(BIRGIT VAN HOUT on the EUobserver) Recently, the European Commission published its proposals for the Multi-Annual Financial Framework Post-2020 (MFF), which will set the priorities and parameters for the EU budget after 2020.

For the remainder of this year, and possibly into the first part of 2019, the European Parliament and the European Council, which is made up of all EU member states, will discuss and refine these proposals, together with the commission.

Although highly technical, EU budget rules are an important vehicle for translating the EU’s commitment to values and principles into concrete action – to align deeds with words.

The MFF is a unique tool through which to propel human rights both inside the European Union and in EU external action and development cooperation.

The symbolism of the MFF process occurring simultaneously with celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders should be lost on no one.

Human rights defenders play an important role in documenting human rights gaps and advocating for better legislation, policies and programmes. A vibrant civil society is an essential component of democracy.

Starve-and-strangle policies

Yet, starve-and-strangle policies in some EU countries are creating a hostile environment for human rights organisations.

While the EU strongly supports human rights defenders outside its borders, funding for genuine human rights work inside the EU remains limited and hard to access.

In response to this situation, the European parliament has recommended the creation of a European Values Instrument to financially support human rights organisations in the EU.

In the MFF, the commission has proposed a Justice, Values and Rights Fund, which groups existing programmes and is less ambitious than that recommended by the European parliament.

The amount of funding allocated to the Justice, Rights and Values Fund also looks meagre, particularly in comparison with other areas of the MFF.

We urge that the EU take seriously the objective of supporting human rights organisations and human rights defenders in Europe.

Perhaps the most important of the commission’s proposals is the new rule of law conditionality.

This modality would allow the EU to pause or discontinue funding for EU member states when systemic concerns to the rule of law arise.

The proposal includes voting procedures designed to overcome the current difficulty of the European institutions to respond to rule-of-law problems in member states.

In its position paper of February 2018, the UN Human Rights Office advocated for a direct link between funding and human rights, since EU member states are a party to most international human rights treaties, and article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union refers explicitly to human rights as a value on which the European Union is built.

Welcome for ‘conditionality’

Although less comprehensive than what we would have liked to see, we welcome the “rule-of-law” conditionality and hope the European council will approve this pioneering proposal, which would equip the EU with an additional tool to hold member States to account for guaranteeing the rule of law, which is at the heart of the protection of the human rights of all.

In its socially-oriented funding, the commission proposal includes goals such as empowering women, tackling homelessness, providing inclusive education, addressing discrimination, supporting marginalised communities such as Roma and the working poor, facilitating the integration of migrants, and promoting the transition of children, older persons and persons with disabilities from residential or institutional care to family and community-based care.

According to the MFF proposal, these initiatives now fall under rules related to Cohesion and Values, an umbrella of ten funds that includes the European Social Fund+ and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

The commission also proposes strengthening the conditions which will have to be met for an initiative to be funded.

Two so-called “enabling conditions” are compliance with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and with the United Nations Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, respectively.

It remains to be seen exactly how these enabling conditions will work, and it is important that EU member states maintain these conditionalities in the MFF proposal.

A few days ago, the EU reiterated its support for the promotion and protection of human rights as a priority in today’s volatile and unpredictable world.

Currently, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) provides a lifeline for human rights groups working outside EU borders, often in the most difficult circumstances.

‘Degree of unease’

The commission’s stated intention to dissolve the EIDHR into a wider Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument has caused a degree of unease among human rights defenders, who see in the EIDHR the concrete expression of the EU’s commitment to human rights and democracy.

It is hoped that the absorption of the EIDHR in this broader pool, which will include many other priorities, will not weaken the EU’s attention and commitment to promoting and protecting human rights and democracy in its global engagements.

We also believe that human rights should be designated as a distinct element to be mainstreamed throughout the new Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument, alongside climate change, environmental protection and gender equality.

Once adopted, the MFF will be the framework through which the EU will work for most of the period up to 2030, the target date for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda, with its core principle of “leaving no one behind.”

Quite a few of the commission’s proposals deserve endorsement. Others warrant adjustment and refining.

At the end of the day, success is measured through improvements in people’s daily lives.

It is therefore vital that the public takes an interest in these deliberations and, to the extent possible, take part in the conversation, with a view to placing the EU’s Multi-Annual Financial Framework post 2020 on a firm human rights footing.

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