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France: Put Fundamental Rights at Top of EU Agenda

President Macron Should Stand Up for a Rights-Respecting Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels, October 22, 2021. © 2021 Aris Oikonomou, Pool Photo via AP

(Paris) – President Emmanuel Macron should commit to defend democratic safeguards and reverse inhumane migration policies in the European Union, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to French president Macron that was released today.

France will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June 2022. On December 9, 2021, President Macron is expected to hold a news conference to present France’s priorities during its EU presidency.

“France’s EU presidency comes at a critical juncture as several EU governments are deliberately rejecting the democratic values on which the EU was founded,” said Benedicte Jeannerod, Paris director at Human Rights Watch. “The French presidency of the EU will be closely watched to ensure that France acts effectively for a rights-respecting Europe firmly rooted in respect for rule of law.”

In recent months, the French government remained unclear about how the EU’s defense of rule of law and democratic institutions would feature during the French presidency.

In September, EU Affairs State Secretary Clement Beaune stated that the protection of EU founding values and the rule of law was “existential” and that the EU should “strengthen its legal and political tools” in relation to the new EU tool conditioning access to EU funds to respect for the rule of law. In October, President Macron stated that “questioning the rule of law calls into question the very foundations of the European project.” He, too, referred to the defense of the EU's rules and values as "existential."

But in November, Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian remained silent on France’s plans on the rule of law when he presented the EU presidency priorities to a Commission of the Senate.

In December 2020, the EU adopted a conditionality mechanism to protect the EU budget from rule of law breaches by an EU member state. While the Commission has not used this mechanism that could lead to withholding funds, it raised the possibility in November letters to the governments of Poland and Hungary. It is likely that formal steps regarding its use could take place during the French presidency of the Council of the EU.

EU member states triggered Article 7 procedures – the EU treaty mechanism dealing with countries in breach of EU values – in 2017 on Poland and in 2018 on Hungary, but have taken no further action to hold those two governments into account.

In Poland, the government has undermined judicial independence, flouted decisions of the EU Court of Justice, and used a politically compromised constitutional tribunal to erode women’s rights and the binding nature of EU law. Attacks and harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and women’s rights activists have increased.

In Hungary, most media outlets are now controlled by the government or government supporters, while the authorities repeatedly harass the remaining independent media. Civil society groups face restrictive legislations and smears by government officials and their supporters. In June, parliament adopted a law banning discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation, putting health providers, educators, artists, and broadcasters at risk of sanctions while curbing LGBT rights.

President Macron should make a commitment to take steps available under Article 7 in response to the continued worsening of the situations in Hungary and Poland. These should include moving toward adopting rule of law recommendations and setting a vote to determine whether EU values are at risk in both countries. France’s EU presidency should also ensure that that it makes full use of the mechanism conditioning access to funding to respect for the rule of law during its presidency.

The dramatic humanitarian and human rights situation at the Poland-Belarus border is a stark reminder that EU countries are willing to violate the human rights of migrants at its external borders, and of EU institutions to allow these abuses take place. European institutions repeatedly failed to address unlawful pushbacks, sometimes accompanied by violence, of migrants and asylum seekers in other places including Croatia, Greece, Spain, and Hungary. EU countries have been slow to back a proposal in the EU Commission’s Pact on Migration and Asylum to establish independent border monitoring mechanisms by member states to investigate allegations of fundamental rights violations at borders.

If the French government is serious about promoting respect for EU values in the bloc’s migration policies, it should commit during its EU presidency to end the practice of unlawful pushbacks at EU borders, to defend the right to seek asylum, to provide protections against collective expulsions, and create a system to investigate serious allegations of abuses. France should also support a permanent relocation or responsibility-sharing system to alleviate the pressure on first countries of arrival, and press for the use of temporary, emergency relocation when crises emerge during its EU presidency.

The shocking loss of life at EU borders, including in the English Channel between France and the United Kingdom, makes it paramount for France to use its EU presidency to promote policies to save lives and prevent migrant deaths, Human Rights Watch said. These measures should include robust, state-led, and active search-and-rescue operations where they are needed, support for nongovernmental lifesaving efforts, and conditioning support for the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy on concrete and verifiable steps to end widespread abuse against migrants and asylum seekers in Libya.

As France should lead the EU by example, it should also take urgent action to stop abuses against migrants by its own authorities in Calais and elsewhere in northern France. Standing up for fundamental rights during France’s EU presidency is all the more important now that some politicians are casting doubt on the founding values of the EU in the run-up to the French general elections in 2022.

“It will take more than words to stop the erosion of democratic safeguards and rule of law in the EU,” Jeannerod said. “France should lead with bold actions. President Macron should give a clear direction to France’s presidency of the EU and commit to making full use of the scrutiny powers under Article 7 and conditioning EU money to respect for EU values.”

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