Thursday

17th Oct 2019

Opinion

To help restore confidence in Europe, protect rights

  • The recent elections showed voter disenchantment with the EU (Photo: electoralcommission.org.uk)

Europe is in a grumpy mood. The scale of voter disenchantment with the EU was manifest in May's European Parliament election results, with eurosceptic parties topping the polls in France, the UK, and Denmark and winning seats in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and elsewhere.

This pessimism carries serious risks for the protection of human rights and the rule of law.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Since the Lisbon treaty, there is growing recognition that to have meaning the values the Union is supposed to be founded on need protection.

There is now a Charter of Fundamental Rights and Fundamental Rights Agency. The EU Court of Justice applies human rights in its rulings. The European Commission includes a human rights commissioner. Parliament has stepped up its scrutiny of human rights abuse.

These measures are not perfect. The commission is reluctant to use infringement proceedings in human rights cases. Refugee pushbacks by Bulgaria are a recent example. The parliament's partisan instincts can prevent it from addressing problems in individual member states. The rights agency cannot compel action.

The EU Council has been the most reluctant. The recent Justice and Home Affairs Council endorsement of the idea of a strategy on fundamental rights inside the EU is positive. But the council's working group on fundamental rights is largely focused on technical issues.

Leaving these tasks to the Council of Europe is no solution either as its authority is moral rather than political.

Hungary illustrates its limits. With a parliamentary supermajority, Hungary's ruling party used its first term to impose a new constitution and weaken checks and balances on executive authority. Recent pressure on NGOs as well as media curbs suggests a similar trend in its second term.

Hungary's authoritarian slide triggered a strong response from the Council of Europe, including reviews by its Venice Commission, condemnation by its Human Rights Commissioner and statements by its Secretary General.

These were broadly useful but a determined government can ignore such admonitions.

EU efforts were slightly more successful.

The commission took legal action, and the Court of Justice forced Budapest to back down over the forced early retirement of judges although the ruling was largely symbolic since Hungary had already replaced many judges. No action followed a strong European Parliament report on Hungary.

The procedure under article 7 of the EU treaty for risks of a serious breach of EU values would have made sense.

But there was no appetite in the Council or most of the Commission for a procedure that could have ultimately led to suspension of Hungary's voting rights.

Recognition of the weak response to Hungary's crisis led foreign ministers in Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland in March 2013 to call for more vision in the EU's protection of human rights at home.

The commission's response, a communication on strengthening rule of law, is a modest step that could help in a crisis, althoguh it leaves unaddressed chronic rights abuses across member states.

The worry now is that the election results will derail momentum towards stronger EU rights protection.

There are already signs the commission's communication lacks full support. This may make the EU executive reluctant to act boldly for fear of further backlash. The parliament may also shy away from backing a positive EU role.

That would be a mistake. Giving the EU a stronger role in protecting human rights could actually cement public support for the Union and the values it embodies.

It would take leadership from EU governments, and commitment from EU institutions. But a Union that protects the rights of those living inside it would be a powerful rejoinder to those who assert that Europe is a bankrupt idea.

The writer is deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Le Pen gathers allies for new far-right EP group

French leader Marine Le Pen of the National Front was in Brussels Wednesday to gather allies, but came up short in her bid to form a far-right European Parliament group.

Dutch euroscepticism moves mainstream

Dutch voters critical of the European Union will have an array of parties to choose from when they go to the polls in next month's EU elections.

Polish election: analysing why PiS won

Support for democracy was particularly low in Poland with only 19 percent consistently supporting democracy - only Hungary and Bulgaria scored lower.

Threat to Unesco park mars Montenegro's EU bid

The site contains Europe's second largest natural pasture and hundreds of local families depend on it, but part of it has been slated to become a military training ground.

New Dutch terror bill must not target aid workers

A controversial counterterrorism bill could end up criminalising aid workers in the Netherlands if they enter conflict hotspots when assisting the world's most vulnerable people.

Let girls own the future

While our politics is dominated by old and bullying alpha males and the negativity they have injected into our times, there is at least one day of hope - and it is through unleashing the power of young girls.

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.

Column

The benefits of being unpopular

Paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but when emotions run too high in politics, hotheads may take over.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  2. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  3. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  4. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  6. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  10. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  12. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  2. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  3. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  9. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  12. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us