While the whole world has been trying to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and looking for ways how to fine-tune the response to the virus and its consequences, one element is missing in the picture and it is the support to democracy and restoration of civil rights and fundamental freedoms. It is particularly surprising in the EU, a global actor in providing support to democracy, where the tendency has been to focus on health protection, economy, ecological and digital transitions or industrial sector, but to play down the fundamental values in the recovery plans.
Although it is still early to say how the future EU´s plans will materialise, for example on the side of the upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) until 2027 or the Next Generation EU, it is already clear that the priority will be given to other areas and saving the economy. However, this only is a short-sighted approach that would blowback to the face of cohesion of the EU in the upcoming years.
As a concrete illustration of this negative trend, the proposal made by the European Commission on 27 May 2020 to cut the already relatively modest Rights and Values Programme’s budget of EUR 641 million by more than 20%, due to other priorities, came as a negative surprise to all of us in the civil society groups in Europe. The recovery after the 2020 pandemic is, indeed, essential — both for economies and healthcare systems, to enable the EU to come back to normal. The support of the fundamental rights and values — a cornerstone of the EU — should not be overlooked either.
The democracy and human rights situation has significantly deteriorated worldwide during the pandemic. Unjustified restrictions in freedom of speech and assembly, a rise of domestic violence, disproportionate digital monitoring of citizens or abuse of power by the authorities are just a few of our concerns. In this context, cutting funds for the RVP under these circumstances sends a very wrong signal. As the post-coronavirus support of civil society actors, working for democracy, rule of law and fundamental freedoms, increases for countries outside the EU (e.g., in Russia and elsewhere), the same should be done inside of the Union.
The first step would be to restore, or even increase — as proposed by the European Parliament in 2018, the budget for the Programme and reflect on the concerns of the European civil society showing some goodwill in its support and bolstering of the common European values.
Now is the right moment to deliver on EU´s ambitious priorities set up by the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen and put to the portfolio of the Czech Commissioner Věra Jourová in the area of democratic consolidation, restoration of the rule of law architecture and rebuilding the trust and confidence in the EU values.
If the Commission wants to achieve its strategic priorities, it should start building its house from the bottom. And here, civil society plays the role of a cornerstone in the whole structure.
Pavel Havlíček is a Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs´ Research Centre (Czech Republic) and a member of the Board and of the Advocacy Task Force of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.