We can frame it in many ways. We can create a list of ‘good and bad’ countries, we can blame politicians, the bureaucracy, the legal environment, or practically anything. But it is hard to deny the reality: today we are facing a rollback of standards of democracy, rights and the rule of law in the EU. Human rights are less and less popular, and when it comes to solidarity and tolerance and the ability of our societies to provide protection in cases of abuse, we are faring much worse so far in the 21st century than we did in the last two decades of the previous century.
How did we get here, and what is the way forward?
Terrorism, mass migration, economic and cultural (over)globalization, and all manner of crises have caused the public to feel physically, economically and culturally under threat. Populists, mostly of the right wing, are blaming migrants, minorities, feminists and, increasingly, NGOs for the mess. With slanderous rhetoric, they attack these groups and anyone else who defends human rights, including courts and the media. In some countries populists have come to power, and even where they haven’t, their fearmongering has influenced the agendas of centrist conservatives. Populists’ answer to the fear they create is simple: ethno-centric nationalism and a return to a dogmatic, patriarchal and restrictive interpretation of Christian values. They say this because these things are easy to understand and offer the illusion of stability. But it is just an illusion.
Supporters of human rights, solidarity and tolerance have been unable to push back. We took for granted that fundamental rights were non-negotiable standards in Europe after World War II. The very genome of the EU as a peace project made it obvious that our Union is, at least partially, about human rights. This rights-respecting, free and multicultural Europe was the one post-communist countries dreamed of joining for decades. It looked simple and beautiful, but as things deteriorated economically, it became clear that human rights and civil liberties aren’t values shared by everyone.
EU rights organizations have long concentrated on lobbying and litigation, but not on fostering public support – they’ve always assumed that the public shares their values, or at least agrees with the need for rights protection. Well, not exactly. For the most part, the public seems to think that rights and liberties are for people in foreign countries, and they don’t see their relevance at home. Right-wing populists have exploited public ignorance and turned human rights and civil liberties into something negative: a tool used by certain groups (criminals, terrorists, migrants) to gain an advantage or skirt justice.
This is the situation we are in now. Is there a way out? We at Liberties believe there is. It isn’t rocket science, and no, it won’t solve every problem. But it can lead us back to the right path and bring a new era in European human rights protection.
We bring three new things to the table.
First, we will build a constituency for human rights. We know there are people out there who care about rights and want to turn back the tide of populism, but they don’t know who to look to for help. We didn’t see this problem in the US, where the well-known American Civil Liberties Union was flooded with donations following Trump’s election. But where do people in Europe turn to if they want to take part in defending values here? By providing information, expertise and innovative tools, Liberties will empower pro-rights people across the EU and show politicians that they do care about rights, democracy and the rule of law – and they expect their representatives to defend them.
Second, we are going to connect the national level to the EU. Most rights NGOs have devoted their attention to international organizations created to defend values, like UN bodies and the Council of Europe. But while these are venerable institutions, the sad truth is that they have little political influence, especially at the local level. We want to concentrate on influencing the EU, which has traditionally not concerned itself with protecting human rights but has a lot of influence. We will do everything possible to channel that influence into rights protection for people in the member states. It is time to remind our leaders that the EU as a political project aims to create a prosperous and peaceful union of countries, where the rights of everyone are respected and protected.
Third, we will work very closely with our member organizations – human rights and civil liberties watchdogs operating at national level across the EU. We aren’t detached from our members; these national organizations are our foundation, and our work assists them. We help their voices get heard in Brussels, and they help us determine the most pressing rights issues to work on. With our members, we intend to mobilize the public around campaigns that target the EU – and result in better rights protection across our Union.
The time to work on this is now. We are starting – will you join us?
The Civil Liberties Union for Europe