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‘Building back better: Getting ahead on the rule of law’ NHC for Democracy Retreat 2021

12 August 2021

“We hope that this will lead to stronger policy making, increased civic participation and better democracy; fit for crisis, and beyond!” – Pepijn Gerrits, Executive Director, Netherlands Helsinki Committee

Last month, on 24 June 2021, the NHC held its session ‘Building back better: Getting ahead on the rule of law’, as part of the inaugural Democracy Retreat, which we joined as an organising partner. The session focussed on exploring ways to monitor, prevent and sanction corruption practices that affect Rule of Law mechanisms in place, with the aim to develop new ways for parliaments, civil society and the media to support and safeguard ‘building back better’ through the ‘Recovery Plan for Europe’.

“The European Union is at a crossroads” – Kathleen Ferrier, president of the UNESCO Commission of the Netherlands and the NHC Committee member

During her opening remarks, Kathleen Ferrier warned us of the “real risk of the breach of the democratic principles upon which the Union was founded.” The scale of the “threat to democracy is bigger than ever before” as “politicians in several Member States are misusing EU values”; highlighting that these abuses are not limited to one region. Ferrier ended with “some self-criticism”. She stated that “civil society organisations (CSOs) in the EU have been too slow to respond to backsliding,” and it is hard to see the direct consequences of their own inaction. “CSOs have not invested enough in informing their own citizens of the importance of rule of law” and the effects are visible.

Panellists from the European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO), the European Parliament and the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) followed after; namely, Egon Visser (EPPO); Daniel Freund (MEP) and Pjotr Buras (ECFR).

Speakers looked at possible points for action, as well as the necessity of closely monitoring the roll out of the Recovery Plan for Europe. In his presentation on the functioning of EPPO, which officially launched on June 1st 2021, Visser outlined EPPO’s role in protecting the EU budget.

“This is about you, about all the EU citizens…if you suspect a crime, if you think that EU funds are misappropriated, go to” – Egon Visser, Founder EPPO.

The importance of protecting taxpayer’s money was also highlighted as being fundamental where crimes and misuse of EU funds can lead to the dissolvement and further disengagement by citizens of the EU.

According to Daniel Freund, the founding members of the EU could not have imagined that further along the line, the rule of law would be taken for granted to such an extent. The lack of proper implementation of the mechanisms and tools available consequently resulted into a spreading rule of law crisis within the European Union in several of the Member States. Freund noted that despite the recent inclusion of the rule of law mechanism into the Regulation on a General Regime of Conditionality for the Protection of the Union Budget, the Commission, as guardian of the Treaty, has yet to submit a proposal for an implementing act to the Council.

“More and more people are taking the Orbán playbook to heart.” – Daniel Freund, Member of the European Parliament.

The passive roles of both the Commission and the Council are thus not only a threat to the security of EU funds, but currently foremost allow authoritarian consolidation to increase in a number of Member States. In this regard, Buras underlined the vast importance of national governments in pressuring the EU to act upon their commitments and implement infringement measures related to the rule of law. EU level participation by politicians from the Member States remains essential, as there currently is too much focus placed on nationalist agendas.

The influence that Member States can have when they come together is powerful, as Gerrits pointed out with regard to Hungary, where the implementation of anti-LGBTIQ+ legislation was met by a feverous wave of disapproval. It sparked immediate action, not only amongst civil society, but 17 Member States issued a critical statement against the Hungarian legislation. Gerrits reiterated the importance of civil society in this chain of events stating:

“This wouldn’t have happened if civil society had not continuously reported and held politicians accountable.” – Pepijn Gerrits, Executive Director, Netherlands Helsinki Committee

In a similar manner, Ferrier emphasised the important role that CSOs can perform in their own countries. The message that democracy cannot be taken for granted should be rung out loud and clear.

Now more than ever we need an amalgamation of actors to come together, because, as Ferrier pointed out, the EU is “at a crossroads” and its people need to fight back!

To (re)watch the event please see here:

More information on Democracy Retreat 2021

The Democracy Retreat was led by the Open Governance Network for Europe, hosted and sponsored by the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU, and organised in partnership with the European Commission, European Partnership for Democracy, Democratic Society, Hertie School, Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Open Government Partnership, Open Contracting Partnership, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the UN Human Rights Office. The inaugural retreat drew participants from European institutions, EU member states governments, and civil society, to share, learn, and develop new understandings and skills in governance for stronger policymaking, public services, and ultimately better democracy, for crisis and beyond. For more information, click here.