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Ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to welcome you here in Brussels today, to launch our new dialogue on higher education policies and programmes with Southern Mediterranean countries. I would also like to thank all the delegations who made the trip to Brussels, as well as Minister Demosthenous and Minister Owais for being here with us.
This dialogue stems directly from the commitments the European Union has made in spring 2011 in response to the "Arab Spring".
Our position, then and now, is that those events call for a qualitative step forward in our relations with our Southern neighbours. We have therefore moved to anchor our new partnerships in joint commitments to the values we all cherish: democracy, human rights, good governance, rule of law and social justice.
The future of Southern Mediterranean countries lies of course in the hands of their people and leaders. But the European Union is ready to lend its support to political, economic and social development in your countries.
Our historical, cultural and commercial ties go back centuries. The Mediterranean Sea is not a border, and it never really was. It is instead a link between three continents and countless cultures.
Taking advantage of our close geographical proximity the exchange of goods, ideas and people between the two shores of the Sea has always been intense.
I want to re-affirm on this occasion that we are deeply committed to pursuing and strengthening our co-operation with our Mediterranean neighbours.
A year ago we laid the basis for reviewing our cooperation and building a new partnership to support change. Just over a month ago, we drew a first assessment of the progress achieved in the context of the reinforced European Neighbourhood Policy. We have looked specifically at our partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean countries.
Today's event is part of the roadmap towards further progress that we have adopted on that occasion.
Education is central to our efforts. In order to reach our objectives for a democratic and prosperous Southern Mediterranean, we need to concentrate on young people. They are the main catalyst for social and political change - and they are also the region's future main economic actors. Their education is a crucial element in the development of the Southern Mediterranean region.
This is also because one third of the Southern Mediterranean’s population being under 15 years of age, up to 60 million young people, will join the workforce by the middle of the next decade.
Economies in the region will need to create between 2.5 and 5 million jobs every year if they are to absorb new entrants to the labour market and contain unemployment.
Education systems are under tremendous pressure. They face the crucial challenge of providing valuable skills to millions of young jobseekers so that they can play an active role in their societies.
Education systems also have another, equally fundamental role, that of promoting equal opportunities and equal access - together with building employability, these are the essential pillars for sustainable, inclusive and equitable societies.
And we know that among the many, too many youth unemployed, girls and young women face much higher unemployment risks compared to young males, indicating that there are specific labour market entry problems for women. Indeed, only one in four women is in employment across the region.
This state of affairs is discriminatory and it hampers development: it needs to be changed.
Education has a tremendous transformational potential. Let us put our trust in what we know can be a force for the good: the spread of literacy, the sharing of knowledge, the empowerment of women.
We will all reap the benefits from these processes, and democracy will grow stronger from that. Democracy, in any country, cannot take root unless people come to see that liberty translates into concrete opportunities for them and their children.
More and better opportunities are what our cooperation should bring about. That is why the European Commission has more than doubled the number of scholarships awarded to students and academic staff from the Southern Mediterranean countries in the framework of the Erasmus Mundus programme.
This effort will continue in 2012 and 2013, when we also intend to at least double the budget for the Southern Mediterranean countries.
And thanks to our joint information efforts, interest in the programme has strongly increased. At the end of the selection process of the on-going call for proposals, we expect to finance the mobility of 400 people through 10 university consortia. Recipients of those fellowships will be given the opportunity to study, do research or teach in Member States of the European Union. They will acquire new skills and improve their employment prospects, while European students will benefit from Southern Mediterranean academics' knowledge and experience of the region.
The Commission also provided additional funds for the TEMPUS programme (12.5 million Euro over 2012 and 2013). The objective is to contribute to the modernization of higher education systems and strengthen collaboration with European universities.
The global amount planned for projects involving Southern Mediterranean countries is 29 million Euro: close to three times the amount last year (11.4 million Euro).
In parallel and in a complementary manner, the Commission (DG HOME) has also initiated a dialogue with Tunisia and Morocco to negotiate mobility partnerships that include agreements on visa facilitation, especially for students and researchers. Other countries should now follow.
The measures I outlined so far support youth mobility and reforms in higher education systems. These will be the main subject of our discussions in the next two days. But I would also like to mention some other important community initiatives targeting Southern Mediterranean youth in a broader sense.
We also support our neighbours through bilateral cooperation. Action plans agreed with our partners allow financing of major initiatives such as the modernization of school systems and the reinforcement of vocational training structures. So for instance, a programme for supporting youth employment was approved with the Algerian government, for an amount of 23.5 million Euros.
And we strive to promote youth mobility within the Euromed Youth and Youth in Action programmes. Thousands of young people benefit from these exchanges between the two sides of the Mediterranean. These programmes offer opportunities for non-formal learning and promote active citizenship among participants.
In the future, our commitment to our Southern Mediterranean neighbours is set to continue, and indeed be strengthened. It is set to become fully integrated in our policies and programmes in support of education.
Tomorrow, there'll be a whole session dedicated to the new co-operation opportunities arising from our proposal for the next generation of programmes for education and training for the period 2014-2020. I would just like to recall here two main points of great importance.
What the Commission proposes is a much stronger programme for education and training within an otherwise stable budget. This is saying with certainty that money spent on education is money well spent, an investment guaranteed to repay itself many times over.
Secondly, we intend to reinforce the international dimension of the new "Erasmus for all" programme. We foresee a privileged treatment for neighbourhood countries, supporting mobility between our two regions and contributing to the capacity building of higher education institutions.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Our two-day dialogue is also a forum to exchange our views and knowledge about higher education systems in Southern Mediterranean countries and in the European Union, to assess the achievements of existing cooperation tools and to discuss expectations for future developments. It is meant to help us to review and bring into sharper focus our co-operation.
It will allow us to identify new fields, and come up with new working mechanisms for the short and the medium term.
I expect that this dialogue will allow us
-to share good practices and experiences among participants, using in particular, the rich experience gathered through Tempus and Erasmus Mundus.
-to improve the knowledge and use of EU-supported programmes in this field and discuss the next generation programme.
-and, to evaluate EU assistance and identify further support needs.
And as we are committed to supporting our partners across the Southern Mediterranean region in modernising and reforming their higher education systems, we would be particularly pleased if this dialogue could also contribute to the increase of intra-regional cooperation.
We are starting the dialogue with higher education, but we are ready to extend it to other areas such as vocational education and training should you wish to do so.
I would like to conclude by stressing that today's event is not simply a "conference" or a "seminar". It is the start of a dialogue - a constructive process where ideas and information are exchanged freely towards mutual benefit.
I encourage you to take the opportunity to raise questions, propose new ideas and identify steps for future cooperation, in a constructive and positive atmosphere such as the one that exists here today.
Thank you for your attention.