More cooperation between civil society and the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

Last week I spent three days in Vienna with the civil society Advisory Panel to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). On our agenda were some of the new ideas that Michael O’Flaherty, the new Director of FRA, is putting in place that will support civil society.

Firstly, Mr O’Flaherty is actively supporting our fight against the worrying trend of shrinking space for civil society in the EU. Civil society organisations in many Member States are being confined to providing services, and are limited or intimidated when acting as watchdogs, advocates and human rights defenders. Members of the Advisory Panel from Greece, Spain and Croatia shared their experiences of being harassed and attacked in their offices, denied funding, forced to fire staff, and required to pay taxes for service provision that in fact should be the responsibility of the state (find out more in my blog about my visit to Bulgaria). Many civil society organisations lack funding, and EU funds are too bureaucratic and administratively cumbersome to apply for and manage. We agreed that more information is needed about the legal, financial and political situation of civil society in Member States, as well as definitions of what civic space is. Some suggestions for action included FRA encouraging non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to keep FRA informed about their deteriorating situation, as well as FRA facilitating meetings between civil society organisations and donors interested in funding human rights work.

Secondly, FRA is developing its own cooperation with civil society. Up until now, FRA’s Fundamental Rights Platform has been based on formal NGO membership, but in the future Mr O’Flaherty would like it to be more inclusive and open – not only for NGOs, but for wider civil society. FRA will step up its cooperation with other stakeholder groups defined as ‘civil society’ in their regulation: “trade unions and employer’s organisations, relevant social and professional organisations, churches, religious, philosophical and non-confessional organisations, universities and other qualified expert”. As a first step, the Agency is visiting stakeholders in Brussels, including some Social Platform members. We discussed ways of developing further the exchange of information between FRA and civil society, for example with the help of social media and tailored subscriptions to news alerts.

Thirdly, Mr O’Flaherty is stepping up the Agency’s work to promote and raise awareness of human rights in the EU. The idea is to work with both empowering the duty bearers and rights holders, for example by delivering training to professional groups. Reaching rights holders can be complicated due to the need to take into account language barriers and targeted communication channels that reach ordinary people. We therefore proposed for FRA to engage with civil society representatives working in communications and media, as well as consider exchanging ideas with people in the public relations, culture and arts sectors that can bring outside solutions.

Over dinner Mr O’Flaherty listened to our feedback on the Fundamental Rights Forum. Among some of the ideas we discussed was instead of one big-scale Forum every second year, organising preparatory regional or thematic conferences leading up to the Forum, in the spirit of the model the United Nations often takes.

FRA will continue to develop its ideas, in dialogue with the Advisory Panel, and I will continue to keep you in the loop!