How an EU agency in Vienna urges us all to be vigilant

As citizens of the European Union, we often take our rights for granted. For us, it has become the norm to live in a country that respects democracy, liberty and the rule of law, that guards human rights and fundamental freedoms as laid out in Article 6 of the Maastricht Treaty, and broadened by the Charter of Fundamental Rights in Nice in 2000.

Still, the challenge is in the implementation: “Regrettably the EU isn’t always the beacon of democracy and human rights,” says human rights expert Friso Roscam Abbing. “We can be proud of Europe and of its achievements, but we have to remain incredibly vigilant.”

This gap led to the establishment of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in Vienna in 2007. Located on historical Schwarzenbergplatz, the FRA employs some 105 international staffers, who provide research on fundamental rights challenges to EU institutions and member states, under the leadership of Michael O’Flaherty of Ireland and an annual budget of €21.2 million.

Roscam Abbing is head of Fundamental Rights Promotion at FRA. “We have a number of highly qualified sociologists, political scientists and lawyers working together to analyzed the data,” he reports, with a system of safeguards and internal checks to ensure that the data is scientifically sound.

The core of FRA’s work consists of large-scale surveys and comparative legal and social research, enabling the agency to make comparisons of the fundamental rights situation in the various EU member states. It is the comparative nature of this data that makes the work of the agency unique. By “naming and shaming,” it is hoped that peer pressure can help to initiate change in member states who do not meet EU standards.

Much of the agency’s work focuses on the access to justice, on the rights of Roma and other minorities, the rights of children, as well as of people with disabilities, and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

 


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Other areas of the FRA’s work apply to virtually all EU citizens, such as privacy and data protection. As more and more EU citizens use information and communication technologies (ICT) in their daily lives the risks only grow for violations of their fundamental rights.

A FRA survey in 2017 in 7 EU member states analyzed (mostly ICT-related) surveillance techniques of intelligence services. “We did not want to question the surveillance as such, but we were keen to find out whether there was sufficient democratic and legal control of the intelligence services’ work,” Roscam Abbing states. In fact, the findings were not reassuring, prompting the agency to alert supervisory bodies in the member states.

A 2014 survey on violence against women was the largest ever, with 42,000 women across the EU. The results were shocking. “One in every two women has experienced at least once in her life some form of violence, be it physical, sexual or psychological in nature,” says Roscam Abbing, summing up the findings. FRA developed a set of follow-up recommendations, which it presented to the national parliaments and national human rights institutions and civic organizations.

In the end, not enough national parliaments picked up on the agency’s findings at the time. However, with the #metoo campaign, this deeply disturbing issue is now back at the center of debate and public attention. Roscam Abbing also believes that FRA’s work was instrumental in pushing member states to ratify the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.

The FRA is also at work on asylum and migration. The agency collects data about the fundamental rights situation of people arriving in 14 EU member states, including Austria, all of which are particularly affected by large migration movements.

The FRA is also at work on asylum and migration. The agency collects data about the fundamental rights situation of people arriving in 14 EU member states, including Austria, all of which are particularly affected by large migration movements.

“FRA not only wants to inform the debate on migration, but also to work directly at hot spots in Greece and Italy, where it provides training and capacity building together with other partners,” says Ann-Charlotte Nygard, Programme Manager at FRA’s Freedoms and Justice Department. “These initiatives led to Greece adopting a law on guardianship requiring the presence of child protection officers at border hotspots,” says Nygard.

The agency is currently also working on the largest-ever survey on anti-Semitism that includes 15,000 self-identified Jews in 13 EU member states, including Austria. The survey assesses their everyday experiences of anti-Semitism. The findings will be presented in Brussels at the European Council on December 10 as part of the Austrian EU Presidency.

“We have to start accepting the notion that we have serious problems related to fundamental rights in each and every EU member state,” says Roscam Abbing. “And many of the violations are not only related to minority groups – they apply to almost all of us“

In light of this, taking fundamental rights for granted may not be the best policy, even in the EU. As Aldous Huxley said: “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.”