25th Oct 2016


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.

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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


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