Rome Anniversary: Reflections on the EU’s future on human rights

Rome Anniversary: Reflections on the EU’s future on human rights

24 March 2017

This weekend European heads of state and government will meet in Rome to celebrate the EU’s 60th anniversary and reflect on its future. There is certainly much to celebrate. Across its six decade history, the European Union has, however imperfectly and inconsistently, been a driving force for positive social change across the region and across the world. And yet, the challenges it faces today are glaring; and the anxiety of its leaders palpable. There are fundamental questions about is identity, its role and its political shape that need to be answered. One of these questions, perhaps a central one, concerns the increasingly shaky commitment of the EU to upholding its founding values of respect for the rule of law and human rights, both at home and abroad.

First up, the EU must tackle once and for all the incoherence in its domestic human rights policy. Although respect for human rights is a strict prerequisite for joining the bloc, the EU remains at a loss as to what to do when a member country regresses into a human rights crisis. In Rome this weekend, there will inevitably be fraught discussions (in private) on developments in Poland and Hungary, two states that are increasingly flaunting their disdain for the EU treaty obligations to uphold human rights and the institutions responsible for upholding them. It’s also been eight years since states committed to the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights but this hasn’t happened. This has to be prioritised.

There must also be some reflection on Institutional roles. President Juncker announced from the outset his intention to build a more ‘political’ Commission. Yet it is vital to the Union’s credibility on human rights that the European Commission’s role as guardian of the EU treaties and human rights is not abandoned. The Commission’s increasingly political stance has left it vulnerable to the influence of xenophobic political discourse across the region with growing and worrying consequences for its policy making. The most costly example is that politically motivated, rather than evidenced based policy proposals on migration have been allowed to drive the EU’s migration and security agenda. In both areas human rights protection has suffered as a result: EU standards are being driven downward.

The EU Treaties contain a clear commitment to solidarity between member countries. In practice EU migration policy contradicts this principle as the current system places an unfair burden on the frontline Mediterranean border countries to take all responsibility. Given the challenges this dysfunctional system has created, this weekend there must be thought given on how to replace it by a fairer redistribution system. More broadly, a human rights based approach to migration should be been adopted. A human rights based approach would be a more controlled and dignified one, with resettlement, solidarity and equal redistribution of those arriving as they arrive.

In foreign policy also, the debate on the EU’s future should be framed this weekend in a long term vision rather than the short-termism that is fast becoming an embedded norm. Given the United States’ and others’ retreat from support to international human rights, EU leadership on the world stage is urgently needed. The EU must put human rights protection at the forefront of the EU agenda. Prioritising security cooperation and deterrence of migration and refugee flows is short-sighted and is already resulting in human rights abuses. The EU and its member states instead need to refocus efforts on linking crisis response with full backing to international justice and accountability. On Monday the EU will hold a major conference on Syria, this would be a good place to start. The EU must overcome the member state divisions and call for full accountability for the war crimes committed in order to work towards justice, peace and sustainable security in the long-term.

The idea that human rights are central to long-term security is not new. Sixty nine years ago in 1948, the Universal Declaration on human rights was penned in wake of one of the darkest periods of human history, some of the most harrowing scenes of which were played out on European soil. Political leaders then wanted to embed the importance of human rights as the pillar for just society. Nine years later and still in this post war context the EU Treaty was drafted with the same reverence for the stake that human rights should play in its future. This must be the starting point for discussions this weekend – recognition that the EU has a crucial role to play on human rights at home and abroad. The EU can no longer afford to deal with human rights in a piecemeal fashion. It must practice what it preaches and live up to its rhetoric that human rights are inalienable, indivisible and universal. From this perspective the age old EU dilemma of wrangling over who is ‘competent’ on which policy area comes becomes defunct. From this perspective also the EU could regain clarity of focus – how do we ensure that all people in the region are treaty equally in dignity and rights – how do we envisage a world where there is less conflict, less poverty and hence more security for all

At no time since the fall of the Berlin Wall has the integrity of, and support for, the international human rights framework in the European region appeared quite so brittle. In Rome this weekend the EU and European leaders must not pander to those who cheaply use the politics of fear to undermine the value of such frameworks. On the contrary, EU and member state leaders must unapologetically take a stand and proactively protect, promote and respect human rights. The shape of Europe’s future will be defined by it.

Iverna McGowan
Head of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office
Twitter: @iverna1 @amnestyeu