Future for democracy and human rights in Europe

Speech about the future of human rights in the European Union at a seminar on the future for democracy and human rights in Europe. The event, hosted by the Swedish Minister for European Affairs, Birgitta Ohlsson, took place in the conference centre at the Prime Minister's office in Stockholm.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day on which Anna Lindh, a well-known champion of human rights, was fatally stabbed here in Stockholm. This was a particular tragedy in Sweden, a country which has an international reputation for its dedication to human rights and for being an open society.

Nine years later, what Anna Lindh fought for is still on our agenda: European democracy continues to face challenges, many linked to the economic crisis.

So, what is the future for democracy and human rights in Europe, which you have kindly invited me here to discuss today?

Electoral procedures and the parliamentary process are, of course, vital for a functioning democracy. But just as important is the premise that each citizen has a voice and can participate. And that is where human rights come in. Human rights and democracy are closely interlinked and interconnected. After all, it is difficult to imagine a democracy without a profund respect for human rights, and we know that human rights protection is weak in countries without democracy.

The Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi said “Democracy isn’t a state of perfection. It has to be improved, and that means constant vigilance”. This can also be said of human rights.

The future of Europe depends on the extent to which Europeans actively participate in the European project and work to ensure that their human rights are protected. Europe belongs to everyone of us. We must take ownership of this project. We must guarantee that the European Union of tomorrow ensures the rights of all those who live in it and is a fully sustainable endeavour.

But how can this be achieved? I would like to mention three of the elements that are essential for us to build a strong, mature and confident Europe:

Standards matter. Words matter. And participation matters.

1) Let us begin with standards.

The EU is built on a bedrock of core values: democracy, equality, fundamental rights and the rule of law. These principles became part of EU law early on, yet it was only with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which entered into force in December 2009, that the EU obtained its own‘bill of rights’.

So the rights exist on paper – both in the EU and throughout the Member States. But there is still a lot to be done on implementation. This is evident from our work at the Fundamental Rights Agency.

Let me give you some examples

  • People with intellectual disabilities do not just face social prejudice alone. They are also excluded from participating in elections in more than half of the EU Member States, both in eastern and western Europe.
  • According to various international conventions, in particular the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children should have access to free primary education. But in practice, legislation in several Member States excludes children of irregular migrants from this basic right. From the surveys of the Fundamental Rights Agency we also learn that Roma chidren are often discriminated against in the education system with the result that they lag far behind the majority population in education. This not only violates international law; it also means we waste a prime opportunity to use all the talent at the EU’s disposal. More generally speaking, human rights are also an economic factor. Without measures in place to involve all people living in the EU, the economy cannot thrive in the longer term. Human rights are not a luxury for better times.
  • The longer the crisis continues, the more cases we see of acute labour exploitation, or what one might call modern-day slavery. Take the cheap workers employed to clean private homes, or those who pick the fruit and vegetables we eat. Despite their contribution to our societies, irregular migrants who try to access healthcare or education services, or seek justice in cases of abuse, often find closed doors. The FRA has highlighted the situation of irregular migrants and of domestic workers in a number of reports over the last year. But it is not only migrants who face such problems.EU citizens who are made redundant are finding themselves forced to work in underpaid or even unpaid jobs, often in dangerous or unhealthy conditions.
  • Let me also mention that, in some EU countries we are seeing a creeping assault on one of the EU’s founding precepts, namely the rule of law. This principle is closely linked to other core values and requires that certain basic conditions are guaranteed, including the separation of powers and the legality of administration. The weakening of the judiciary and watchdogs has significant repercussions on the balance of power. And it is exactly in times of crisis that we need a strong and independent judiciary, ombudsinstitutions and national human rights institutions in order to counter the risk that  core human rights values are undermined.

So what can be done? Well, I’m glad to be able to tell you things don’t look so bad, because we already have the means to right some of these wrongs.


If the EU suspects unfair competition in the markets, it initiates infringement procedures. If Member States fail to comply with directives, the same happens. These are powerful tools to bring errant companies and countries back on track.

Until now, they have been used more often to regulate economic performance than ensure human rights compliance. But EU fundamental rights legislation is equally binding, whether the issue at hand is the deportation of Roma or the laying off of judges. And in such cases we have indeed recently seen that the EU not only stands for but also insists on human rights compliance. Commission Vice-President Reding has said there will be “zero tolerance” for any violation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. So the EU does have tools at its disposal and uses them to ensure that democratic deficiencies and inequalities are addressed.

As the former Irish prime minister John Bruton said, the EU “is a guarantee of democracy, freedom, justice and human rights. Nations cannot stay in the EU if they do not respect these guarantees”. Perhaps Member States should be asked to undergo an annual check-up on their fundamental rights and democracy compliance. This could then result in an annual report of the situation in all EU countries. Compliance with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights must be the minimum standard.

In addition, no EU country should take lightly the so-called Copenhagen Criteria once they have joined. These criteria are the rules a country must conform to in order to be eligible to join the European Union – and these include the requirement that a state must have the institutions to preserve democratic governance and human rights. Why not check current EU Member States against these criteria every year?


2) Now I come to my second point – words matter.

Words can both create and destroy. They can be a powerful tool to promote human rights, as we saw in the aftermath of the London bombings of 2005, when religious leaders appealed jointly for non-violence and for greater cooperation between believers from different faiths. This resulted in far fewer attacks against Muslims in the EU than after 9/11.

But words can also be used to incite violence, hatred and human rights violations. Last year, 11 Roma were killed just for being Roma; and in Greece some migrants were recently hunted down and murdered. It is well known that language influences perceptions, and the tone of political and public discourse can therefore have a huge impact. Persistent racist, xenophobic and hate speech from public figures can fuel prejudices against ethnic minorities and migrants, people with disabilities, or sexual minorities.

In the time of crisis as we know far too well in Europe there is a real risk of creating scapegoats.  All actors on the public scene need to carefully consider the words chosen.

Italian Premier Mario Monti on Saturday proposed a special European summit to confront growing populism in the face of the financial crisis. "We are in a dangerous phase," Monti said, “a divisive populism is present in nearly all eurozone countries, and it aims to divide nations at a moment when the impetus is for greater integration…..”.

Let me turn to another dimension of how we use language. I mentioned the extreme labour exploitation or slavery that persists in Europe. This is hardly talked about and we have not yet found the language to address it. Instead, all too often we dress it up to make it go away. When the talk is about trafficked women from African countries exploited on the European sex market we often hear: “They are probably better off here then at home” and the same is said about men who are exploited in parts of the industry or in the agriculture. We make the human rights violations go away and consequently little action is taken to combat these violations. What is needed instead are clear-cut facts that relate directly to the situation on the ground combined with clear languge articulating the problem.

Many EU Member States still lack well thought through and consistent ways of recording and collecting cases of human rights violations.

The FRA stands ready to provide EU and national decision makers with more facts on many of these issues.


3) Now to my third and last point: participation matters.

Democracy is not only an offer, or a right. Caring for and nurturing it are also a duty and a responsibility.

The double challenge for policy makers is to ensure both that the majority is willing to participate and in addition that minorities and migrants are allowed to participate. We need to ensure that everyone can be heard and can take part. Europe cannot be constructed from above, and participation brings ownership. In this context, we must not forget that participation goes far beyond elections and instruments of direct democracy; and there are many promising examples of participatory democracy emerging.

In this sense, participation is vital to guarantee not only the legitimacy and the ownership of the democratic system, but also to ensure that we can work together on addressing the challenges ahead. New technology will certainly help us with this, such as e-voting or social networking tools. But the bottom line is that leaders will have to explain that democracy and European integration are not a zero-sum game but that, on the contrary, they complement one another and develop together.

We cannot run a society, or a Europe, that is not run by ourselves. Europe must be a shared ambition. Take the European Citizens’ Initiative. This tool allows a group of one million EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies, by calling on the European Commission to make a legislative proposal. This is a milestone on the path to real participation. In fact, amongst the first Citizens’ Initiatives launched was a  call for more voting rights and the like.

However, when we speak of governments, we should not think solely of the EU, or for that matter the Riksdag or Westminster or the Bundestag. It is also regional and local authorities that make decisions, decisions that facilitate people’s access to their rights on a daily basis. Sweden has done a lot to strengthen the interaction between the many different levels of governance, and Europe can take inspiration from here. In the studies of FRA on persons with mental health problems, on Roma and on asylum seekers we often see that violations occur because the local authorities do not realize that they too are accountable to protect the human rights of the people in their city or village. Often the national policies are not understood or suffiently well developed to be implemented on the ground. On joined-up governance there is still a lot to be done throughout Europe. 


Ladies and Gentlemen,

To conclude. What we are here to discuss today is of the utmost importance for the future of Europe. Neither democracy nor human rights can ever be taken for granted. They must be constantly fostered and tended  in order to be sustained.

Thank you very much for your attention.