The February plenary of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) hosted a debate led by its President Christa Schweng and European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová. Key takeaway: the extraordinary measures taken to fight the pandemic should not endanger the EU's founding principles of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.
Emergency measures taken by public authorities in extraordinary circumstances should always be strictly proportionate, clearly limited in time and closely monitored. Addressing the EESC plenary on 23 February 2022, Christa Schweng, EESC President and Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, took a firm stand.
Referring to the COVID-19 crisis and the state of emergency declared by many EU Member States to protect public health, resulting in restrictions on several fundamental rights and freedoms, Ms Schweng said:
The pandemic is a stress test for our societies and for our democracies. Looking from the perspective of fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy, the EESC felt it was essential to closely monitor the situation. We have particularly listened to civil society actors regarding the consequences, challenges, and exit strategies related to the crisis. The EU needs to come out of the COVID-19 crisis reinforcing its common values.
For her part, Ms Jourová underlined that the COVID-19 pandemic had forcefully illustrated how vital our fundamental rights and democratic values were for our daily lives and how they could not be taken for granted:
An important lesson from the health crisis has been that measures necessary to combat the pandemic should not be taken at the expense of protecting democratic values and fundamental rights. We need to be vigilant and uphold our fundamental rights and common values, which should be central to our response to COVID-19.
She added that the emergency measures had changed the normal balance of powers at national level, posing particular problems for the respect of the rule of law. This is why the Commission had been proactively monitoring the situation and would continue to closely monitor their impact:
The Commission has insisted from the outset that emergency measures should be limited to what is necessary, strictly proportionate, and clearly limited in time. They should also be in line with national constitutional guarantees, and comply with the relevant European and international standards.
Emergency measures to tackle the COVID-19 crisis must remain time-limited
The EESC's position on the impact of COVID-19 on fundamental rights and the rule of law across the EU and the future of democracy was outlined in the opinion presented by the EESC Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law Group and drafted by José Antonio Moreno Díaz and Cristian Pîrvulescu.
In the document, adopted by the plenary, the EESC expresses its deep concern regarding the way COVID-19 has impacted people's lives, safety, welfare and dignity. Underlining the fact that the EU is based on common European values which are not negotiable under any circumstances, the Committee points out that the special measures to address the COVID-19 crisis should remain exceptional and time-limited and should not go against the rule of law or endanger democracy, the separation of powers and the fundamental rights of European inhabitants.
Speaking in the debate, Mr Moreno Díaz stressed that these principles were enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and, on top of being non-negotiable, were inseparable, complementary and reinforced each other, and that under no circumstances could an exception be made to complying with them.
On the same wavelength, Mr Pîrvulescu called for an inclusive recovery process leaving no one behind, and giving particular support to vulnerable sections of society, while fostering participation, democracy and the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights.
Civil society's concerns regarding the extraordinary measures to counter the pandemic
On behalf of the EESC's Employers' Group, Martin Hošták noted that the EU was built on values which had been put at risk in recent times, which meant that we now needed to concentrate on stability and clear rules to uphold the rule of law for both businesses and citizens.
Oliver Röpke, president of the EESC's Workers' Group, stressed that although unprecedented measures were needed to fight the pandemic, they could not go against the rule of law and endanger democracy: human rights, including workers' rights, needed to be upheld and even enhanced.
Finally, Séamus Boland, president of the EESC's Diversity Europe Group, emphasised that many civil society organisations had reported a deterioration of their operating environment in the course of the pandemic, and that therefore they must be supported with sustainable and simplified access to funding: public authorities should be systematically incentivised to engage with and involve these organisations.