2010 Strasbourg – Democracy in Europe

Europa – Women: a force for democracy!

A big park with flourishing trees, a welcoming home: the Cultural Centre St. Thomas in Strasbourg, at walking distance from the European Institutions. In short: a perfect location for the General Assembly of ANDANTE, from 15th to 18th April 2010.
The approximately 60 participants from 13 European countries were warmly welcomed by the women of the regional branch of the French member organisation Action catholique des femmes. Thursday afternoon, even before the official opening session of the Assembly, many of them took part in a visit to the Council of Europe.


Democracy for me is…
As always, the Statutory Assembly was preceded by Study Days on a specific theme. This time it was ‘Democracy in Europe’ – How can Catholic women play a role in their democracies? How can ANDANTE influence European policy?
The participants had been asked to prepare a short statement on their understanding of ‘democracy’, and to give some examples that were specific for the democratic system in their country. From the presentations it was clear that there are significant differences – not only in the understanding of what ‘democracy’ exactly means, also in the way the system is functioning in the various European countries. One of the differences mentioned was that between the ‘old’ and ‘young’ democracies: in Western Europe a growing indifference vis-à-vis everything linked with politics; whereas people in Eastern Europe are disappointed in their hopes and expectations after the break-down of the communist dictatorship.
These differences became also clear during the ‘Political Forum’ op Friday morning, when women politicians from six European countries gave a short talk about ‘Democracy’ in their country. Differences in the opinions of the population: people who see democracy above all as ‘freedom’, as a right, and less as (also) a responsibility, a duty. Difference also with regard the role of citizens and civil society in decision-making processes: In some countries exists a real dialogue, organisations and individual citizens are consulted (Switzerland!). In other countries it is ‘Politics’ that decides what is important; very often it even takes an attitude of mistrust vis-à-vis the population and civil society: in those cases dialogue deteriorates to monologue.

Individualism: a negative or a positive force?
After the statements there was a vivid debate between the speakers themselves as well as with the audience. Gret Haller (university teacher, political scientist, publicist, and former ambassador of Switzerland at the Council of Europe) was great in moderating this debate. It was pointed out that there is a difference between women and men in the way they engage in politics. Women prefer to be active at local level because they feel that they will be able to work on more concrete issues there.
In all countries there seems to be a lack of interest for ‘Politics’ in general, especially among young people. The reasons mentioned were: a general mistrust vis-à-vis ‘Politics’ and the incredibility of politicians because of unfulfilled promises, the complexity of the issues, unclear language, the lack of transparency i.a. because of the influence of lobby groupings etc.
The growing individualism, where people only think of and try to fulfil their own interests and wishes, was mentioned as one of the most negative factors. On the other hand Gret Haller pointed out a more positive aspect. The history of a country has always been of great influence on how democracy has developed. That is the reason of the many differences between the various countries. We should cherish these differences because ‘in the Construction of Europe’ this pluralism is a force for democracy.
Individualism can also be a positive force. This is because personal freedom means more than simply accept what most other people think about certain issues. In this sense individualism can bring people to forming an own opinion. That’s where our priorities should be in our organisations and countries: education to democracy, so that everyone can develop her/his own opinion built on personal experience, and from that own opinion be able and be willing to take responsibility upon her/him.

More women in (European) politics!
Again and again the speakers stressed the importance that women become (more) active in politics. They should engage in the male dominated system of politics, also, and even more importantly, at the European level. Only when also women use the opportunities offered by the democratic system, when they occupy the posts where politically important decisions are taken, in other words: when they are in positions of power, only then they will be able to change things (for women). Power in itself is not evil or something dirty, provided it is used for serving the common good.
Similar opinions were heard in the discussion groups. Some very concrete projects were formulated such as plans for bilateral cooperation. It was interesting to notice that/how some of the delegates, influenced by what they had heard and learned during the study days, had changed viz. nuanced their understanding of ‘democracy for me is…’.

Side programme
Worth mentioning is the cultural programme offered by Acf: visit of the splendid cathedral, dinner with typical regional dishes and wine in a former custom office (17th century), boat tour through the historical old city, performance of a folkloric dance and song group. Just as the traditional ‘international buffet’, this excursion offered many opportunities for informal meetings and discussions, for discovering each one’s particularities, in short: for networking!