The ECF responds to the European Commission stakeholders’ consultation on the rule of law in the European Union   

11 March 2021 | Civic Space, Public Consultation

Deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and civic space: there is a need for a comprehensive approach 

The deterioration of the rule of law develops in parallel with growing social disparities  

In the European Union, the rule of law (Etat de Droit, Rechtsstaat) refers to constitutional supremacy and the protection of fundamental rights from public authorities and private interests. This set of norms, values, institutions that are deemed to protect from abuses are interlinked and, thus, affected by the way human rights, democracy and social justice are implemented. Experience shows that when societies are inclusive, when inequalities are low, when democracy works for the people, there is less risk of  political authorities disregarding the rule of law. 

The rule of law backsliding that the European Union member states are experiencing reflects tensions that are present in our societies resulting from the growth of inequalities and vulnerabilities, the sense that democracy and effective access to fundamental rights are not working for all. It is the product of a long process of degradation of social cohesion that has produced deep socio-economic, cultural and geographical divides inside our societies. Many people feel that democratic processes and the current institutional channels do not ensure their needs are heard and addressed in the European Union today. Many have lost confidence in the ways democracy is functioning.  

When democracy does not deliver social and economic cohesion, there is a growing risk that nationalism, xenophobia and identity politics based on exclusion become substitutes for an inclusive shared future. These trends are not dominant in European societies, but they are worrisome as a significant part of society is now looking in that direction. 

Open civic space as a key pillar of the rule of law and democracy 

A vibrant civil society and an open civic space are vital for a healthy democracy, strong social justice, and the proper functioning of the rule of law. An open, plural and dynamic civic space with strong civic organisations allows citizens to engage in public affairs beyond elections. It is also conducive for governments to be transparent and accountable. As such, the quality of civic space is an indicator of the state of the rule of law and democracy, and an integral component of the rule of law and democracy framework. Civic organisations and movements are often among the first actors targeted when the rule of law and democracy deteriorate because they provide checks and balances to uphold rights.

The European Commission states that it recognises civic organisations as major actors for alerting breaches of the rule of law, safeguarding democracy and fundamental rights, and for a fair and inclusive recovery from the manifold consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in its recent communications. However, none of these discuss civic space and the tools and measures necessary to protect it with the weight and attention the issue deserves.

It is time for a comprehensive European approach aimed at strengthening democracy, the rule of law and civic space 

The European Commission’s role is crucial in rebuilding trust and confidence in democracy and the rule of law as tools for addressing the wide range of people’s needs, increasing cohesion in our societies, and ensuring effective access to rights for all. This requires both addressing the root causes of European societal tensions through its economic and financial policies as well as developing a proactive strategy to impede further democratic and rule of law backsliding in specific Member States. To date, the European Commission’s approach to the deterioration of the rule of law and backsliding democracy is reactive and lacks a comprehensive vision. 

The European Commission should adopt a comprehensive approach for the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy, as they are intrinsically intertwined. Any restriction on a category of rights contributes to restricting rights in their universality. Civil society should be involved structurally in all phases of the monitoring and evaluation as well as on the inclusion of country-specific recommendations. A comprehensive approach should also include a specific strategy for civil society describing the tools and instruments at the disposal of the EU institutions, particularly the Commission, ‘to address the restrictions to civic space as identified in the monitoring.  

Read our contribution to the Rule of law consultation! 

The European Civic Forum contribution focuses particularly on the enabling environment for civil society and it is organised into three sections. Section (1) looks at the European Commission’s approach to the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights, and provides recommendations for a much-needed comprehensive approach to these issues. Section (2) proposes an analytical framework to unpack shrinking civic space in the EC Rule of Law report. Finally, section (3) showcases some of the trends that emerged throughout the year. Additionally, it looks at the developments in specific countries based on inputs collected by ECF members and partners and the monitoring carried out through the Civic Space Watch (