For a Union of values: we must protect the rule of law and fundamental rights, says EESC

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The European Union is not only a common market, it is an union of common values that shape the European identity. These values include the rights, freedoms and principles laid out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights: the "indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; [the Union] is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice."

The rights, freedoms and principles of the Union are criteria for accession of Member States and should be continuously respected in practice. However, there is no such a thing as a mechanism to enforce them when they come under attack.

Alarmed by the current deterioration in human rights and the populist and authoritarian drift in many EU Member States, the EESC believes that Article 51 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights should be amended so as to extend its scope beyond measures implementing EU law and make sure all provisions of the Charter are applicable in the Member States.

It also considers it vital to create a legally binding European mechanism, a framework actively involving the Commission, the Parliament and the Council and in which the EESC plays an important role representing civil society. This mechanism will complement the Commission's framework and the intergovernmental dialogue launched by the Council. This mechanism could be called the "new Copenhagen mechanism" and would be subject to democratic and judicial oversight. It should on a regular basis examine aspects such as legality, the hierarchy of norms, legal certainty, equality, non-discrimination, free access to justice and due process, prevention of abuse of the law and arbitrariness on the part of public authorities, separation of powers, respect and protection for political pluralism, minorities and social and sexual diversity, etc., respect for freedom of expression and of the press, with a view to identifying current shortcomings and calling for them to be remedied. The mechanism should be based on indicators that are themselves based on quantitative and qualitative data for indicators on the rule of law; indicators on the quality of democracy; indicators on the protection of fundamental rights. The Fundamental Rights Agency should explicitly be given the mandate to assist such a mechanism.

Increased dialogue and cooperation at EU level: a new Pact for Democracy

The EESC proposes the adoption of a shared approach by the three main EU institutions (Commission, Council and Parliament). Dialogue and cooperation between the institutions are essential for such an important issue. But dialogue with civil society organisations is also crucial, as they play a key role in the defense of democratic values.

In this context, the proposal to conclude an EU Pact for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights (DRF) in the form of an interinstitutional agreement is welcomed by the EESC. It will facilitate the cooperation of institutions of the Union and its Member States and launch an annual policy cycle with the aim of ensuring a common and coherent approach in the EU.

The EESC supports the implementation of such a pact and is committed to participate in its preparation by possibly setting up a permanent group to organise hearings with civil society and draft opinions and reports in this regard. The EESC, together with civil society organisations, could also organise an annual forum to review the situation of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, and could draw up proposals and recommendations to be forwarded to the Commission, the Council and the Parliament. The Committee proposes also to cooperate with the other institutions in the drafting of impact assessments.