Does the EU care about democracy at home?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Participants of the '2.0 We are the majority! - Another protest for democracy' demonstrate against the results of the 08 April general election as they march on the Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Road in Budapest, Hungary, 21 April 2018. [EPA-EFE/Marton Monus]

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, writes Pavel Havlicek.

Pavel Havlicek is a Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs (AMO) in Prague and 2019/20 Rethink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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.

The EU was indeed having high ambitions in support of democracy and upholding its values before the crisis, as – for example – in its EU Democracy Action Plan,  the Rights and Values Programme and Media action plan or the Digital Services Act, but the danger remains that these initiatives will be downgraded due to other priorities.

By the European Commission recently proposed cuts of more than 20 per cent to the Rights and Values Programme, which is supposed to uphold the EU fundamental values and support civil society and grassroots organisations, stand out as a case in point.

What should be done

The COVID-19 pandemic, indeed, means an enormous challenge for the whole world, including the EU. The upcoming months will, therefore, be crucial when redesigning the public policies and fine-tuning the EU’s response to coming back to normal.

When increasing the societal resilience and restoring public trust in the state and its institutions, civil society is going to play a crucial role. The European civil society and independent media are also going to be instrumental for full restoration of the EU fundamental values of democracy, human rights or the rule of law to pre-pandemic times.

Therefore, it is now of critical importance to make the right choices when fine-tuning the tools and instruments when upholding the EU´s civil society and democracy at home.

The current state of play in the EU, including the ongoing negotiations of the MFF of the EU until 2027, provide an opportunity to unblock some of the bottlenecks when designing the future support to the civil society if there is enough political will in the European Commission and the EU members and sufficient societal pressure from the citizens for the EU level to act.

But this window of opportunity might be also missed, which would be of a great detriment to the preservation of the community of values. The upcoming meeting of the European Council on 19 June 2020 will serve as a litmus test for this willingness, especially when it comes to the concerns of European civil society and its criticism of the cuts to the Rights and Values Programme.

The first step would be to restore, or even increase – as proposed by the European Parliament in 2018, the budget for the Programme and show good will in support of the civil society in Europe.

To conclude, the EU´s new tools and instruments, such as the Right and Values Programme and EU Democracy Action Plan or the Digital Services Act might serve as a means to begin the process of restoration of the rights and values in the Union and improving the EU´s interaction with the civil society.

This 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.

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