In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy was adopted. What is the role of civil society and the future of EU democracy support in the context of the Covid-19 crisis?
Heidi Hautala, MEP The Greens/EFA and Vide-President of the European Parliament, and Richard Youngs, Senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe in a conversation with Dr Cornelia Hoffmann, Head of EU Programmes and Democracy at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.
On 25 March 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy was adopted as a sign of the EU’s continued support for democracy and human rights worldwide. In parallel, negotiations on the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument as the main instrument for EU democracy support outside of the EU in the scope of the new Multiannual Financial Framework are ongoing, albeit with deadlines postponed; the country programming which sets the EU’s priorities on the ground is also likely to be adapted to the current situation.
Without a doubt, we are facing one of the biggest challenges countries all over the world have had to confront in years. These challenges go far beyond reflections on our health care systems, the economy and education systems. This crisis puts our democracies and their resilience to the test as well. So I’d like to jump straight into the conversation with my first question to both of you.
Cornelia Hoffmann: In your opinion, what does the coronavirus pandemic mean for the EU’s support of democracy outside of the EU?
Heidi Hautala: I believe that we are facing more and more self-confident autocrats, unfortunately in the EU as well – just look at Hungary and Poland. In order to be able to defend democracy and human rights outside of the EU, it’s essential that the EU works with these systemic failures of the rule of law and democracy within the EU.
Autocrats all around the world have used the temptation to put limits on people’s freedoms and rights in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis.
All of a sudden we see censorship, aggressive rules governing certain minorities or cultural practices as well as restrictions aimed at migrants, ethnic minorities or LGBTI people. We see violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights; access to abortion has been restricted in many cases with dramatic consequences. We have to identify those situations where the pandemic has actually made human rights even more precarious in the world.
Richard Youngs: I would say that the pandemic will make it more difficult to take forward the EU’s new democracy strategy, but I also think it makes that new strategy more necessary. So I think there are two problems: the first set of problems are those that Heidi talks about, that authoritarian behaviour has gained ground as a result of the crisis, not everywhere, but at least in a significant number of countries.
I think the most repressive regimes are becoming more autocratic, hybrid regimes are probably losing their more democratic elements and in many democracies the overall quality of democracy seems to be suffering as well. There is quite a wide range of different challenges that will make it harder for the EU to maintain the effectiveness of its democracy support. But secondly, there are also the EU’s own internal challenges. Obviously and understandably, the priority for some time will be on the internal health situation and internal economic recovery, while the programmes dedicated to external democracy and human rights will have to fight in a context when resources couldn’t be more scarce.
I think that means that democracy programmes need to reframe themselves in a way as contributing towards the post-pandemic recovery, but I think that internal and external challenges will make the situation very challenging. But precisely because of that I think this new action plan, this new strategy is more necessary than ever, and in that way it’s good that the EU has just agreed to this whole new framework for taking forward its democracy and human rights support. It will very much be needed.
Richard, what role do you see for civil society in this situation, to support democracy outside of the EU?
Richard Youngs: I think the role of civil society is very important and interesting, but also quite complex and varied. The negative side of the story we know: new government restrictions against democracy around the world; the slightly more positive side of the story is that there seems to have been a kind of civic backlash unleashed against these restrictions. Of course, civil society is having to deal with very difficult national contexts, so I don’t mean to suggest this is all good news for civil society, but at least in some countries we are seeing quite an impressive dynamism emerging within civil society actors. And that’s something that might be able to be harnessed positively in support of democracy and human rights.
That’s not so say that all this new civil society activism linked to the pandemic is necessarily good for democracy. Some of it is not; many of the protests we’re seeing of course are against lockdowns, are against governments’ pandemic measures, which in a way could be seen as problematic for democratic norms. But at least some of the civic activism does involve local communities organising much more systematically and involves different factions of society getting together to work on common problem- solving.
So without overstating this potential and this positive trend, there may at least be some potential there for EU democracy support to latch on to.
Heidi Hautala: I think we have to see that fake news is also spreading within civil society and it is part of the populist, anti-elite movement, and we have to make sure that these movements are counteracted by open discussion, open exchanges. But of course, overall our chief focus should be on how to promote the democratic function of civil society and there’s a lot we can do.
Heidi, given the important role and also the potential of civil society for vibrant and resilient democracies, could you tell us what efforts are being undertaken by the EU right now to support civil society?
Heidi Hautala: The democracy promotion programmes are even more important in the situation that Richard has just described, and we have to make sure that the financial support will continue. We have just agreed on important financial support for civil society organisations in the eastern partnership area, in the Western Balkans, also in the southern neighbourhood, so I think this really has to continue strongly.
And it’s always appropriate to point out that human rights are essential to all the EU’s external relations, and we should not avoid talking about the responsibility of the EU delegations to defend and actively promote the role of civil society and human rights.
There is an interesting element of the discussion now on the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic about supply chains and the role of businesses. I’ve been focusing for quite some time already on business and human rights and I see a new opportunity to discuss sustainable, transparent and accountable supply chains, including (the mainstream discussion about) how to make these supply chains shorter so that we understand what is actually being imported from around the world to the EU in terms of components, raw materials and products. Here I see a golden opportunity to point out that we have to shed light on those supply chains in terms of human rights.
I am very pleased to see that the EU Justice Commissioner has now announced that in 2021 we will have the Commission proposal on mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence of supply chains. This wil be a game-changer because we could actually see that Europe is complicit in many human rights violations through its trade policies and through the activities of companies operating in Europe. So that’s something where I think we have new opportunities now.
As you say, there is a lot we can do, which brings me to the last question. In the EU’s global response to fight the pandemic, Josep Borell said ‘This is a global fight that we will either win or lose together.’ How can we make sure we win it?
Richard Youngs: I’m not sure I have a simple answer to that. I think the sentiment behind the statement is absolutely correct. For our area of concern, democracy and human rights, there will be a very difficult balance that the EU has to strike in its international response. Why? Because a lot of the international coordination related to the pandemic will necessarily involve cooperating with non-democratic regimes.
That requires quite a difficult challenge for those interested in democracy and human rights: How can one keep a focus on very important human rights considerations while also dealing with a whole range of political regimes in order to try and combat the global dynamics of the pandemic?
My policy suggestion would be that the EU should ensure, as Heidi alluded, that the civil society dimension, the rights protecting dimension, is always present within the coordination of its support. It may mean a slightly less direct or politicised approach to democracy and human rights, but it should enable the EU to make sure it keeps supporting civic actors, the vibrancy of the rights communities, in countries around the world. And to try at least to ensure that they don’t suffer increased political repression as a result of the health emergency.
Heidi, what’s your take on this?
Heidi Hautala: Well, first of all I think that multilateralism and the rules-based International system is more and more at stake here, and hopefully after this pandemic the realisation of this will get more support. The EU has to be there to point out that we need multilateral, international, even transnational cooperation to manage this kind of crisis.
There are predictions that after the pandemic maybe everything will continue like business as usual, but we can and should make the case for multilateral, global decision-making even more important than it was before the crisis.
And it’s also about solidarity. Within Europe, we have seen this kind of fierce, quite bitter discussion between the Southern and Northern member states about sharing financial consequences of the crisis. We have to show that solidarity is the best way forward – by helping others we can also help ourselves.
Our focus will have to reach out also to the other regions of the world and help to make sure that people living in extreme poverty, or where there are human rights violations, does not increase in the shadow of this crisis. So indeed, we need to revise some of the EU’s programmes so that we may be able to identify more groups, more minorities, that are under serious threat in these times and beyond.
Thank you very much for your time and for your replies.
The conversation took place on 18 May 2020.