Assessing the inclusion of civil society in the consultation, methodology and follow up of the European rule of law mechanism 2 years on.
The functioning of the rule of law infrastructure does not rely only on state institutions. It lives and breathes through culture, values, and principles. For this reason, the societal component of the rule of law ecosystem is vital to the proper functioning of institutions. An open, plural, and vibrant civic space is a pre-condition for democratic, cohesive and resilient societies. It is also an integral component of the rule of law as civic actors are vital players to strengthen, implement and, when needed, defend the rule of law.
On a cultural level, civil society actively promotes and strengthens the rule of law by sharing information, promoting civic education, raising awareness, and understanding of the rule of law, and countering discrimination and disinformation. It fosters a culture of active participation in public and community life. Civil society also plays an instrumental part in the implementation and functioning of the rule of law: civil society actors support access to justice and human rights, monitor legality and proportionality of laws, measures, and practices, and support the work of independent authorities and human rights bodies.
Over the last years, civil society and social movements, academics, and other public watchdogs, including national human rights institutions, have alerted and made more visible a fast deterioration of the rule of law and democratic backsliding in some European Union Member States. These groups have often been at the forefront of advocating, mobilising, and acting in defence of these democratic frameworks. In doing so, they have become the target of restrictive laws, orchestrated media disinformation or delegitimizing campaigns, judicial and administrative harassment, physical and verbal attacks, while their economic resources and ability to engage with policymakers were shrunk.
Pressure on civic actors is widely recognised as one of the first indications of deterioration of rule of law and democratic backsliding which is rightly expressed in the general communication of the 2021 rule of law report by the European Commission. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to accelerate these trends in several countries at a time when civic actors’ role was most needed to face the health, socio-economic and democratic crisis unfolding.
This report highlights how the silos approach to the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights currently adopted by the European Commission leads to significant gaps and inconsistencies in the analysis of the rule of law framework and limits the effectiveness of the European rule of law mechanism to bring expected change in the protection and strengthening of the rule of law in practice, including the protection of institutional and societal actors that are fundamental for the effective functioning of the rule of law at national and European level.