Through this opinion, requested by the German Presidency of the Council, the EESC recognises the essential role of smoothly functioning public services in defending core EU values. The opinion highlights their particular role in times of crisis, like COVID-19, which calls for the maximum human and financial support. The EESC proposes common European principles to support the role of public services in defence of democracy. They include the principles of neutrality, legality, proportionality, equal treatment and transparency; the right to good administration; independent oversight; the protection of public services staff against decisions breaching the rule of law; accessibility; interoperability; and the respect of the rule of law including when receiving EU funds.
Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law
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The EU is not only a common market; it is a union of common values that shape the European identity. These values are set out in the Treaty on the European Union and also include the rights, freedoms and principles laid out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights: the "indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; [the Union] is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice."
The Charter brings together into a single text all the personal, civic, political, economic and social rights enjoyed by people within the EU and apply to the EU institutions and Member States when they implement EU law.
The EESC is very active in the promotion of fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy, and especially in the fight against discrimination based on race, ethnic origin, disability or gender. In 2018, it established the Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law to further expand analysis of the situation across Europe and promote a constructive dialogue amongst all stakeholders.
The EESC welcomes the Commission's Communication on Further Strengthening the Rule of Law within the Union. It regrets that the short reflection period has not allowed for deeper consultation. The EESC recalls the essential watchdog role played by the civil society, which should be further supported. It reiterates its support for an EU mechanism to monitor rule of law and fundamental rights and proposes to establish an EU stakeholders Forum to debate solutions. The EESC also calls on the Commission to adopt a Strategy on communication, education and citizen awareness concerning these key issues.
Liberal democracy relies on civil liberties and a pluralistic civil society, but considerable political forces in today's Europe are challenging liberal democracy. The social, political and legal framework must allow for a pluralistic civil society. Strong social partners and civil society are needed to defend EU values. The EESC calls for the creation of a Democracy Semester, a European control mechanism, corrective economic measures for non-respect of fundamental EU values, the creation of a European statute for CSOs, or interinstitutional CSO authorisation and, tax incentives to support civil society. Burning social questions must be tackled, ensuring social sustainability and inclusive education.
The Justice, Rights and Values Fund is a much-needed instrument for the promotion of EU values, fundamental rights, democracy, the rule of law, and in support of a vibrant and diverse civil society. Overall funding should be increased to EUR 1.4 billion, and innovative funding tools be used to reinforce civil society participation and capacity. 50% of the different strands should be earmarked for civil society organisations, and funding for litigation in support of civil society organisations defending fundamental rights be supported. Synergies should be found with programmes supporting media freedom.
The EESC welcomes the proposal for economic corrective measures regarding Member States that commit serious violations of the rule of law in Europe, and recommends that the interdependence between democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law is better reflected. The Commission should develop further channels for debate on Article 2 TEU values, and should include the EESC in this work. The EESC reiterates its call for the creation of a system of regular and independent monitoring of the implementation of these values in the Member States.
Alarming political decisions have shown that the EU lacks adequate instruments to safeguard fundamental values and the rule of law. A new European mechanism on the rule of law and fundamental rights is needed. The mechanism should include a regular assessment of Member States in a governance "policy coordination cycle", similar to the European Semester. The EESC should play an active role, as this will make for strong civil society involvement. The mechanism must be based on indicators, taking into account the indivisibility of fundamental economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights.