Democracy & Justice

​European Parliament Votes to Better Protect Freedoms, But Council Yet to Agree

MEPs just voted on two legislative proposals that could see the EU doing more to protect our rights against encroaching authoritarians. They're both based on ideas outlined by Liberties. Here's what the votes mean and what happens next.​

by Israel Butler

The EU is currently negotiating its next seven-year spending plan, know as the Multiannual Financial Framework, or MFF. In March 2018, Liberties published a paper with two detailed suggestions. These suggestions set out how the EU could use the new MFF to protect fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy. If you're interested in the original paper, you can find it here. The European Parliament has just voted on two legislative proposals that would bring Liberties' ideas into law.

A new freedoms fund for the EU

Liberties urged the EU to set up a fund to finance organisations and activists in its member countries that are working to protect and promote rights, the rule of law and democracy. We called it the European Values Instrument. Shortly after we published our idea, the European Parliament adopted its own resolution endorsing our suggestion. The European Parliament's resolution requested the European Commission to include a legislative proposal for a European Values Instrument in its list of new funding programmes under the MFF. If you'd like more background information about the European Values Instrument, you can find it here.

The Commission then published a proposal for a Rights and Values fund, claiming that this was a response to the European Parliament's request. Despite the nice title, the Commission's proposal for a Rights and Values fund is, unfortunately, just a collection of existing funding programmes under a new name. And these existing funding programmes do little to help rights and democracy groups fighting for our values. If you'd like to know why Liberties thinks that the Commission's proposal sucks, you can read about it here.

Today, the European Parliament voted to make important changes to the Commission's proposal. In a nutshell, the European Parliament wants to insert the European Values Instrument into the Rights and Values fund. The European Parliament has asked for an extra 1 billion EUR over the next 7 years for rights groups, including smaller organisations working at local and national level that find it difficult to get funding. This funding would allow rights groups to do things like:

  • take court cases and lobby politicians to prevent governments taking away civil liberties;
  • keep the public informed about when their freedoms are under threat;
  • educate the public about the basics of democracy, fundamental rights and the importance of independent courts.

For the new law to be adopted, national governments in the Council and the European Parliament will need to come to an agreement in the coming months. But national governments in the Council have more or less just endorsed the Commission's original proposal. So if the new fund for rights groups is to be created, the European Parliament will have to persuade national ministers to change their minds.

Cutting off EU funds to authoritarian governments

A second idea Liberties outlined was how the EU could cut off funds to governments that try to bring their judiciaries under political control. The European Commission seemed to like our suggestion and modelled its proposal for a new law on our paper.

The Commission's proposal would allow the EU to cut funding to a government that is interfering with the independence of the courts, prosecutors or other national authorities that make sure EU money is being spent properly. The Commission's position is that countries must have independent institutions to make sure that EU money is spent legally and avoid fraud and corruption.

The European Parliament wants the proposal to be slightly broader. It would like the EU to be able to cut funds where any large-scale violation of fundamental rights could risk EU money being spent improperly. MEPs also want the EU to create an independent body to judge whether the mechanism should be triggered. These are positive suggestions. Having an independent body decide on whether to cut off funding would prevent the Commission from basing its decisions on politics rather than objective criteria. And sanctioning governments for violations of fundamental rights standards would make it harder for governments to attack the legal standards protecting our freedoms, in addition to protecting the courts. On the downside, it might not be very easy to prove that a large-scale rights violation really has an impact on whether a government can embezzle EU money.

There are two remaining problems with the original Commission proposal. First, what happens to the innocent citizens who were supposed to receive the EU funds that were cut off? According to the Commission, EU funds go via national authorities anyway, who just get reimbursed by the EU later down the line. So even if the Commission cuts funding, national authorities are still under a legal obligation to keep paying out. But it's hard to see that this would really happen. There's a big risk that a government would just stop paying out for projects that were supposed to be funded by the EU and use it as an excuse to stoke anger among voters. That could mean that cutting EU funds might backfire. Instead of pressuring authoritarians to protect the courts, it could be used to whip up more support from angry voters. The European Parliament didn't suggest an effective alternative to keep the money flowing either. Liberties suggested that in such a situation, the EU could just take over the administration of the funds itself and pay them out directly to fund projects for innocent citizens who were supposed to benefit.

The second problem is that the Legal Service of the Council (the Council's in-house legal advisors) has said that large parts of the original proposal are illegal. This is not the first time that the Council's Legal Service has tried to sabotage steps by the EU to protect fundamental freedoms. Governments don't have to follow the opinion of the Legal Service, and EU law experts have criticised the poor quality of the Legal Service's analysis. You can read more about this here.

Both of these votes in the European Parliament are important and positive steps towards better protecting our rights and freedoms. But until negotiations between the Council and European Parliament are finished, it remains unclear whether the end product will really help protect our liberties. What's more, if those negotiations aren't completed before the European elections in May, and authoritarians do well in those elections, we may even see the proposals severely watered down or abandoned altogether.

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