Welcome address at the Fundamental Rights Platform

Welcome address at the 5th Annual Meeting of the Fundamental Rights Platform, Vienna


Ladies and gentlemen,

A warm welcome to all of you! It is a great pleasure to see such a big group of civil society organisations, and also others who are normally not here at the Platform – the National Human Rights Institutions, the European Commission, other EU Agencies and the European Ombudsman office. All of us, jointly, constitute the fundamental rights landscape in Europe – and the way forward lies in the cooperation and in the interaction between all these different actors.

Over the last 5 years we have been building up together one part of this landscape, the Fundamental Rights Platform, and it has become the key channel for strengthening our dialogue between civil society organisations and the Agency. And as we are here in a wider group, maybe a wider group of stakeholders will in the future also interact at this Platform. It is up to us to discuss and hopefully explore more possibilities, multiple ways of cooperation for the coming years. So I am anxious to see what everything will look like tomorrow afternoon, when we sum up all the ideas coming out of the different workshops.

But before we dive into those discussions, I would like to give a brief overview on the framework we are working in, and what the focus of our work should be. What is the fundamental rights situation today?

Of course, I will not give an exhaustive view, but rather a few snapshots:

It seems like there is nothing new in a lot of the issues that are on our plate, and of course most obviously racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, anti-gypsyism and so on persist.

We have seen violent attacks on Roma villages, on individual Roma, as well as attacks on asylum seekers. We also see a worrying trend that I must say I hadn't believed that we would see - that is hate speech against persons with disabilities, and antisemitism as well. The Agency is now conducting a survey across the EU to get a deeper understanding of what antisemitism in this 21st century looks like.

There is of course also the whole issue of privacy, which has surfaced more and more in the public debate - based on that enormous collection of private, personal data in the private and public sectors. The human being has become very transparent - and maybe often more transparent than we really want to be. So we have moved away from the previous discourse – "oh I don't mind if data is collected about me, since I have nothing to hide and I'm not a crook, I'm not a criminal all is fine". That was a very simplistic approach, but that has luckily changed, and a more focused discourse has developed.

So these are some of the big issues coming out of our research. I could mention many more topics, but that would take far too long.

But of course, it is not all doom and gloom. I don't subscribe to the rumour that we would be dramatically sliding in the wrong direction. Yes, there are a number of issues which are not moving forward, but at the same time there are also many other currents moving forward that we should be taking note of and activate, take energy from, and of course also fertilise those currents.

One of the big steps of course was the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, making the Charter of Fundamental Rights a legally binding document. So we suddenly see a mainstreaming of fundamental rights into European legislation at a hitherto totally unseen level. Having fundamental rights so centrally placed in EU legislation and policy processes will of course have a dramatic trickle-down effect throughout Europe, and we already see that in a number of fields.

But also more targeted, there are the guidelines on child-friendly justice that the Commission adopted in late 2010; the new revised Directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims; and the proposed "victims package" which seeks to grant victims a uniform level of rights across the EU, and covers access to justice, protection, support and recompense.

One of the issues that the Agency worked on considerably last year were irregular migrants. I know that many of us have spent many years on trying to convince officials throughout Europe, I would say throughout the world almost, that people do not have human rights because of a citizenship or resident permit - they have human rights because they are human beings, and that is also true for irregular migrants. And last year we managed, jointly, that this issue was massively placed on the agenda. When I discuss now in different fora, I sense that there is a more profound understanding that there are indeed some basic rights, for instance to primary school education for children of irregular migrants as well as access to basic health provisions etc. There are a number of issues with this very vulnerable group – which is of course increasingly vulnerable in the light of the economic crisis - being very exposed to extreme exploitation, an issue that we hope to address more firmly next year in our work programme – that is the extreme exploitation at the labour market, let's call a spade a spade, slavery in Europe in the 21st century.

Furthermore, coming to the participation of EU citizens in the Union’s democratic functioning, some EU Member States are making elections more accessible to everyone, thereby fostering democratic participation. For instance, 19 EU Member States have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which obliges them to enhance the right to vote of people with disabilities. This is an important issue that we also have highlighted in a publication last year.

And last but not least, I would also like to highlight the most recent Eurobarometer survey published by the Commission earlier this week, where we learned that two thirds of Europeans would actually like to learn more about the Charter, they don't really know what's in it, what can we use it for and they would like to learn more. And they would also like to know where to go!

If I have my human rights violated, where should I go? Of course since it is an EU Charter, maybe the Commission can help me. So we know the Commission receives a lot of letters from citizens, but I think it's up to all of us to refine the knowledge in our communities about how to address complaints under the Charter, where to go, what to do. The Agency is currently working on producing a small charter App which hopefully can help a little bit, an application where people can see what the rights are, what they mean, and where to go. We would be grateful for your constructive feedback on that application.

So far a quick overview of some of the challenges, but also some of those areas where things are actually moving forward.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is against this backdrop that we are meeting here today. But it is also against the backdrop of the economic crisis, and indeed it is in such times that we need an even stronger civil society, as well as strong and independent fundamental rights institutions, to counter cutbacks and the possible erosion of fundamental rights.

In order for NGOs to be able to do their work properly and professionally, it must be ensured that there is a space to work for the NGOs – both political space, and financial space. In this context, I would also from my side like to welcome the representative from the Norwegian Grants, which are prepared to give funding to NGOs in 15 Member States – and you will get the chance to hear more details on this later today.

Before coming to an end, it remains for me to thank the outgoing Advisory Panel for their excellent and engaged support and cooperation over the past years. It has been a long journey we have been on, establishing that forum. We had many choices as we went along, should we stay with a small group of civil society institutions, should we expand, be inclusive? There were many different choices that we made as we went along. I'm very pleased with what we did in the end, after some difficult discussions, and here we are with a dynamic forum - very much thanks to the Advisory Panel. And I am looking forward to welcoming and working with the new Advisory Panel.

I would also like to take this opportunity and thank all FRP organisations who gave us valuable feedback on our Annual Work Programme 2014. We got some very good input, because what you really can provide us with is the knowledge, the insight to the issues, the challenges, on the fringes of European society, so thanks for that, please don't under estimate the value of it. While you may not see exactly the sentences, the projects that you had proposed to us, directly reflected in the work programme -- hopefully you can nevertheless recognise the direction of the work programme. We have to, with so many stakeholders, make sense of a lot of input and we use it to try to make our work programme as relevant as possible.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Winding up, I would like to put three questions to you, to have on the back of your mind when we go along the coming days here:

  • How can we best use our collective knowledge to improve the fundamental rights situation on the ground?
  • What can we learn from each other – and what can we learn together?
  • And therefore: How can we best make use of our interdependence, while remaining independent?

I cannot, and will not, give my answers to this – that is the task, and responsibility, of all of us.

We have invited you all here for a dialogue – and every participant will get the chance to speak up in "the floor is yours" and in the thematic workshops. As we know – we represent a diversity of views. I would like to invite you at this stage to speak up, but also at the same time to be respectful to each other. The purpose is not to find the big consensus in this room, Europe is far too diverse for that, but at least agree on where we disagree, and ensure that we are not digging the trenches deeper because we have false perceptions of the views of the other.

So let me just end with a nice quote and that is:

"A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality." That's Yoko Ono.

Five years together, we have shown how true that little quote is, so let's continue to develop that fundamental rights landscape in Europe that we all are part of, in order to make human rights a reality for all those people in Europe who really need it. Thank you very much for your attention.