Europe is the place: promoting fundamental rights in cities and regions for building an open society in 2019 and beyond

Michael O'Flaherty
Speech by the FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty on fundamental rights and the EU during the panel debate at the 134th Plenary Session of the Committee of the Regions, 11 April 2019.
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Thank you President Lambertz,

Distinguished Members of the Committee of the Regions,

I warmly welcome the invitation to be with you today. Speaking in the plenary constitutes a deepening of the relationship of the Fundamental Rights Agency with your important Committee. Let me acknowledge with respect and appreciation the strong cooperation we already have with your Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs, as well as with the Commission on Social Affairs.

Dear Committee members,

I think previous speakers have already effectively made the point about how fundamental rights and the rule of law are at the core of the EU, and how important the role local cities and regional governments play in that regard.

I have to say that my own life experience echoes the importance of human rights at the local level.

I am the son of a mayor and I have spent my childhood managing our front door and our telephone, as person after person, right through my childhood came looking for my father to seek solutions to all matters of problems: healthcare, education, housing, the treatment of minorities in the locality, employment.

But when I was a kid, neither myself, my father or any of the people who came visiting ever framed these issues as human rights. But of course that is exactly what they were. My father as a mayor was in the frontline of promoting and delivering respect for human rights.

I very much welcome in that context the renewed attention to this issue not just in this debate but more generally. These are challenging times for the delivery of respect for human rights. We need a partnership with you in order to achieve that.

There are four reasons in particular, beyond what has already been said, which suggest to me that we need to give high priority to these issues at the level of local and regional governments.

The first is that you are trusted. Eurobarometer surveys repeatedly tell us that local governments maintain a high level of trust from citizens.

Secondly, as the level of trust in you is maintained, trust in central governments is falling. So, therefore you are increasingly the more effective actor for delivering human rights solutions.

Third, it is a simple fact that local solutions, solutions to be implemented by local and regional governments often work best anyway when it comes to some of the great human rights challenges. For example, the reception of migrants. I have travelled across the Greek islands. I have seen where the local mayor and the local community were involved in the design of the reception facilities; it is on those islands that things were working better than elsewhere. It is the same with regards to the integration of migrants. Our work repeatedly shows us that when the city is involved in a correct and proper manner in the design of integration strategies, then those strategies are more effective. It is the same for Roma; the most fruitful meeting I ever had in terms of how to treat Roma with respect in our society have been meetings involving local mayors and the Roma community.

And we have a very similar finding, from our recent work with regard to what works best to support people with disabilities in getting out of institutions. It is the local solutions across Europe that are providing the answers, not centralised policymaking.

Finally, in terms of why we need to engage at the local and regional level and with cities:

It is because you are so much better placed than anybody else to deliver on foundational elements for the respect of human rights. For instance, and above all, the empowerment of rights holders, through building up their awareness of human rights, their knowledge and understanding, building what First Vice-President Timmermans described as the culture of human rights and rule of law. You are particularly well placed to deliver on this.

As local and regional governments rise to the challenge of being better champions of fundamental rights, there are of course a number of challenges. Let me briefly label just five.

The first of course is obvious. Just like any other level of government, sometimes the city or the region, will be the problem not the solution. The President of the European Court of Justice has mentioned jurisprudence that points to this. And I could also point to jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. But that is to be expected.

But then, moving on in terms of things that we can indeed engage and resolve:

We can do more to help local governments understand how to best use the Charter of Fundamental Rights. That is a challenge for us in this tenth anniversary year of the Charter. The Fundamental Rights Agency will play its part in developing tools and resources specifically targeted to you in order to take up this challenge of dealing with such a powerful and important instrument as the Charter but which is also a rather difficult one to apply in practice.

Third, we are well aware that part of the issue for you in engaging on fundamental rights is the varying degrees of centralisation and decentralisation across our Member States. I recall speaking with the mayor of a very important European city last year who was very frustrated. He said that “I could house every migrant in my city if I had authority over housing. But that is a centralised function of government and I can do nothing about it.

Fourth, we are also very much aware that in order for you to rise up to the challenge that we are speaking of today, you have to be much better involved in respectful consultations by central governments. And we know that quality of consultations is very uneven across our Member States.

And finally, there is the extent to which the services you oversee are increasingly being privatised. This is something very specific and very relevant for local and regional governments. This raises obvious issues in the way you can deliver on your responsibilities.

In conclusion, let me mention possible pathways you can further explore on these issues. Ms Ghidei Biidu mentioned a number of networks, I would add just two.

The first of these is the extremely interesting human rights cities initiative. Human rights cities have been around now for a very long time but they are getting new attention here in Europe. Cities that formally commit to delivering human rights, setting benchmarks and all necessary pragmatic tools to deliver on their commitments. There are 4 in Austria, 3 in Germany, 1 in Sweden and a region in Sweden, 2 in the Netherlands and one each in UK, Spain and Portugal. And the Fundamental Rights Agency is committed to working with human rights cities and to supporting them for their very promising potential impact.

The second and final network I would mention to you today, because it is a very specific EU one, is that of the European Capitals of Culture. Culture, as the First Vice-President reminded us by the use of the word, is about the quality of our society and our lives and within which we need to embed respect for human rights. The agency will increasingly explore with the European Capitals of culture and with the Commission how we can make the human rights dimension even more visible in the Capitals of culture programmes.

Mr President, let me wrap up by citing the very last words of Mayor Paweł  Adamowicz on January 30 just seconds before he was killed. Mayor Adamowicz closed his speech with the words “It is time to share good”. I would suggest that is a particularly splendid motto as we continue to explore this important area of work.

Thank you.