It might come as a surprise to most, but issues as diverse as fighting violence against women or improving consumer protection are covered by the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights. So when the EU spends money on helping to improve human (or "fundamental") rights, how does it decide its priorities?
Under existing funding programs on human rights, running from 2007 to 2013, the EU has been directing funds towards combating problems like human trafficking, violence against women, or racism and xenophobia. The money has often gone to nongovernmental organizations to carry out various activities: raising awareness of the problems among the general public; helping to inform victims about their rights and how to take a case through the courts; or carrying out research so that politicians can have a better idea of the scale and types of challenges they need to resolve when making policy or new legislation.
NGOs have also played a vital role in channeling the views of the people whose interests they represent to politicians. These are people whose voices might otherwise not be heard among the crowds of well-resourced lobbyists in Brussels and they include, for instance, persons with disabilities, those living in poverty, members of ethnic minorities, or the elderly.
Come 2014, as the EU moves on to its next six-year budget cycle, it also has the task of reviewing its funding priorities on human rights and the process of deciding where and how money will be spent is already well under way. Who decides? The European Commission, responsible for putting proposals on the table, has suggested dropping trafficking, violence against women and racism and xenophobia as problems that should be dealt with through funding for dealing with human rights issues. New to the list, though, are things like consumer protection, the right to set up and run a business, and the rights of EU citizens—like voting in European Parliament elections, or being able to move to and live in another EU country. Alongside these changes, funding to help nongovernmental organizations improve human rights is no longer mentioned. Many of these organizations would have serious problems remaining in existence without the EU’s financial support.
How did the Commission decide on these new priorities? Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any clear explanation. No reason has been put forward as to why the new issues on the table are more important or require more serious attention. The issues that it would like to abandon have not been resolved.
If anything, the current economic downturn can be expected to accentuate existing human rights challenges. Times of austerity and rising unemployment have brought with them increased public support for political parties historically carrying overtly xenophobic or racist messages. Cut-backs in national spending will most probably result in a drop in funding for services supporting victims of crime, including domestic violence or trafficking. If these problems are becoming more serious, is now the right time to withdraw EU money?
At the same time, reduced national spending is likely to hit vulnerable groups such as the elderly or people with disabilities who may be heavily dependent on social services. Removing support to the NGOs who help to represent the views of these groups at the EU level effectively cuts them out of the political debate. Surely it becomes more—not less—important to take the concerns of these same people into account at a time when they are likely to suffer from the EU’s current tightening of rules on national public spending.
Thankfully, the tale is not over. National governments, which are represented in the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament, still get to have their say. So far, indications from the Council are that some of the things that the Commission wanted to change will be changed back again. And the European Parliament remains in a position to take things further still. So there is hope for a good result by the time the new legislation is adopted, expected to be late 2012 or early 2013. But the question remains—how should the EU decide which rights are more important than others?