In a debate on European values with European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders, held at its plenary session on 10 June, the EESC asked for civil society organisations and citizens to be more heavily and more actively involved in standing up for democracy and the rule of law in the EU, which have taken a turn for the worse across Member States
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has pledged its ongoing commitment to working together with the European Commission and other EU institutions on upholding and implementing the EU's core values, notably the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy.
In the debate with the Commissioner, the EESC asked for stronger democratic involvement of civil society organisations (CSOs) and citizens at EU level, with the aim of expanding their participation beyond elections and enabling a meaningful civil dialogue, which is a key prerequisite for the highest quality decision-making and ownership in any democracy. EESC members also placed particular emphasis on recognising social and economic rights as fundamental rights in the EU.
At the plenary, the EESC presented and adopted its opinions on the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) and the New strategy for the implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, in which it threw its support behind the Commission's recent initiatives aimed at protecting democratic values and citizens' rights in the EU.
The EESC president Christa Schweng said:
There are challenges to EU values everywhere; they cannot be taken for granted, even in countries with long-standing democratic traditions. Civil society expects a lot in terms of EU response, and wants to be actively involved in national and European discussions around the defence of these values.
The EESC president reiterated the EESC's support for strong action by the Commission:
We see our role as complementary to that of the Commission. Part of our added value is that we look at the socioeconomic angles of the rule of law and fundamental rights.
Mr Reynders presented the key initiatives, such as the EDAP and the annual Rule of Law Report, through which the Commission seeks to defend EU values against attacks from both within and outside the EU. These attacks have increased as of late, among other things due to the rise of disinformation made possible by digital progress.
Many of the problems will need a whole-of-society approach and international cooperation, he said,
in a coordinated effort by governments, civil society, researchers and fact-checkers, the private sector, media and citizens. I welcome the fruitful cooperation with your Committee in this regard.
He also stressed that a key aim of the new strategy on the Charter of Fundamental Rights was to empower civil society organisations and rights defenders to make the Charter a reality in people's lives.
Cristian Pîrvulescu, rapporteur for the opinion on the Charter strategy said the EESC found it regrettable that European citizens remained largely unaware of the Charter and the way it could positively affect their everyday lives, which
should not be the case. A recent Eurobarometer on Charter awareness showed that less than half of Europeans had heard about it and only 12% of them knew what it really was.
Speaking about the EESC's suggestions for the Charter strategy, he said:
We are calling for a global strategy for European civil society, which should include measures to protect and support civil society organisations, including an alert mechanism for identifying and reporting harassment. We also call for social partners to be given more of a role in promoting and implementing the rights laid down by the Charter. There has to be better awareness of economic elements of the rule of law.
Christian Bäumler, co-rapporteur for the opinion, said:
We want to emphasise the importance of recognising social rights as fundamental rights in the EU. Fairness, solidarity, and economic and social freedoms must be ensured as well. The impact of the pandemic on fundamental rights must not be forgotten either and we have to insist on sustainable support here too.
Mr Pîrvulescu, who also heads the EESC's Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL), reiterated the call previously made by the EESC for an annual Civil Society Forum on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law, which would be held jointly by the EESC and the Commission.
Such a forum would enable civil society to play an active part in defending EU values", he said. "The EU cannot win against populist national politics unless it forms a real alliance with civil society. Without such an alliance, too many citizens will be at the mercy of propaganda and false information portraying the Commission's work as political warfare waged by Brussels technocrats against sovereign nations, he stressed.
In its opinion on the EDAP, the EESC recommended that the Commission add a special pillar dedicated to the involvement of civil society and social partners and the promotion of labour democracy.
According to the rapporteur for the opinion, Carlos Manuel Trindade, the EESC regretted that the EDAP had failed to address the important role of social dialogue and collective bargaining in reducing inequalities and encouraging Europeans to embrace democratic ideals.
In order to champion and strengthen democracy, we need to get everybody on board: civil society, citizens and social partners. Adding the fourth pillar to the EDAP would validate and encourage active participation by social partners and civil society organisations, as well as promote social and civil dialogue at all levels and in all forms. This has to be done because European citizens are at the centre of democracy: they are both its main beneficiaries and its defenders, he said.
The co-rapporteur for the opinion, Andris Gobiņš, said the EESC was proposing concrete actions to improve the EDAP, strengthen the rule of law and
make European democracy better in reality.
In EDAP, a separate pillar is needed for civil society's activities beyond elections, because democracy is much more than going to a polling station once every four or five years, he said.
This needs very clear strategic support in terms of funding under the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF).
Among other proposals laid out in the EESC's opinion, Mr Gobiņš singled out the need for an interinstitutional agreement on civil dialogue with European civil society, in line with the provisions of Article 11 of the TEU. The EESC also proposed that a new chapter should be included in the Rule of Law report to monitor civic space and dialogue, which have been under duress for several years, with civil space shrinking and freedoms of association and assembly curtailed for many CSOs across Europe.
The EDAP, presented by the Commission in December, rests on three pillars: free and fair elections, media freedom and disinformation. It includes a number of measures aimed at strengthening democracy, securing the safety of journalists and shielding the public from all sorts of disinformation, which seem to have been thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The European Commission Rule of Law Report is issued every year for all EU countries covering the areas of justice, anti-corruption, media freedom and checks and balances. The second report will be published in September.
As a fervent advocate of the respect for EU values, the EESC has issued a number of opinions on the rule of law and democratic developments in the EU. Set up in 2018, its FRRL Group has undertaken country visits in several countries to assess their state of fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law.