Speech on Civil Society Perspectives on the European Rule of Law Mechanism: Checks & Balances by President Séamus Boland

Conference on "Civil society perspectives on the European Rule of Law Mechanism" organised by the EESC's Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship (SOC), Brussels, 4 November 2021

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

It is with great pleasure that I accepted to speak on the role of civil society in the European rule of law mechanism, focussing in particular on their contribution to checks and balances. I would like to begin my presentation with a quotation from Ms von der Leyen, who during this year's State of the Union speech stated and I quote: "Protecting the rule of law is not just a noble goal…it is also hard work and a constant struggle for improvement…(But) these values are part of our soul, part of what defines us today."

Clearly I agree and I would like to add that in relation to the rule of law, the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us three fundamental lessons. Firstly, it highlighted the importance of the rule of law for our democracies, our fundamental rights and our daily lives. Secondly, it revealed that even in the EU, these rights are fragile and should not be taken for granted. Thirdly, it demonstrated beyond doubt, the essential role of CSOs in protecting those values and in finding sustainable solutions.

This topic is actually very close to the work of the Diversity Europe Group. In January, the EESC published a study commissioned by our Group called "The response of civil society organisations to the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent restrictive measures adopted". We also have another ongoing study on "The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on fundamental rights and civic space". The preliminary results of this work will be presented at our Group III conference tomorrow.

Moving on now to the core of my presentation, I would like to recall a sentence from the EC's 2nd Annual Report on the European Rule of Law Mechanism: "…when civil society's space to operate shrinks, it is a sign that the rule of law is at risk". The obvious question for many people not familiar with the work of civil society, is 'why'? Apart from the fact that Article 11 of the Treaty on the European Union makes it compulsory for European Institutions to consult with civil society. What are the benefits of doing this?

I could spend literally hours on this topic, but I will try to be concise. Maintaining a vibrant and independent civil society is crucial to maintaining the rule of law, because civil society is the vehicle through which society expresses and acts upon its deepest concerns, commitments and ambitions. It is civil society, which makes both national and European politics more relevant and legitimate to citizens. Civil society is often seen as the 'guardian of the common good'. And it is these actors who can help overcome not only threats to democracy from authoritarian regimes, but also threats from identity politics and public distrust.

Hence, I am very pleased that the EC has followed in part the recommendations of the Committee, which in an Opinion earlier this year on the 'European Democracy Action Plan', called for the EC Rule of Law reports to include a specific section on civic space, assessing the situation in each Member State. This is particularly necessary as the Covid-19 pandemic has been a perfect storm for restrictions in rights and the rule of law.

It is true that in some EU countries there has been scrutiny by parliaments and Courts of the legality, justifications and proportionality of Covid-19 measures. For example, in my own country Ireland, the Human Rights and Equality Commission recommended that maximum extensions of Covid-19 measures should be specified in law. However, in other EU Member States, the executive has decided to maintain the emergency regimes in place, for an indefinite period. Hence, in certain Member States, the democratic system of checks and balances between the executive, the parliament and the judiciary has been seriously undermined. In others, the situation is less extreme, but still a cause for concern.

This is where civil society should play an essential role. Unfortunately, recent work carried out by our Group has revealed significant political and economic obstacles for civil society, directly resulting from Covid-19. For example, a shrinking safe civic place and restrictions to the civic freedoms of association, assembly, expression and privacy online and offline. But also serious economic difficulties, resulting from sudden escalation of requests for their services, reductions in donations and increases in operating costs, all of which undermine their capacity to act. Ultimately, civil society needs predictable and sustainable funds.

So what is the way forward? There are a number of very specific recommendations that have been made by us as a Group and by the Committee. Firstly, it is necessary to have an enabling environment, which respects and supports the independence and democratic role of civil society. And it is imperative to develop an effective culture of consultation and dialogue. The EU should incentivise national authorities to systematically engage in dialogue with civil society organisations, measure their impact and raise awareness of their positive contribution.  It is particularly regrettable that very few civil society organisations have been effectively involved in the co-design of the EU National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs). They must co-participate, co-implement and co-assess these plans.

Secondly, civil society needs sustainable financing, better information on existing EU funding opportunities and simplified EU financial processes. For example, within the Multi-annual Financial Framework, Member States should be asked to allocate adequate resources to finance civil dialogue and capacity-building. Similarly, the EU Programme 'Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values' should be accessible to European, national and local civil society organisations, including human rights actors.

Thirdly, much greater efforts must be made to educate citizens on the value and contribution of civil society to democracies and fundamental rights in particular. Last but not least, civil society must itself work closer together across different sectors, along topics of common interest at the national, regional and European levels.

Ladies and gentlemen, I will bring my presentation to a close by reminding us all that the Covid-19 pandemic has also taught us how much we are reliant on civil society. They acted as a safety net at the local level, providing essential health and social care services, alongside local authorities. But civil society cannot be boxed into this role of social service provision, filling in the gaps of government. If we want to have sustainable, resilient, equitable and democratic societies, then civil society must be listened to with full respect and in partnership.

Allow me to close with a reference to the French 19th Century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Among all the Liberal philosophers, he best understood that the collective business of society must be done as much as possible by the people themselves, rather than by government. A man certainly ahead of his time. He also argued that it is impossible to have liberty without democracy, whereas it is possible to have democracy without liberty! How little things change…

Thank you for your attention.


Speech by Séamus Boland