​Civil Society Groups Call For European Values Instrument

Rights organisations in Poland, Hungary and Croatia are demanding an EU mechanism to support civil society groups that promote democracy, human rights and rule of law.

Civil society is being shut out

The details of the so-called European Values Instrument were presented during a discussion in the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels titled "Resisting Ill Democracies In Europe", based on a report prepared under the umbrella of the Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF), with the participation of Liberties member organisations.

Experts from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Yucom – Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, the Croatian Centre for Peace Studies and the Human Rights House Zagreb issued a related report outlining a common vision about protecting European values in member states.

Malgorzata Szuleka, a lawyer and researcher at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, warned that the shrinking space for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to consult with the government is an attempt to shut out civil society from the decision-making process, especially in preventing them from sharing their opinions on draft laws.

'Nationalism is war'

The event organized by HRHF in the cooperation with two members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who have been critical of Viktor Orbán’s government: Sophie in ’t Veld, of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, and Frank Engel, who belongs to the EP group allied with Orbán's government, the European People's Party.

Engel said at the hearing in the European Parliament that the fundamental setup of European democracy has not been called into question since the Second World War. The rise of illiberalism in the EU began in Hungary in 2010, and it will continue to spread, continue to drag us back towards the 1930s, if we don’t act now.

In ’t Veld refused the widely shared differentiation of "democracies":

"We shouldn’t talk about ill democracies, because there aren’t several democracies, only one. This debate is not about people, not about the Hungarian or Polish people, because they are all Europeans. This is about governments, we should make this very clear."

Engel quoted Francois Mitterrand's famous line “Le nationalisme, c’est la guerre” (nationalism is war), and added:

“In Poland, we might end up with a situation where Kaczynski holds a referendum for the Polish people to decide whether they want to take their fate in their own hands or continue working with the West. The Luxembourger MEP did distinguished between Polish and Hungarian democracy because, according to him, in the latter country "the situation is less grave because the Hungarian system is not sustainable without European Union funding."

Where is Europe heading?

In her speech, Liberties ally Márta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee warned about a collection of symptoms of ill democracies in Europe:

“We have seen how one country’s bad practices spread to another one, and how it leads to shrinking civil space. We are saddened by the lack of swift reaction in the EU institutions. The disbelief that this could be happening has led to other countries to follow suit, and now, in the beginning of 2018, we could be really worried about where Europe is heading."

In line with what Pardavi said, Ivan Novosel from the Human Rights House Zagreb said even though the Orešković government fell after six months, the playbook they worked with was a copy of what is being used in Poland and Hungary.

“Croatia is now in a limbo of illiberal democracy. The country got rid of the outspoken illiberal democrats, but what was damaged in those six months was not repaired and they haven’t moved towards creating a more open society with wider human rights,” Novosel explained.

Pardavi said that rising xenophobia and the widely tolerated hate speech in national media outlets are not issues that can be handled by individual infringement procedures. That’s why the NGOs behind the report presented at the debate point out that "funding from abroad has been key to maintain the protection of civil rights. A European fund should be set up through which the EU institutions can protect civil organisations, that provides solid funding to civil society.”

“A European value instrument is needed," said Malgorzata Szuleka. Indeed, it's high time that the EU recognises the problem and acts to correct it.