Now it is time to take concrete steps for regular, structured and transparent civic dialogue
Last Wednesday, the European Commission (EC) presented its first report on the rule of law situation in the European Union. This report is complemented with 27 country chapters that analyse the specifics for each member state.
The European Civic Forum (ECF) has contributed on the topic through the consultation opened by the European Commission in the spring (check our response here and the joint contribution within Civic Society Europe here)1. The Civic Space Watch, a platform powered by the ECF collecting resources on civic space, and CIVICUS Monitor, for which we are research partners, were also cited as resources in country reports.
As many civic actors have pointed since the report was announced, to be useful, the report needs to lead to actions against any backsliding of the rule of law in all the Member States. That said, we welcome the inclusion in the report of observations concerning the deterioration in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. We pay tribute to how the EC emphases the role of civic actors for the defence of the rule of law. The report recognises that the safeguards of the rule of law depend on the entire ecosystem of institutional and societal checks and balances, including civil society, and repeatedly mentions civic organisations as major actors for alerting on breaches of the rule of law. National authorities are called to take into consideration their statements and “attempts to suppress civil society actors should always be considered a warning sign with regards to the rule of law”.
We consider this recognition and the inclusion of civic space in the report as a positive sign by the EC listening to the voice of national and European civil society organisations and networks, including ourselves, in the last years, and also during the pandemic. This first step needs to lead to a concrete commitment to a regular, structured and transparent civic dialogue on any issue that concerns public policies.
While there is much to praise in the report, the approach of the EC to rule of law is narrow as it only focuses on four issues and skips European policies regarding migrants and asylum seekers when conducted at the EU borders and beyond them. In the case of civic space, it is limited to the legislative infrastructure for associative life, while overlooking how it is implemented in practice and what resources and venues are granted to civic organisations to act. Additionally, freedom of assembly seems not to be taken into account. Here you can read more about our approach to civic space. As a result, this document depicts only very partially the challenges that civic actors face in many countries when it comes to implementing and defending the rule of law. For most countries, the reading leaves a strange taste: a description of the issues made by governmental bodies, and obviously not actors that are monitoring their performance and report on identified abuses.
For example, the report mentions Croatia as a positive example of Member States that have recently “strengthened, or intend to take initiatives relating to, the environment for civil society” for the “National Plan to improve the legal, financial and institutional support system for the activities of civil society organisations.” However, the Government never adopted the National Strategy awaiting since 2016, leading civic actors not only to their financial instability but also to discouragement to an active role of social cohesion factor and active citizenship.
In the French case, a country that routinely is not considered as a bad pupil, violence by police during mass demonstrations, a major element for 2019, is almost not mentioned. The only sentence that speaks of violence against journalists is totally unclear. These examples are not exceptions. Many country reports are not dealing clearly with the questions at stake mentioned by civic actors.
It is too early to make the full analysis of the country profiles. Civil society organisations will do this in the next days and weeks. Their analyses will be of utmost importance to evaluate the relevance of the reports for civic actors standing up for the rule of law across Europe.
The question now is how the Commission intends to use the existing procedures in EU law against breaches of the Treaty and what changes it recommends to Member States to counteract the problems already mentioned in the reports. More concrete measures are needed to support the actions undertaken by civil society actors in individual Member States.
The ECF will keep working to highlight the gaps mentioned above and to advocate for better cooperation between the EC and grassroots and European civic organisations in the preparation of future reports.