Head of EU's democracy watchdog: 'We have to raise our voices'

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Full interview of President Oliver Röpke with Douglas Herbert at France24, 12 May 2023

The watchdogs of EU democracy will have to be "much louder in the future" if they hope to see off a mounting threat from homegrown populists and autocrats who are chipping away at Europe's founding commitments to free speech and the rule of law, a top EU official has warned. "We have to make sure, wherever democracy is under threat, [where there is] shrinking space of civil society, then we have to raise our voices," Oliver Röpke, the newly elected president of the European Economic and Social Committee, an advisory body within the European Union, told FRANCE 24.

Douglas Herbert: Welcome to Talking Europe. Now, barely a day goes by when we do not hear talk of some threat to European unity. People being driven apart rather than coming closer together. Now, my guest today is a man who is tasked with fighting those trends. Oliver Röpke is the new President of the European Economic and Social Committee. Now, that is an advisory group within the European Union that in its own words, aims to involve civil society more in the European venture. Now, as such, you might say Röpke is a point man for democracy in Europe, and his motto "Stand up for democracy, speak up for Europe". Welcome to the show, thanks for being here. You have a much tougher job description, I think, than I do. Well, you are coming to the job at a tough time. Recent polls show dissatisfaction among Europeans with the way democracy is working in Europe is around 60%, really high. Do you feel like you're coming in at a tough time, an especially tough time? Your committee has been around 65 years.

President Röpke: Yes, absolutely. Those are tough times for Europe, but also for my Committee. I think we have a major challenge each other challenges ahead of us, and therefore, my priorities, as you rightly pointed out, are democracy, shrinking space for civil societies, not only outside Europe, but also within Europe, even within the European Union, protecting rule of law and fundamental rights. I think those are really the essential questions at the moment.

Douglas Herbert: And are not they under threat right now? Because I just said, 60% of Europeans are dissatisfied with democracy. But the same survey shows that 90 %, nine out of 10 Europeans, they defend the values of freedom of speech, of rule of law, of free elections. Isn't there a contradiction here?

President Röpke: We want to serve as a gateway for democracy and for fundamental rights and also as a watchdog. I think we have to make sure wherever democracy is under threat, shrinking space of civil society is there, then we have to raise our voice as a Committee. And this we will do. We did it already in the past, but we will be much louder in the future. This is actually my commitment.

Douglas Herbert: You used a big word there. I used it as well. Civil society. Everyone seems to have, I guess, their own definition of civil society. There is formal civil society organisations, and there is the more informal civil society. How do you define it?

President Röpke: Well, civil society in our house is clearly defined. It is organized civil society and we have three major groups, which means employers' organisations, trade unions, and civil society organisations, including consumer organisations, agriculture, environmental NGOs, and so on. We try to cover the whole range of civil society organisations, but we want to be more representative. Therefore, my clear commitment is also to involve civil society organisations and citizens outside the Committee in our work. I think this is the way to build the bridge.

Douglas Herbert: Let me now just take a little bit of a sledgehammer to your bridge. So let's look at the Union right now. Countries like Hungary, like Poland, just to name a couple, right now would say they are democratic. They would say, we have civil society. They just have a very different vision of it. The rest of Europe, Brussels, a lot of people think they're not even upholding rule of law there. How do you respond to that? How do you even bridge that?

President Röpke: Actually, we have clear positions in our group, in our Committee. We have a dedicated group which deals only with fundamental rights and the rule of law. This is a group which is highly respected in Brussels. We present together with the Commission the rule of law report, for example. We have missions to those countries where we exactly exercise and see how is the situation for civil society organisations. And then, as my motto and my slogan, we will speak out for Europe and we will be clear.

Douglas Herbert: You are in France right now. Some people have found it hard to speak out here. You have undoubtedly seen all of the images in recent weeks and months of, I will use the word, unrest on the streets of France. That civil society at its best, is it or not, or is it at its worst? People here say there is no democracy, a lot of people. There is no democracy in France. We have an undemocratic government.

President Röpke: Well, people are on the streets, civil society organisations. In this case, trade unions are on the street. This is a sign for a lively democracy. This is important. But as a representative of organised civil society, I am always in favour of dialogue, of civil dialogue and also of social dialogue. So I think the best solutions are always in a broad consensus. Therefore, we are striving for broader consensus. This is also our principle in the committee and I think this is the best way forward to show solutions.

Douglas Herbert: Let me play devil's advocate. It sounds very reasonable, right? You are Austrian. Your experience, you cut your teeth in the Austrian workers' groups and movements. You are very well familiar with the Union situation across Europe. France is a little different, some would say. There has not really been dialogue, or at least it has been extremely hard to get the unions and the executive to sit down together. Where do you start with that? I understand what you're saying "try to bridge". Where do you concretely start? How do you start?

President Röpke: Well, the cultures are different across Europe. As you said, we have very different we have a culture of social dialogue in some countries. In other countries, we go more for conflict and for industrial actions.

Douglas Herbert: You could use the word, France. You could say France.

President Röpke: I think this is not a problem because I am not in favour of a one size fits all approach. France has a big history, a large history, and is also a very vital democracy. I think it is okay if you have also disputes and if you go on the streets. But I think in the end, it should be necessary that politicians always enter into dialogue with civil society organisations, with the social partners in order to try to find avenues for future solutions.

Douglas Herbert: Steady as she goes, try to find avenues for dialogue. Now, you said at the top of this interview that your remit is not just inside Europe. You are looking outside Europe, too. There are 10 countries right now in the waiting line to become European Union members. We know Turkey is very prominent among them, having elections. But Ukraine, especially Ukraine, that to me seems like a giant challenge in your inbox right now. What do you say to Ukraine right now? They would like to join now, today.

President Röpke: They want to join now. And we gave a clear signal, the European Union gave a clear signal, a political signal, yes, you are a candidate. Our Committee was in favour of the candidate status. But it is clear that all the candidate countries have to comply with the criteria to access and to join the European Union.

Douglas Herbert: No exceptions? I mean, not exceptions, but no wiggle room to speed up a country's timeline.

President Röpke: We have to respect the criteria. I think this is also the lesson from the past. Countries have to be ready. Also, their civil society, their democracy, their rule of law has to be robust and ready for the European Union. This is clear. But we cannot let them in the waiting room, grant them candidate status, and then we do not do anything. We have to be proactive. And here as a Committee, we play a very active role. We are committed to help civil society in accession countries, including Ukraine, to actually to speak up, to be visible and to be respected. And I think this is the best way to prepare them for the enlargement of the European Union. I do not know when, but it is a step by step process. So it is not that we wait now. They sit in the waiting room and then after 5, 10 or 15 years, they can join.

Douglas Herbert: I will just note, Turkey has been in that waiting room for 24 years. They launched their bid in 1999. Moving on, there are European Union elections coming up in 2024. I think the tentative date is June 2024. They are always surrounded by a lot of indifference. It is always a challenge getting people to turn out. That is also part of your job, isn't it? I'm already tired just hearing the first part of it and the day isn't over. What do you do with that? How do you get people into the European elections?

President Röpke: The European elections are crucial. The next Commission is crucial. As you said, democracy is under threat, so it must be really a signal for democracy and for a stronger Europe. Therefore, we as Committee, we are clearly committed to be involved in all actions and in mobilisation of people.

Douglas Herbert: But what does that mean? What does that mean concretely? Because a lot of people do not even know about European Union elections. Even Europeans here voting in their own national. They do not know European elections, what's that? Do not you have to start with the very basics, the messaging? We are having an election in Europe, and here is why it is important.

President Röpke: Of course, with the basics. But I think it's always better to show concrete examples why Europe is important, why a European solution is better than a pure national solution. And here we have a lot of good examples from the past. We have the European pillar of social rights, but we have also our attempts and our efforts to increase competitiveness, open strategic autonomy within Europe. I think those are the replies to the challenges and those replies are European replies. So therefore, I think those are the best arguments to convince people, reach out, go to the elections, and vote for pro-European forces.

Douglas Herbert: When you see candidates waiting to join the EU, correct me if I am wrong, it seems that you see it as a sign of strength that people still believe in the European idea. They want to be part of Europe. Yet within Europe, a lot of people do not want them coming in. And we see a lot of that, right? It is not just populism and nationalism. It's a real sense that we're large enough already. How do you counter that?

President Röpke: My personal experience is that sometimes citizens within the EU see those countries also as a threat. They see them as a threat for their workplaces, for their wages. And therefore, it is so important that we have also joined rules not only for the single market, for a very strong single market, but also for social Europe. I think this is important. Here we can show if we have robust rules for this, really a mandatory European pillar of social rights, then we can make sure that at least the same basic level of social protection should apply to all of them. So to make sure that they are not a threat to the wages or to the workplaces of people within the European Union.

Douglas Herbert: Within the EU and within the EU here in France. There is a local story. There is a proposed law to make it a requirement for town halls to fly the European Union flag alongside the French flag on their facade. You might say, Well, okay, is that really controversial? It is here in France, especially in towns where the extreme right either has power or has a lot of influence. They are not doing that. They say we should embrace France. We're France. Do you think this is a petty debate? Do you have other fish to fry, as they say?

President Röpke: Well, you know what comes into my mind? If I go to candidate countries, if I reach out to candidate countries to the Western Balkans, then those countries are the countries with the most of European flags. I can see them everywhere there. So they see Europe as a hope, I would say, and as their future. So I think we cannot force this. We cannot force this. I'm in favour to show always the European flag next to the national flag. But if someone else is not in favour of this, let's convince them by arguments.

Douglas Herbert: Oliver Röpke, you are a busy man. I am going to let you go because you have a lot of work to do. I get the sense from our talk there. But I do wish you luck speaking up for Europe, standing up for democracy. That is the job description that the President of the EESC has. And it is a tall order, but he says it can be done with more civil society and more participation. Thanks to all of you for watching the interview here on Talking Europe.

The fully interview can be watched: https://www.france24.com/en/tv-shows/talking-europe/20230512-head-of-eu-s-democracy-watchdog-we-have-to-raise-our-voices