The Fundamental Rights Forum and the unique power of civil society organisations
Sixteen years have passed since the publication of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The corresponding Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) was established seven years later. In these years a great deal of progress has been achieved, and I am confident that we now live in a freer and more democratic Union.
However, in spite of progress achieved over the past decades, the EU is today facing a number of challenges; our values of democracy and unity are being tested, and we might feel doubtful about how sustainable this progress really is. With reason, many are worried that the actions and words of some of our governments risk dismantling these achievements. Others fear a crisis in values, pointing to the fact that our practices do not reflect our aspirations as a Union.
In light of these difficulties, the role of civil society has been and will continue to be crucial; across Europe, ordinary people have stepped up to fill the void that governments have left.
The crisis in the reception of migrants in the EU is a case in point. As the gap between policy making and desired outcomes widens, organisations on the ground have been systematically documenting the shortcomings and outright failures of those decisions, and where possible, acting to remedy the problems created or exacerbated by policy.
Over years of work in oft-adverse circumstances, civil society organisations have developed unique expertise; it is this expertise that policy makers must acknowledge and seek out. It is time that the contribution of these experts is recognised; it is time for civil society organisations to be considered integral to the process of reforming policies and finding solutions.
Recognising the experience and expertise of civil society organisations, and the particular power of civil society to identify and name rights violations, FRA established the Fundamental Rights Platform (FRP), a network of civil society organisations committed to the values of the Charter. Each member is engaged in work that promotes the realisation of rights across Member States. The FRP has been instrumental in disseminating the expertise and knowledge produced by FRA, but it has been much more besides: it has been a key factor in the fight for greater rights across the Union and has acted as an early warning system when things were not going in the right direction.
The Fundamental Rights Forum (FRF) is a great opportunity. It will provide an invaluable space to begin multiple dialogues on how we should work together, but more importantly on how we should respond to the needs of those we work for.
Throughout the four days of the Forum, we will discuss urgent issues; issues that may be difficult to tackle, but which affect the development of the rights agenda across the EU. Our collective response to these difficult questions is will shape how we are judged as democratic societies.
In these challenging times, it is important that the work of civil society organisations is acknowledged and their roles clearly defined. We must move away from the current state of play where too often civil society organisations are seen only as implementing partner, and move towards a practice in which their concerns and their knowledge are taken into consideration across all stages of policy responses.
No matter what happens, civil society organisations will continue to be the ones confronted by the immediate needs of those suffering from rights violations. Now is the time to listen to their needs, their struggles and their views; continuing to sideline them in decision making will end in disenfranchisement; a very worrying outlook at a time when those who contest the value of democracy and fundamental rights are gaining ground.
For me, the Forum is a hopeful space: it is built on the belief that a Europe where fundamental rights are realised for all is not a dream, but rather an achievable goal. It represents the hope that a new way of working will start to emerge; we are here, together, to establish how to brave the difficulties we are facing.
Pablo Rojas Coppari is Policy & Research Officer at the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and member of the FRA’s Fundamental Rights Platforms’ Advisory Panel.