EESC plenary debate on the Rule of Law, the New Strategy for the Implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Democracy Action Plan (linked to opinions SOC/671 and SOC/672) with Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice
10 June 2021
Dear Commissioner Reynders, dear colleagues,
Next week will mark the anniversary of the signature of the 'Magna Charta Libertatum', signed in 1215. Although eight centuries is a long time ago and as an Irishman, it does not come naturally to me to praise the English (!), nonetheless, it was an extremely important treaty and directly relevant to our discussions today.
For the Magna Charta, established the principle of rule of Law, as opposed to rule by Law and this brought about a radical change to the concept of power. It determined that power does not derive from the 'top', but from the 'bottom'. And that any political system must be based on a social pact, where freedom and civil society prevail.
Some 806 years later, we are still discussing the same principles and values. Although now in an EU of 27, we are without the English!
I passionately believe that both the EU and the EESC have a responsibility to be very affirmative on this topic and to recall that rights are not automatic and that they must be constantly defended.One only needs to glance at the international pages of credible media outlets, to see the constant limitations to freedom of speech, restrictions to civil society and the centralisation of State power, across almost all continents.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has been widely used as an excuse to reduce rights and to make democracy more vulnerable. This is something that we have followed closely in the Diversity Europe Group, through recent events and studies. Indeed, according to a study we commissioned on the impact of Covid-19 on CSOs, it appears that 55 % of the civil society respondents felt that the centralisation of power during the Covid pandemic had hindered their political work. Similarly, many CSOs felt voiceless during the pandemic, with 32% of them stating that Covid-19 had a negative effect on their ability to promote rights and democracy. Even the UN last year called on States to ensure that their responses during the pandemic, were in line with their human rights obligations and commitments.
Of course, the key word in all of this is 'education'. Citizens must understand that democracy can improve their rights and should be encouraged to become active citizens. There is also limited knowledge of the existence and role of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and limited use by CSOs. As is written in the draft EESC Opinion: "We cannot wait for another decade to make the rights in the Charter a reality for the general public, civil society and public institutions". Might I add that I fully support the proposal in the draft EESC Opinion, to include in the Charter' planning process, the EU Anti-Racism Action Plan, the EU Disability Strategy and the LGBTIQ Strategy. We must be both forceful and coherent in all EU policies, fighting disinformation and defending our values both within the EU and in externally, in our relations third parties.
Thank you for your attention.