dialogue among Civilisations”.

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But the features of any civilisation and the relations between civilisations cannot be explained exclusively in terms of religion.

The fault lines are also produced by political injustice, economic disparities, grinding poverty, a lack of future prospects – the consequences of uncontrolled globalisation that are perceived as cultural and political oppression.

Observers of events in the Middle East can testify that the fundamentalist movements on both sides, Israel and Palestine, have turned to extremism with the failure of the peace process and the ever-greater destitution of the Palestinian people.

In this and other situations of conflict, Europe must use all the political and economic resources it has, and all its imagination, to create a prospect for dialogue.

It is not just a matter of brokering a cease-fire and delivering humanitarian aid. What we really need to do is to come forward as proactive mediators who can make the opposing parties look at the issues that divide them in a new light.

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Why is the European Union so attached to the principle of dialogue, preferably a multilateral dialogue? And why do we set so much store by dialogue between cultures? The answers lie in the very nature of Europe’s process of integration.

After World War II, Europeans found reconciliation through dialogue. It restored the people’s confidence at a time when, bound up in their national cultures, they still lived in fear of war.

Later, dialogue meant reconciling an effective joint capacity to act with respect for each Member State’s national identity and the citizens’ need for democracy.

The effort that all Member States have made to understand the others has played a decisive role in the progress we have made together. No Member State has ever acted unilaterally. Today and in the future, the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue must be based on this approach and on the method followed for European integration.

In the dialogue between peoples, the European Union holds that in principle cultures are all equal and each has a right to full respect for its special features.

But respect for others does not imply automatically accepting any cultural practice, especially if they become divorced from the context that brought them into being.

There is no sense in the claim that cultures are equal unless it also asserts the right of every individual to physical integrity, to respect for their fundamental rights and freedom of conscience. These are not things that make us happier human beings, they are things that make us human beings.

Intercultural dialogue is meaningless unless the recognition of equality between cultures is matched by the recognition that every individual must be given equal access to fundamental rights.

You cannot demand that every culture be given equal respect unless every person belonging to them has equal rights and obligations as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In other words, we respect cultures if cultures respect individuals.

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What is intercultural dialogue useful for?

Intercultural dialogue does not mean that the whole world has to bow down to the Western way of life or commercial values. The European Union is proof that there is an alternative. Our process of integration is the only successful experiment in the democratic management of integration between different cultures.

The EU’s integration process is proof that uncontrolled globalisation can be stemmed. That the values and will of some will not necessarily be imposed on all others. Culturally speaking, this implies listening to others, being open to dialogue and making an effort to understand others.

Like all higher values, being open-minded and treating others as equal partners is something we work towards every day but never really attain. But we must never give up. Striving to achieve an ideal – and never giving up – is what gives meaning to life.

Naturally, human societies cover the whole spectrum, with an infinite variety of original, special characteristics. The European Union sees civilisation as embracing many facets of life: cultural and scientific, philosophical, spiritual, economic, political, social, educational, environmental, and so on.

The EU is careful to ensure that this concept of civilisation – as a multiple yet universal phenomenon – informs all its thinking and actions.

Having said that, dialogue between civilisations is not, nor should be, an instrument of political dialogue in the narrow sense, just a struggle over short-term interests. Or something to take its place. That would be counterproductive for both types of dialogue. On the other hand, if a dialogue between cultures is really taken to heart by civil society, it can become the fertile soil in which an amicable political dialogue can grow and bear fruit.

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Nearly nine centuries ago, in 1138, Al-Idrisi, the Arab geographer and writer, arrived at the cosmopolitan court of the Norman King Roger the Second of Sicily in Palermo. Al-Idrisi studied in Cordoba, travelled through most of the known world and wrote for the Norman king the most comprehensive work on world geography of that time that became known as “The Book of Roger”.

In this work Al-Idrisi brought together Greek wisdom, his own culture and his observations in the field. His life and work are a perfect illustration of the openness, generosity and intellectual curiosity that should shape our discussions today.

I invite you, during these two days of discussion, to rediscover the spirit of openness that characterised medieval Mediterranean culture. A time when Christian, Muslim and Jewish intellectuals collaborated on major works of research.

I hope that these discussions, thanks to your efforts, will map out areas of dialogue where we can sow the seeds of new ideas and reap a harvest in our future policies.

I invite you all, whether in Brussels, Valencia or Beirut, to become the Al-Idrisis of Euro-Mediterranean cultural dialogue and to begin redrawing the geography of the human race.