Unknown territory of civil society cooperation with the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights

Last week [25-26 February] I was at the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in Vienna. Together with other civil society organisations, representatives of religious organisations, Council of Europe representatives, individual activists and members of FRA’s Scientific Committee and staff, we discussed how to develop our cooperation to have greater impact on the rights of people living in Europe.

Up until now FRA has had a Fundamental Rights Platform, to which civil society organisations may apply to become a member of. Now FRA is in a process of re-thinking how to structure its cooperation with civil society. The humanitarian emergency of refugees and migrants coming to Europe has led individuals to informally mobilise and volunteer at borders, train stations and other places across Europe. This has expanded the notion of civil society, beyond organised non-governmental organisations – a dynamic that FRA is taking into account. In our discussions we asked ourselves if membership of a fundamental rights platform is really necessary and if the cooperation can be structured differently. We struggled with questions such as how to ensure diversity and representation of all voices, including those heard the least, and how to ensure geographical balance across Member States. We also remained cautious about how to deal with those who proclaim to be human rights defenders when they are in fact against the rights of some; for example after the incident of sexual harassment against women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve some organisations and individuals claimed to be feminists and champions of equal treatment when in reality they were opposed to migrants (something Vice-President Timmermans talked about when we met). Membership allows FRA to screen civil society organisations to ensure they comply with the true values of fundamental rights. Without such a screening process, FRA would need to find a way to welcome diversity and freedom of speech, and on the other hand ensure that hate speech is not invited.

FRA’s Director, Michael O’Flaherty welcomed development of a new way of working, and stressed that institutions and civil society both need each other to have a real impact for people on the ground. Civil society has a unique ability to explain what rights mean for rights-holders, while at the same time having a role to hold duty-bearers accountable. Civil society’s space cannot be taken for granted and needs to be both protected and promoted, said Mr O’Flaherty (read more about when we met Mr O’Flaherty at Social Platform).

Moving away from a cooperation mode we know to unknown new ways of working is a confusing but exciting process that challenges us to think outside the box. At Social Platform we are currently reviewing our 2009 recommendations to the EU on creating a meaningful civil dialogue. The political climate and the space for civil society has changed since then, and we too need to re-think how we can make a difference in people’s lives by the way we engage with EU decision-makers. I look forward to being a part of discussing these issues both with our members, our alliances and FRA.