In April 2019, the European Commission published a Communication on “Further Strengthening the Rule of Law within the Union”. Following an overwhelming amount of responses from stakeholders contributing to the debate, the need for a revision of the rule of law monitoring mechanism was reinforced. A Eurobarometer survey, undertaken at the same time, reinvigorated the support for the rule of law and its key principles across all Member States, but showed that Europeans do not feel sufficiently informed about the EU’s fundamental values. As a result, the annual Rule of Law Report is one of the major initiatives of the European Commission’s Work Programme for 2020. It is part of the comprehensive European rule of law mechanism announced in the Political Guidelines of President von der Leyen.
In preparation for the first report, the European Commission launched a targeted stakeholder consultation for organisations working on rule of law related issues. The European Commission specifically targeted National Equality Bodies (NEBs), National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and Ombudsman Institutions (OIs), asking about their independence, capacity and powers for the Consultation, highlighting the important role that they play in the rule of law mechanism.
The Equinet Secretariat filled out the questionnaire, focusing on equality as a fundamental value, on which the EU is built. It noted that the rule of law, equality and fundamental rights are parallel values, thus failing to guarantee one will harm the others as well. NEBs as independent institutions play a dual role. They monitor and report on the situation, being a valuable source of information, but at the same time their own independence, resources and power are put to the test. Using the European Commission’s 2018 Recommendation on Standards for Equality Bodies as a backdrop, Equinet’s submission concentrated on how rule of law breaches may affect these standards, namely the independence, effectiveness, resources, mandate and national institutional architecture for equality.
The Equinet Secretariat underlined that the independence of national equality bodies must be protected and ensured. Governments introducing non-democratic or arbitrary measures breaching the rule of law may negatively impact and limit the scope of the mandate and work of NEBs. Namely, the administrative structure should remain independent from elected authorities and the procedures for appointing and dismissing personnel, should not be influenced by the political power in place. Furthermore, the grounds of discrimination covered by mandates of NEBs should not be limited and NEBs must not be forcefully advised against investigating certain issues. The requirement of independence of NEBs prohibits such actions from affecting the effectiveness of their work and the right of victims to receive adequate assistance. Additionally, rule of law breaches should not impact the functions of NEBs as semi-judicial bodies (where applicable), if judges subordinated to governments may not be impartial to discrimination and inequality cases.
The submission by Equinet also noted the larger system of institutions and stakeholders that equality bodies work in and how threats to it may also be a hurdle for NEBs to fulfil their functions. NEBs are a valuable source of information, collecting and providing input on the developments in the society on matters of equality and in relation to the rule of law. Breaches to the rule of law and the resulting risks for independent institutions threaten the availability of such sources of information.
Finally, the Equinet Secretariat highlighted that sufficient resources for equality bodies must remain fair and adequate. Any budget cuts by the government may be used as pressure to hinder NEBs independence, decrease their effectiveness or their functioning by not having enough resources to effectively perform tasks covered by their mandates.
To read the full submission click this link.