Friday

18th Oct 2019

Opinion

The small price of democracy

The Portuguese constitutional court recently rejected government spending cuts for the sixth time.

In June 2012, the court stated that since a plan to limit extra holiday and Christmas pay was targeted only at public sector workers basic principles of equality were infringed.

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

  • The Ratton Palace in Lisbon is the seat of Portugal's Constitutional Court (Photo: Portuguese Constitutional Court)

Four more judgements were delivered in 2013.

Among these, the court defended the Portuguese people, in many cases jobless people, by banning measures which would cause excessive harm, such as a tax on unemployment benefits.

This year, budget cuts, scaling back the number of public sector workers, taxation of unemployment and sickness benefits, as well as cuts in pensions paid to widows and widowers, saw the court step in once more.

These judgements place the constitutional court of an EU member state firmly behind workers and citizens and should give us all pause for thought.

In addition, the court clearly states that laws and legal principles which lay the foundations for legal certainty, and therefore for our very democracies and the respect of our fundamental rights, are not at the free disposal of the political class – even in times of emergency.

The constitutional court’s ruling is comforting. Fundamental rights, especially those on solidarity and citizenship, enshrined in countless national, European and international constitutions, basic laws, charters, conventions and covenants actually do have a meaning and a purpose.

The signals sent out to the entire EU indicate that these laws and principles may actually stand against free market principles and the “beyond-the-law-and-legitimacy-logic” of the economic adjustment programmes.

At the very least, they show that the world of economics and finance does not always necessarily have to prevail over social justice.

Here, the constitutional court seems more in touch with the needs of people than some of the politicians and governments elected.

Reacting to last year’s overruling on pension reforms, German chancellor Merkel and Jose Manuel Barroso, European commission president, said they were confident that “alternative measures” would be found. The immediate reaction of EU leaders to the court’s latest ruling consisted mainly of appeasing the financial markets.

Portugal's prime minster, meanwhile, said he is “deeply concerned” about the judgement and declared, according to the Financial Times, that he would “not allow decisions that ‘appear incomprehensible’ to reverse the important fiscal adjustment that Portugal had made over the past three years”.

This is an alarming approach.

A very legal debate

One may argue in economic terms that the tiny glimpse of recovery has proven the austerity apostle right or, that given the current economic indicators, austerity-driven policies alone will lead to even gloomier scenarios. But this debate is not purely economic; we have a very legal debate on our hands.

Legal certainty forms a strong part of the foundations of our democracies, our well-being and wealth and, in the end, any economic or fiscal activity we pursue.

If the law, its interpretation and its application is subject to the whim of European economic and fiscal policies, our societies risk no longer being communities based on the rule of law. The absence of legal certainty and, more fundamentally, the absence of democracy, would be the consequence.

Perhaps, it is time for the certain political actors to take a new perspective on these judgements.

The Portuguese court does not say that budgetary consolidation should not be pursued. It does not say that memoranda of understanding – or any agreements between creditors and debtors – could not justify certain necessary reforms. And it does not say that cuts and reform in the public administrations may not be needed.

The court simply states that if a constitution enshrines some basic rights and principles in black and white, then these rights and principles must be respected. This respect, just like democracy and the legal order, has its price – yet compared to the benefits, it is a very small one.

The writer is Secretary general of the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, CESI

Disclaimer

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

Europe's empty fortress

It is too easy only to criticise the rightists and their fixation with barbed wire, Trump for his wall on the border with Mexico, Orban for his xenophobia.

Catalonia shows dangers of jail terms for non-violence

Time and again, across the world, efforts to "decapitate" non-violent movements, and refusals to engage in political dialogue with them, have led to situations like we are seeing today in Catalonia.

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.

News in Brief

  1. Macron: Nato's inability to react to Turkey a 'mistake'
  2. EU: US can expect counter measures after tariff move
  3. Almost 7,500 people forcibly returned to Libya in 2019
  4. Puigdemont released after responding to arrest warrant
  5. Commission: Facebook's Libra needs international approach
  6. Italian PM: denial of accession talks a 'historic mistake'
  7. Catalan president blames clashes on 'infiltrators'
  8. US imposes €6.7bn new tariffs on European products

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