EU must walk the talk on promoting values

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

EU flags fly near the seat of the European Commission at the Berlaymont building in Brussels on 5 May 2018. [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND]

The future of Europe will depend on the attitudes of ordinary citizens. These attitudes will determine what kind of policy agreements are possible in Brussels but also decide on the fundamental question: if the European project should be continued or scrapped altogether, write Jan Jakub Chromiec and Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz.

Jan Jakub Chromiec is an expert at Batory Foundation’s ideaForum. Katarzyna Pełczyńska-Nałęcz is the director of Batory Foundation’s ideaForum

The recent rise of isolationist, nationalist or even anti-democratic forces in countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia makes the dissolution of the EU increasingly realistic, even if still distant.

What is the right response? We argue that one of the most effective countermeasures is a decentralized empowerment of the pro-European majority of citizens. Specifically, the Union should establish a European Values Instrument that would fund – at the local, national and transnational level – civil society organizations promoting fundamental values, democracy and the rule of law in all EU countries.

This idea has been promoted in recent months by European non-governmental organizations and picked up by the European Parliament, which called for creating a European Values Instrument in a Resolution from April. For some time, it seemed that also the Commission was ready to integrate the approach into proposals for upcoming EU budget negotiations.

Unfortunately, the draft Regulation on a Justice, Rights and Values programme, published by the Commission in May, combines an excellent problem diagnosis with a toothless response.

“At a time where European societies are confronted with extremism, radicalism and divisions”, the Commission writes, “it is more important than ever to promote, strengthen and defend justice, rights and EU values: human rights, respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law”.

Despite this dramatic assessment, the proposed response is highly conservative. Of the four existing programmes supporting civic activities, the Commission effectively leaves one unchanged (Creative Europe) and copy-pastes the other three – the Rights, Equality and Citizenship, Justice and Europe for Citizens programmes – into a new fund without major reform commensurate to the challenges facing the EU today.

If the proposal passes in its current form, three problems will cripple its effectiveness: insufficient funding (approximately 1 billion euros for 27 member states over 7 years is a drop in the ocean), overly broad thematic focus, and rules of access favoring large international projects rather than the dramatically needed smaller-scale grassroots activity at the local level.

These obstacles can be overcome. A good example is the existing Europe for Citizens programme which is open to small projects and has procedures simple enough for smaller organisations.

Since this programme will become part of the instrument proposed by the Commission (as “Citizens, engagement and participation strand”), a simple yet powerful solution would be to drastically increase its budget. Not from 188 million to 233 million euros as the Commission proposes, but to at least 1 billion euros.

Furthermore, most of this sum (instead of 20% as currently proposed) should be dedicated for supporting civil society organisations. Finally, rules of access should accommodate small and local organizations and thematic areas should clearly prioritize democracy and the rule of law.

It is understandable that the Commission seeks to avoid antagonising member states, some of which view the promotion of European values with suspicion. From the Commission’s perspective, it is also clear that reaching new, local recipients is more difficult and expensive than handing out big grants to international projects.

Therefore the Commission cannot be the source of a revolution in promoting European values. Instead, the impetus must come from political leaders at national and EU level who are now starting to negotiate the next multiannual EU budget.

Leaders should recognize that equipping engaged citizens across the Union to fight from the bottom up for European values is a small financial investment with massive returns.

A properly designed instrument for value-promotion can halt the erosion of European values and renew the Union as a values-based community.

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