Shaping our common future: Common values and fundamental rights and freedoms

Friso Roscam Abbing
The Agency spoke at the Salzburg Forum conference on shaping our common future in Sarajevo on 7 April. The event builds on the Forum’s previous conferences and the Vienna Declaration on tackling violent extremism and terrorism. It will examine Europe’s common values and fundamental rights and the challenges posed by extremism and terrorism.


Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

Europe is at a crossroads. It is being pushed and pulled by internal and external forces, and the path we chose now may shape us for years to come. Europe’s regional organisations, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, and to that matter the Salzburg Forum, were conceived by their Founders as not just a union of states but also a union of people underpinned by common values. But these values are under threat. This is why this conference comes at such an opportune moment so thank you for the chance to address you here today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me provide you with a snapshot of Europe today drawing on some of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency’s work:

  • 80% of Roma continue to live below the at-risk- of-poverty threshold.
  • Migrant descendants face some form of school segregation in around half of EU Member States.
  • Third country nationals have no local voting rights in half of the EU Member States
  • Muslims, Jews, refugees, women and children are increasingly victim of unacceptable levels and intensity of hate speech, particularly cyber hate using social media
  • Three times as many children with physical or neuropsychiatric disabilities are bullied compared to children without disabilities.
  • And lastly 66% of LGBTI people are scared of holding hands in public.

These examples highlight core rights and values issues – poverty, education, healthcare, dignity, equality, non-discrimination, political participation, and belonging. Not minority issues, but issues that affect and concern us all. Human rights for human beings. Young and old, black and white, minority and majority.

On the other hand, we have much we can be proud of. Europe has developed a formidable array of structures and practices to protect fundamental rights with the mainstreaming of rights in laws and policies as never before with in-built fundamental rights compliance checks and balances and accredited human rights institutions and equality bodies. However we do need to properly use and resource these instruments turning laws on paper into reality so we make a difference to ordinary people on the streets. We also need to communicate what we have achieved and particularly the rights and freedoms and the values which underpin all of this better to everyone, as human rights are for everyone and to be respected by everyone.

Indeed it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to get smart in how we communicate rights and values. Already our December 2015 meeting on developing a toolbox for communication strategies to promote tolerance and non-discrimination, pointed the way. But we, governments and international organisations set up to support you, need to do an even better job at communicating. Particularly now populism has tapped into the mood of the people.  

We must therefore listen, engage and respond. We must retake the initiative and show that we understand that the people’s concerns are also our concerns – from jobs to migration to security. And crucially we must deliver on our promises to rebuild trust among disenfranchised groups. We need to embrace all elements of society. Everybody, minorities, those at risk, those who feel politicians are not listening to them, and those who have given up.

We must seek partners for dialogue rather than target audiences, such as community and faith leaders. They must become involved and be part of the solution not merely viewed as part of the problem. This is why, the Fundamental Rights Agency is hosting an expert meeting on religion and fundamental rights with all faiths groups in September.

Findings from our report on Muslim immigrants and their descendants, due out also in September, will feature in the meeting. The report is drawn from our second EU migrants, minorities and discrimination survey which survey over 25,000 people of which 62% were Muslims. It will paint a detailed picture of what life is like in Europe for Muslims today as it will portray their experiences and views on harassment, hate crime, police stops, discrimination and rights awareness as well as their sense of belonging in the EU, their values and beliefs.

This is important as how can we build trust and engage with the Muslim community if we are uninterested or unaware of the challenges they face in real time in Europe? These findings, these facts, come at a crucial and much-needed time and can provide a solid platform for frank discussion and debate rather than a makeshift stage built on the shifting sands of prejudice, hearsay and ill-informed opinion.

At the Agency, we are also acutely aware of the importance of stepping up efforts to create greater rights awareness for all people in Europe, particularly groups at risk. But we also need them to invoke their rights and governments to realise these rights, notably the right to work and education: the two key shapers of inclusive and cohesive societies! As only by being empowered, by having your full potential developed can you contribute meaningfully to the societies you live in and therewith create a sense of belonging. We also need to ensure justice is served in cases of rights violations. But as said, in order to achieve this we also need to better communicate rights and values.

We are consulting and meeting with experts in June from a range of disciplines not traditionally linked to rights to explore new ways of communicating rights and address current challenges. These include communication experts, political spin doctors, journalists, marketeers and scholars from linguistics and cognitive science, for example. The meeting will also lead to a paper which we will be happy to share with you.

FRA is also willing to unite Member States that are interested in jointly changing the rights culture and narratives in their country. This could be in a working party as we did with hate crime. We could also help compile best practices for others to adopt, and present them in an online compendium at the Fundamental Rights Forum in September 2018 in Vienna, the Agency’s flagship event, which has as its main theme “Belonging”.

New positive narratives and language are vital drawing on real, authentic stories.

Take refugees for example, they are also parents who have made sacrifices for the children. Minorities groups are also fellow citizens with concerns about the economy and the direction the country is heading. People with disabilities are also workers who are struggling to make ends meet with hopes for a better life.

We also need to react, confront, challenge and expose those who contribute to extremist views - non-violent as well as violent. This also calls for alternative world views that champion our core values.

The media as master storytellers has a crucial role to play here. For many, the words they write are the first point of contact with issues of the day. The tone they set, the context they provide, the facts they cite, all inform and influence public opinion.

That’s why, the Agency is rebooting its toolkit for media professionals. It will be a rich practical resource for working journalists to help them improve their reporting from a fundamental rights angle, making it more inclusive, accurate and fact based: not a luxury now we seem to live in the “post-truth” era of fake news and alternative facts.

Prevention, or even more important shaping, is always better than cure. That’s why education is another important element in communicating rights and values; a point recognised by the Paris Declaration of EU education ministers in 2015.

Through education, media literacy can improve. It will teach young people the skills they need to wade through the sea of misinformation circulating online. It will teach them to question, be critical and have informed opinions. It can help protect them against indoctrination and radicalisation.

In addition, citizenship education, must also be integrated into the curricula of all school pupils, students, and why not already in Kindergarten? Learning from and teaching about the past, including from the recent past we can still see and feel in Europe, also in this beautiful city, diversity, tolerance and respect for others, in other words Europe’s values, will instil empathy, foster inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and put an end to age-old bigotries.

Learners will also discover that with rights comes responsibilities. It is no one-way street. It is a process of mutual accommodation and respect where there is freedom of speech. Not only is there no right to insult, everyone should also realise that there is also a freedom, if not indeed a duty, to listen, and respect other views. Similarly when it comes to freedom of religion, everyone should also realise and respect the choice of others to follow, or not, other religions. And the right to family life means that you should be able to marry the one you love and not the one imposed on you.

In conclusion, and you have heard, we face many important challenges: Avoiding segregation, confronting racism, hate speech and discrimination as well as reaching out to all elements of society to ensure them that their concerns not just matter but are being heard and addressed. Rest assured however that the FRA stands ready to assist your governments in addressing these challenges with a view to shaping an inclusive & socially cohesive Europe, a Europe in which we prevent a “them & us”, an “othering”, enabling us to be interactive with each other rather than be reactive. This conference is clearly a good start to generate support for such an approach.