There has been a spike in hate crimes across the EU following the Brexit result, so Malta’s EU Presidency next year needs to shine a light on human rights values currently under threat, the director of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency has urged.

“Hate speech has been proven in European history to be the seed of destruction. We have a European problem,” Michael O’Flaherty told The Sunday Times of Malta.

Mr O’Flaherty, who was in Malta for a brief visit, spoke about the challenges facing the island as it prepares to take on the EU Council Presidency in the current, volatile socio-political climate. “The big challenge is to uphold and protect the values that are at the heart of European identity. These are universal human rights values and they are under threat right now,” Prof. O’Flaherty said.

“We see too many violations of human rights, but we also see a worrying lack of confidence in human rights as the way to build strong and sound policies. We have to re-find that confidence and re-convince the people of Europe that having fundamental rights at the heart of European identity is the key to success.

“In the context of the migrant crisis, for example, there’s a risk every day that we compromise our values if we don’t proceed very carefully,” he warned. Britain’s EU referendum result has triggered a number of diverse problems, including a spike in the levels of hate crime.

Prof. O’Flaherty referred to the smearing of “unacceptable” graffiti on the buildings of minority groups such as the Jewish and Muslim communities.

The UK’s National Police Chiefs’ Council  revealed recently that the number of reported hate crimes soared to five times the usual level following the Brexit vote.

Malta could help tackle the proliferation of hate crimes by keeping the issue at the top of the EU agenda and doing so in a way which is “absolutely and transparently” committed to a human rights approach. In other words, Prof. O’Flaherty added, honouring the promise that Europe made.

A number of EU member states have no laws punishing hate crimes and are instead overcome with a degree of resistance to the penalising of attacks on exposed and vulnerable communities.

“We have to persuade a number of EU member states that they need hate crime legislation. And they have to make it work. It’s difficult to get hate crime laws to work. The police will tell you that it’s difficult to get people to report and it’s very difficult to prosecute, because the elements of hate crime are difficult to prove.

“There’s considerable deal of work being done by our agency and others right now to address this issue. We’re trying to transfer good practice across EU member states. The Maltese Presidency, if it continues to put a focus on this issue, will do us all a great service.”

Laws, however, are never enough, Prof. O’Flaherty conceded. Hard work in society was necessitated on multiple levels. The education system needed to be revamped so that it would be embedded with human rights values and the notion of a responsible citizen.

The human rights message to be transmitted must focus on people’s rights – but also on their responsibilities in respecting those rights.

“We need this from infant school all the way up. We need a programme of tolerance. We need – and we found time and time again that this works – to put a face on human rights. Put a face on victims. Stop victimhood and attacks and people under threat from just being an abstract idea. Allow real people to speak. This has a transforming effect.”