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Opening speech by Minister of Justice Henriksson at the Conference on the Interaction between Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights at Finlandia Hall 10-11 September 2019

Ministry of Justice
Publication date 11.9.2019 13.19

Dear Director O’Flaherty and dear guests,

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this conference organised by the Finnish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I’m happy to see so many familiar faces here in the audience.

Today, the importance of our common European values is greater than ever, because our need for European cooperation is also greater than ever. We are living in turbulent times. Our societies, and the EU, are facing major challenges. At the same time, our ability to work together to respond to our citizens’ expectations is being tested in many ways.

This means we must make an effort to enhance the values on which our cooperation is based. By doing this, we enhance the trust between the Member States, and the trust of our citizens in the EU and their national governments. Without a doubt, trust is a key component of a strong society. 

Dear colleagues, let us work together to build this trust. The overall theme of this conference is the interaction between democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in preserving the resilience of our societies. We believe that the interlinkages between rights and values need more attention. Democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights can be seen as a tripod where all three legs are essential.

This means that fundamental rights are a condition for a democratic state that is based on the rule of law. Without a system based on the rule of law, citizens don’t have access to their rights. Additionally, democracy cannot function in a vacuum — without respect for fundamental and human rights any participatory mechanism remains empty of content. It is evident that these rights and values are interlinked and inseparable. And I want to give you an example from my own life – as a young mother of two I wanted to affect the kindergartens and schools in my home town. As a result, I asked if I could run in the local elections. In a free society as ours, I had this possibility and I was also elected. And education is still very important to me. As important is of course fundamental rights and the rule of law.

This brings me to sustainability and our Presidency slogan: Sustainable Europe — Sustainable Future. The European success story is built on democratic institutions, human rights and the rule of law. And, this story is set to continue into the future. The EU’s Strategic Agenda for the next five years highlights the fact that the common value base is the foundation of European freedom, security and prosperity. We can be proud that the EU and its Member States are placed among the global leaders in many reviews concerning the upholding of these values. To maintain this position is the key to a sustainable Europe, and our common sustainable future.

The current Commission has taken its role as the guardian of the Treaties seriously. I’m also pleased to see that Ms von der Leyen, the President-elect of the European Commission, holds these values high in her political guidelines. We need consistent action to ensure that Europe remains the beacon of the free world. It is our duty to continue to strive for a socially, ecologically and economically sound Europe for our future generations.

This conference is part of our efforts to find ways to strengthen our common values and the rule of law, which is one of the top priorities of Finland’s Presidency of the Council.

Ladies and gentlemen, we will be looking at the topics of this conference from three different angles.

The first working session will discuss the impacts disinformation can have on democratic structures. The higher voter turnout in the spring elections to the European Parliament proved that European politics do matter to the people, and that people do want to participate. It is our responsibility to ensure that elections take place in a safe environment and that the outcome reflects the will of the people. This requires more than just delivering a technically sound election process. Hybrid threats can also pose a risk to the election process, with targeted disinformation campaigns being just a part of it.

The theme of the second working session is participation as a fundamental right. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as a legally binding instrument. The Charter is a modern fundamental rights document and we can all be very proud of it. During the Finnish Presidency, we will be celebrating the Charter in many ways. We want to highlight the roles of different actors in ensuring that the Charter is effectively implemented.

Another central right is the right to participate. Here, the links to democracy and the rule of law are obvious. For citizens to have influence in matters affecting their lives, they need to be able to find meaningful ways to exercise this influence. However, the ways and means may change as our societies change. The challenges hindering the full enjoyment of participatory rights vary from one individual to another. This means we need to be sensitive to the diversity in our societies, be it linguistic, ethnic, or linked to social status, disability or other factors. Equality is the glue that holds our societies together.

Tomorrow, in the third working session we will discuss the rule of law and the mechanisms and actors ensuring respect for the rule of law. None of our societies are immune to the topical challenges, and they never have been. The challenges just change with time and context. This is why we need a system of proper checks and balances, with international and European cooperation. We also need joint discussions where we can share best practices and learn from each other.

To this end, let me state that we cannot overemphasise the importance of dialogue. All of the topics covered in this conference are such that there are no perfect performances. Ensuring the respect for fundamental and human rights and enhancing democracy and the functioning of the rule of law are, and should be, ongoing activities that need to be very high on the agenda of any government.

Our Presidency is committed to taking the European agenda forward constructively. We are also committed to seeking new and more efficient ways to ensure respect for the EU’s common values. We should be ambitious, yet pragmatic. We see this conference as one such step.

Dear colleagues, this conference brings together a number of key players not only from European politics, administration and judiciary, but also from civil society and academia. All have an important role in ensuring the respect for our common values. Here, I would also like to mention the role of international organisations and the wealth of expertise they can bring into the discussions at the EU level.

Finally, a few words on data and facts. I am quite sure that I am not the only one in this hall who has recently read Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness. Information and data are important so that we are not guided by misconceptions.

There is a wealth of information available on fundamental and human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and on the systems for their protection in each of the EU Member States. We should make full use of the available information. In addition to the data produced by the EU itself, we should look at international organisations, universities, and civil society.

Indeed, it is the civil society that is often at the forefront when something goes wrong, and the citizens’ access to their rights is restricted. We need to listen carefully to the concerns raised if we truly want to know how our democratic structures are functioning on the ground.

Dear speakers and participants, with these words, I would like to open this conference.Together with my colleague Minister Tuppurainen, I will take the outcomes from this conference forward to our colleagues at the Council level. I know that you will hear interesting presentations over the next two days and I wish you many constructive discussions. At the same time, I hope you all enjoy your stay in Helsinki.

Once again, welcome to the conference!

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