EU should stop ‘subsidising undermining democracy,’ warns NGO boss

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director at Human Rights Watch. [EPA/MARTIAL TREZZINI]

The EU should “stop subsidizing undermining democracy within the EU,” Kenneth Roth,  Executive Director of Human Rights Watch told EURACTIV in an interview, arguing that the negotiations over the next 7-year budget will not just be about money but about fundamental rights.

“The EU has always been good about imposing human rights criteria for admission – the Copenhagen criteria – and they’ve played a useful purpose in bringing aspiring states up to a certain level of compliance with the rule of law, democracy and human rights,” Roth said.

“What the European Union is bad about is enforcing the same criteria, and the lead cases of that today are Hungary and Poland,” the NGO chief added.

When it comes to Poland, Roth argued that there has been “significant pushback” from the EU by using article 7 and other judicial procedures. However, Hungary’s case, which targets civil society and the opposition, “is more complicated.”

Hungarian President Viktor Orbán “is a major recipient of the EU’s funding,” and while there have been some steps including his Fidesz party’s suspension from the European People’s Party “the big issue really is the next seven-year budget,” Roth argued.

On 20 February, member states will convene for a special summit aimed at reaching an agreement on the EU’s blueprint, which requires unanimity. “That is the leverage that Orban cares about,” he added.

“I think [Angela] Merkel is determined not to continue subsidizing a Trojan horse within the EU,” Roth said.

“If Orban escapes with another seven years of massive European subsidies, this will pose an extraordinarily dangerous threat to democracy within the EU,”  Roth warned, “it is going to be totally a question of political will.”

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In a …

The ‘Salvinisation’ of politics

“The far-right has built support by demonizing certain unpopular minorities, principally migrants and Muslims,” said Roth. “My concern is that certain governments are trying to fight the far right, not by imposing its anti-rights principles, but by mimicking it.”

“I hope that as centrist parties try to calculate how best to oppose the far-right, they do it by reaffirming the principles on which the EU has been founded, rather than just trying to preempt the far right, by adopting their policies and hoping that voters won’t know the difference,” he stressed.

So far, when it comes to migration, “there’s not been a clear repudiation” of former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s approach who “has essentially used the threat of drowning at sea as a way to deter migration.”

Roth argued in favour of ‘the coalition of the willing’ to tackle migratory flows by recognising that numbers are manageable “rather than give Salvini victory by having a two-week standoff anytime there’s a boat arriving on Italian shores, just treat it as a matter of course, spread these migrants out and nobody’s going to notice the difference.”

The HRW executive director argued for the introduction of safe passages as well, “making it easier for asylum seekers to apply without risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean.”

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A human rights Commission?

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has pledged a ‘Geopolitical’ executive. But if the EU wants to be relevant on foreign policy, it should scrap the unanimity rule, Roth argued.

“If you look at an EU statement that made it through all the 27 governments, it tends to be watered down; it just loses its effectiveness,” he said, “influence a European statement if you can, but otherwise put together as a group a stronger statement that would do a more effective job in upholding human rights.”

In the past few years, trade has been used as a tool for promoting human, social and labour rights as well as environmental standards in third countries.

Roth argued that the EU should concentrate on “shutting down” any supply chain when human rights are not respected and “not to be complicit in human rights violations,” and make sure the terms of the deals they close are respected.

“If there are already human rights or environmental standards built into the draft trade agreement, it should not go forward if those terms are violated from the start,” he said in reference to the trade deal with the Latin American Mercosur bloc.

The enlargement policy has also been a long-term tool to uphold human rights as well. The recent reluctance of some countries to move forward with enlargement could have consequences, warned Roth.

“We don’t take a position on whether a given country should be in or not,” Roth explained but added, “we don’t push for premature entrance with the hope that somebody will improve down the road.”

This was the case with Romania and Bulgaria, he argued, which had “mixed success”. However, “it’s important to keep the door open so that the Copenhagen criteria remain an incentive for compliance,” Roth pointed out.

“If you close the door completely, you undermine that incentive,” the HRW executive director said, and pointed to Turkey as an example.

“When [Angela] Merkel and [Nicolas] Sarkozy basically shut the door on Turkish accession possibility, Erdogan lost his incentive, and that was the beginning of his seriously authoritarian drafting,” he argued.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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