The EESC says threats to the rule of law and fundamental rights and the shrinking space for civil society, as described in its report based on visits to several EU countries, may be further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis
The Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law (FRRL) Group of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has published a report on national developments in the area of fundamental rights and the rule of law from a civil society perspective, recapping the main findings from the first seven country visits led by the Group in 2018 and 2019.
The report, which updates the interim report published in November 2019 and integrates the main conclusions from the EESC's high-level conference on the rule of law held the same month, clearly shows an increasing weakening and stigmatisation of the role of civil society in Europe over the last few years.
Freedom of association, including the right of civil society organisations to freely conduct their activities, and access to funding are shown to have been under particular strain. Some of the key challenges to the freedom of the media, the right to information and freedom of expression are also listed.
The report includes summaries of the FRRL Group's visits to Romania, Poland, Hungary, France, Austria, Bulgaria and Italy, where it held multiple exchanges with stakeholders. These stakeholders were mainly representatives of civil society organisations but also included legal and media professionals. Meetings with national authorities took place during the visits and they were asked to comment in addition on the observations made by civil society. Their input is included in the report.
Although the report is based on content which predates the major events that have shaken the world – namely the COVID-19 crisis and the global protests against racism – it helps to provide an understanding of the underlying trends that have now come to the forefront and which may be further aggravated by these unprecedented events and their consequences.
There is a risk that the problem of a shrinking space for civil society will be worsened by the reallocation of funds to new priorities and by the pre-eminence of responses to the crisis centralised in the hands of executive powers, the EESC warns.
Commenting on the need to detect the causes of the current negative trends, EESC President Luca Jahier said:
COVID-19 has been a global tsunami, leaving no sector of our society unaffected. During an earthquake, it is the buildings not built to withstand the shock that collapse. In the same way, COVID-19 has revealed the weaknesses and unpreparedness of our society. The recovery should be an opportunity to rebuild a more resilient society, but this will only be possible if we understand the causes of these underlying weaknesses that have emerged in plain sight during the crisis.
In this regard, it is particularly important to secure the rule of law so as to ensure that the measures applied to fight the pandemic remain necessary, proportionate and temporary in nature. The report shows that the independence of the judiciary and the balance of power were compromised before the COVID-19 crisis, while other issues such as a lack of transparency in democratic processes and corruption were also present.
To recover from the crisis, it is essential now more than ever to reinforce society’s capacity to hold informed and constructive debates, which are at the heart of deliberative democracy.
While the COVID-19 crisis and its response have disproportionately affected some vulnerable groups, the report shows that the issue of discrimination was already central and endangering the balance of European societies. Many Member States have been entangled in tense debates around migration and the integration of minorities for years, with the topic dominating their agenda and having a cascade effect on fundamental rights such as non-discrimination and freedom of association.
President of the EESC's FRRL Group, José Antonio Moreno Díaz, said:
One will remember that what de facto ended the COVID-19 limitations to freedom of assembly in Europe was the global protests against racism and discrimination that erupted in June 2020. This symbolically shows the profound thirst for justice and equality in our society. Addressing the challenges linked with COVID-19 and the global protest against racism reinforces the significance of our mission.
The FRRL Group was set up in 2018 amid concerns that fundamental rights and the rule of law were under threat in the EU. The Group was charged with the task of monitoring the values that were central to the European project. Its findings, made during the last two years, have revealed the magnitude of that threat, showing both the social and democratic fabrics in EU countries and the European project itself to be at risk.
As soon as the situation allows the FRRL Group will resume its country visits, so as to offer civil society in all Member States the same opportunity to be heard on such essential concerns as fundamental rights and the rule of law, including during the new post-COVID-19 recovery period.