European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. Photo by: European Parliament / CC BY

BRUSSELS — The European Union executive has released its human rights priorities for 2020-2024, to mixed reviews.

NGOs and even the bloc’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who is responsible for the work, say the action plan by itself is “too vague.”

However, rights advocates welcomed the attempt to allow member states to reach an EU position on controversial issues without unanimity, saying it could be a “gamechanger.”

Released in late March, the joint proposal from the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, and the foreign affairs chief, lays out five areas of action for EU foreign affairs in human rights: protecting and empowering individuals; building resilient, inclusive and democratic societies; promoting a global system for human rights and democracy; harnessing opportunities and addressing challenges posed by the use of new technologies; and delivering by working together.

“If you want to have a precise idea of what this plan represents, you have to go to the country-by-country plan that each delegation is going to prepare.”

— Josep Borrell, EU foreign affairs chief

Speaking to members of the European Parliament last month, Borrell admitted that the document, which will now be negotiated with EU member states, is “not a plan like a business plan would be” and that it must be considered at the country-level.

“This is a general approach, that when you read it, it is impossible to disagree, because everything that is listed in the plan is something that has to be done,” Borrell said. He agreed with some MEPs’ concerns that the plan is “too vague” with “no specific objectives or goals, no quantification,” but said it would be “impossible to grow a plan, putting in a single document everything related to 100 countries in the world.”

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“If you want to have a precise idea of what this plan represents, you have to go to the country-by-country plan that each delegation is going to prepare,” he said.

Maria Arena, the center-left Belgian MEP who chairs the parliament’s sub-committee on human rights, said she appreciated Borrell’s “realistic and honest assessment.”

Birgit Van Hout, regional representative for Europe at the United Nations Human Rights Office, said the text is “more a list of aspirations than really an action plan.” She told Devex that her office would have liked to see more emphasis on tracking and assessing results, such as on abolishing the death penalty.

Borrell told MEPs that he instead sees the text as a framework for country-level plans prepared by EU delegations. The problem is that those country-level plans are not public, said Claudio Francavilla, EU officer at Human Rights Watch, “so how is one supposed to evaluate that?”

Asked the same question, a spokesperson from the European External Action Service — its foreign policy arm — told Devex that “the public EU annual report on human rights and democracy in the world monitors the progress made in the implementation of the Action Plan in all countries in a transparent manner. This annual report includes examples coming from the different regions. This is complemented by country-specific updates which are published together with the Annual Report.”

The Human Rights & Democracy Network, a group of NGOs working on human rights at the EU level, released its assessment of the action plan this week. The network lamented the lack of benchmarks and poor efforts to involve NGOs in the drafting process.

However, HRDN said that it “fully supports” the proposal from the commission and high representative for the action plan to become a “strategic objective” of the EU, meaning decisions on its implementation could be taken by qualified majority voting, rather than unanimity as at present.

A qualified majority is reached with the support of 55% of member states, representing at least 65% of the EU’s total population.

“That could be a gamechanger, at least when it comes to diplomatic tools,” Francavilla said. “When you have to have a statement on behalf of the EU, when you have to have action by the EU in the [United Nations] General Assembly, in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, that can change a lot.”

In 2017, for instance, Greece blocked the EU from making a statement critical of China at the Human Rights Council.

“There are many other cases which are not public and not known where the language of statements is diluted,” Francavilla said. “Right now the language has to be agreed unanimously by the 27 [EU member states]. Removing veto power would help the EU adopt a much needed principled stance more often, swiftly and resolutely in reaction to human rights violations.”

For that to happen, however, Francavilla said EU states now need to “unanimously agree that they will not need unanimity anymore in order to implement the plan.” That could still be possible, he said, perhaps in horsetrading over the EU’s 2021-2027 budget now under negotiation.

Van Hout pointed out that the voting change to allow the EU to move quicker on external issues was flagged by commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, when setting out her political agenda last year.

“In instances where it is difficult to reach agreement I think it is only normal that the EU is looking at other options,” she said.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.