How has the European Union’s promotion of its founding principles within its borders evolved over the past decade?
When I began working as a human rights advocate in Brussels 15 years ago, it was very difficult to engage EU institutions about human rights inside the EU; I was told to raise these concerns with national governments, the Council of Europe, or the United Nations instead. At the time, respect for the EU’s founding principles (liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law) was taken for granted and not considered as a distinct policy area for EU institutions.
But as the EU grew and matured over the past decade, we have seen progress in EU law, policy, and debate relating to fundamental rights in the fields of criminal justice, asylum, non-discrimination, and citizens’ rights. This, in addition to an increased dialogue with civil society, shows vitality and that we are moving in the right direction. Even if slow and incomplete compared to external EU affairs, we are moving towards an EU that dares to challenge and eradicate discrimination and uphold fundamental human rights for everyone. Some may think it is too much of a stretch for the EU; I think that it should be at the core.
The rule of law crisis in Poland and Hungary has been high on the European Parliament’s agenda for several years. How has the work of the Parliament made a difference?
Egregious democratic backsliding by some Member States, namely Poland and Hungary, has shaken the EU to its core and undermined its standing internationally. All EU countries, new and old, must abide by international human rights standards enshrined in EU treaties and norms when joining the Union.
Despite the clear accession conditions, Hungary and Poland have systematically contravened these treaties and norms: consistent undermining of the independence of the judiciary, shameful migration policies, and public campaigns targeting women and minority groups.
“Egregious democratic backsliding by some Member States, namely Poland and Hungary, has shaken the EU to its core and undermined its standing internationally”
The images we see of the current crisis at the Polish border clearly show us the human impact of these shameful policies, with freezing migrants being used in geopolitical game. The crisis depicts a Polish government stripped of humanity and an EU unable to respond.
The European Parliament sounded the alarm early on Hungary and has been documenting systemic democratic backsliding and calling for action from the Commission since 2011. We saw the same engagement on Poland. This shows the importance of having a democratic institution representing the people to hold power—including EU institutions and States—to account.
How is civil society important in the EU’s response to the rule of law crisis?
Civil society organisations and actors are on the front lines of this crisis and have been critical in pressing EU institutions to act. They are the ones witnessing, documenting, warning, denouncing, and fighting—using the law and advocacy to defend democracy and peoples’ rights in Hungary and Poland. Despite threats and smear campaigns by the states, civil society provided evidence to the Parliament of democratic backsliding, along with analysis enriched by cross-national and regional civil society cooperation. Academics joined the movement to explore and propose ways in which the EU institutional set up and laws could respond.
We also should not underestimate the power of the people—even in the context of political manoeuvring. In October, Poles took to the streets to support the EU in response to a top court ruling that said key EU laws were “incompatible” with the Polish constitution; they demonstrated again in November at the tightening of abortion legislation. Despite Hungary’s attempts to silence dissent, its citizens marched on Budapest in June in response to their regressive LGBTI+ laws and alerted the international community at Euro 2020 and the recent MTV Europe Music Awards. These incredible moments show the power of the people to raise important issues and champion EU values from within, especially while others seek to suppress them.
Many regard EU processes as weak, and, as a result, a threat to EU unity. What is your view?
For EU processes to deliver to their full potential, there needs to the political will among Member States to give life to its founding values of fundamental rights, democracy, and rule of law. Laws and courts are not enough to prevent abuses in real time and can be instrumentalised—just as values can be misconstrued to socially and legally oppress fellow citizens.
“If the EU aspires to be an agent of change, it needs to step up and proactively engage with civil society—an absolute must in any well-functioning democracy”
Neither EU institutions, nor EU law, have the power, let alone the mission, to change governments or to police societies. What they can do is build a shield for those fighting for democracy at home, and slow down backsliding. EU processes and debates can create space for negotiation with governments and policy improvements, as well as prevent ‘copy-cat’ abuses across the EU and beyond.
How can the EU work more collaboratively with civil society to defend rule of law?
If the EU aspires to be an agent of change, it needs to step up and proactively engage with civil society—an absolute must in any well-functioning democracy. The current ad-hoc approach is not enough. Instead, it should develop a proper system to protect and promote civil society’s role in upholding the rule of law.
The EU will gain legitimacy by giving civil society a seat at the table and protecting it from criticism when intervening in defence of human rights. EU institutions and civil society can defend democracy at all levels of the Union, but only if they can work together in partnership.
The content was commissioned by Open Society European Policy Institute and produced by Dods