Tuesday

28th Mar 2017

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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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

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.

Focus

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.

Analysis

Lukashenka: End of an era?

The political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season began, but greater changes loom after 23 years of dictatorship.

Column / Brexit Briefing

The Union under threat

The effect of Brexit will be much more profound on Northern Ireland than on Scotland. Some kind of border controls with Ireland seem inevitable.

Birthday wishes to the European Union

With the EU soon to celebrate its 60th birthday, there are still lingering questions about the bloc's future and whether there can be a change in fortune.

Analysis

Lukashenka: End of an era?

The political spring in Belarus ended just as the actual season began, but greater changes loom after 23 years of dictatorship.

News in Brief

  1. Scottish MPs give go ahead to seek referendum
  2. Uber pulls out of Denmark over new taxi-regulation
  3. EU court validates sanctions on Russia's Rosneft
  4. Luxembourg to team up with Ireland in Apple tax appeal
  5. EU majority against GM crops, but not enough to block them
  6. Turkish referendum voting starts in Europe
  7. Le Pen says she lacks election funds
  8. UN dinner for Cyprus leaders to restart stalled peace talks

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. The Idealist QuarterlyCan Progressive Stories Survive Our Post-Truth Era? After-Work Discussion on 6 April
  2. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  3. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  4. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  5. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  6. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  7. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  8. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  9. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal
  10. Malta EU 2017Council Adopts New Rules to Improve Safety of Medical Devices
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Research: How to Reach 100 Percent Renewable Energy
  12. Party of European SocialistsWe Must Renew Europe for All Europeans