FRA Director's remarks to the General Affairs Council Rule of Law dialogue

Michael O’Flaherty, FRA Director, speaks to European Affairs Ministers about trust in public institutions during the General Affairs Council's annual rule of law dialogue in Brussels on 12 November 2018.

Presidency

Ministers,

Thank you for inviting me to join you in this important exchange. I would also like to thank the Austrian Presidency for providing questions to structure our discussions on the theme of trust.

These discussions come at an appropriate time. You will have seen the results from the Eurobarometer survey released last week, which showed 59% of respondents tend to trust the European Union—a 17% increase from 2015. However, less than 1 in 2 people—42%—tend to trust their national government.

Our common understanding of trust is belief in the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing.

This belief is directed towards our governments and crucial from a human rights perspective. We know from our work at the Fundamental Rights Agency that people will only report violations to state institutions if they trust their issues will be remedied and prosecuted. We also know—and our evidence continues to show—that across Europe there are worrying levels of underreporting of discrimination, racism, hate crime, antisemitism and other rights infringements.

But trust in public institutions is not enough. Indeed, there are examples from dark moments in Europe’s history when trust was high. But in public institutions that persecuted minorities.

The broader issue then is whether our public institutions are worthy of public trust. It is in this context that I would like to respond to the three questions the Austrian Presidency put before you.

What do you see as the most important factors which determine the level of trust in public institutions?

First, trust is rooted in perceptions of reliability. If an institution is seen to stick to obligations—and these include commitments to fundamental rights and the rule of law—it will be seen as trustworthy. By contrast, institutions falling prey to corruption, clientelism or populist majoritarian decision-making will lose trust over the long term.

Second, peoples’ life experiences inform their levels of trust. For instance, our recent large-scale survey on minority populations in the EU showed a strong link between experiences of discrimination and perceptions of unfair treatment, on one hand, and a loss of trust in public institutions, on the other. We will broaden the scope of this inquiry to obtain similar data from the general population in our upcoming Fundamental Rights Survey, covering all 28 Member States.

Third, when we address trust between public institutions across national borders, information matters. Eurobarometer only measures vertical trust—the trust citizens have in their institutions and in the EU institutions. We do not have reliable data on the levels of trust between, say, a court in Germany and a court in Spain.

Notwithstanding this evidence gap my agency does encounter anecdotal evidence that the level of these horizontal forms of trust is often too low. This might be due to unfounded negative stereotypes, or built on well-founded concerns. In either case it is detrimental to the functioning of the Common Area of Freedom, Security and Justice.

This was well illustrated a few weeks ago when the General Assembly of the European Network of Councils of the Judiciary suspended the membership of a particular national judicial Council. This development is also a reminder of how your rule of law dialogue is no mere theoretical exercise.

What is the role of media and civil society, and how can Member States and EU institutions best cooperate with these actors to foster trust?

On the role of the media and civil society, I would recall the extent to which both have contributed to the flourishing of our democratic societies and that both are under threat in many parts of the European Union.

Early this year we published a report on the challenges faced by civil society organisations working in the field of human rights. Across the EU we identified a number of such challenges: disadvantageous changes in legislation or inadequate implementation of laws; difficulties in accessing decision- makers and feeding into law and policymaking; attacks on and harassment of human rights defenders, including negative discourse aimed at delegitimising and stigmatising CSOs; and hurdles to accessing financial resources and ensuring their sustainability.

Against this background, the Commission’s proposal for a Rights and Values programme is to be welcomed. It aims amongst others at funding civic and democratic engagement and analytical and monitoring activities to improve the knowledge and understanding of potential obstacles to the smooth functioning of a European area of justice.

In fostering a safe space for media and civil society a number of human rights treaty obligations are engaged. The state has an obligation to provide the media and civil society with adequate protections to operate freely, without fear or favour. The media, too, of course, has a responsibility to report verifiable facts accurately. When a story is twisted to conform to a certain narrative, it can contribute to a loss of trust.

From a human rights perspective there is also a state obligation to address fake since it risks undermining democratic processes and is corrosive to the rule of law. The Commission’s recent Recommendation on election cooperation networks, online transparency, protection against cybersecurity incidents and fighting disinformation campaigns is relevant here.

Can we improve joint communication of success stories and new policies, based on a common narrative, in order to mutually reinforce trust?

I began by saying trustworthiness means sticking to rules and respecting rights. But we often fail to effectively communicate about rights and the rule of law.

Given the increasingly online component of our lives, communication has become by definition a transnational issue. The EU and its Member States have to revamp their efforts to communicate the values and the rights that they share, which are spelled out in Article 2 of the EU Treaty and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This must be done together, since trust in public institutions is not a zero-sum-game. Decreasing levels of trust in the EU will not lead to increasing levels of trust in Member States. Quite the contrary: when it comes to trust and legitimacy the Member States and the EU are in the same boat, and we will only progress if we all row in the same direction. Communicating a shared commitment to the Article 2 values is a way to do this.

At the FRA we have recently developed ten “keys” on how to communicate human rights in a way that reaches people. The same applies to the rule of law, which risks being seen as a distant, theoretical concept.

We all together here in this room but also authorities at local and regional levels have to invest new energy to communicate the relevance of the rule of law and fundamental rights. We are not without some initiatives in this regard. There is the Communicating Rights work of my agency. Also, in a newly developed set of video clips the International Bar Association gave powerful visualization to the motto “Look after the rule of law and it will look after you.” This and other promising practices assist us to together communicate with far more self-confidence about what the EU and its Member States are about – a community of values that is worth the trust of its citizens.