Following the deterioration in human rights and the state of democracy, the EESC sets up a study group on fundamental rights and the Rule of Law

The situation in some Member States has led us to create a strategy for defending the Rule of Law, human rights and the concept of liberal democracy, said José Antonio Moreno Díaz, president of a new group on fundamental rights and the Rule of Law. Fact-finding missions to Poland, Hungary or Romania will be a starting point for the group, established by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) earlier this year and which held its first meeting on 11 June in Brussels.

Focus on types of breaches

The new study group, established for a term of two and a half years, comprises 18 EESC members, who will focus on topics that represent a challenge to fundamental rights and the Rule of Law.

It is important to stress that we are not trying to point the finger at specific countries; we are trying to be vigilant in terms of attacks on the Rule of Law, said Mr Moreno Díaz, adding that it is important to focus on the types of breaches taking place in the EU.

However, the group wanted first to focus its attention on those countries most seriously affected by an anti-democratic drift. It was pointed out that the Commission had had to trigger the Article 7 mechanism against Poland, which could lead to the country losing its right to vote in the Council. The group agreed that the reality cannot be ignored and that the Committee should organise initial fact-finding missions to Poland and to either Hungary or Romania, which will hold the EU Council presidency for a period of six months from January 2019, and where civil society's space is shrinking.

The group will also organise hearings with civil society on various issues such as media freedom, judicial independence or the shrinking space available to civil society and will draft opinions and reports on these topics. Furthermore, in cooperation with civil society, the group plans to hold an annual forum to review the situation in the EU concerning the Rule of Law and fundamental rights.

Concerns about civil society

The new study group focussed its discussions largely on civil society, which plays an important role in upholding democracy, the Rule of Law and fundamental rights. It was emphasised that democratically elected governments in some Member States are attempting to suffocate civil society organisations by cutting off their funding.

It is important to realise that non-governmental organisations provide protection against this growing anti-democratic trend, and we need to look at how we can support these organisations, said Karolina Dreszer-Smalec, the Vice-President of the new Group.

Czech EESC member Pavel Trantina stressed the need for independent funding from national governments. If we want to strengthen civil society, we cannot allow national governments to cherry-pick by favouring those that support government policies or that at least do not criticise their policies.

Former EESC president Georges Dassis noted that many EU countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Greece or especially those who lived under former communist regimes had joined the EU because of its values and respect for fundamental rights. If we cannot guarantee these rights anymore, the EU will crumble; it is our moral obligation to support our colleagues in civil society organisations that are trying to secure those rights in the Member States, said Mr Dassis.

Background: Article 2 TEU states that The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities…. The new group was established by the Bureau decision of 18 April 2018 to strengthen the EESC's contribution to upholding these values.