Has the EU sacrificed human rights on the altar of austerity?

Has the EU sacrificed human rights on the altar of austerity?

Graffiti illustrating one of the priorities of the Juncker Commission: a deeper and fairer economic and monetary union.

(EC-Audiovisual Service)

Assessing the response of the institutions and member states of the European Union to the sovereign debt crisis from a human rights perspective was the main focus of a visit I recently undertook to the EU institutions in my capacity as a United Nations Independent Expert. My views on this issue can be found in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017.

In this report, I argue that the European Commission has a legal obligation to ensure that any memorandum of understanding it signs must be consistent with the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights and international human rights law binding its member states. This includes the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by all states of the EU.

While overall EU members states increased their social protection expenditure in response to the financial crisis, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal have witnessed harsh cuts in spending on various levels including education, health care, social benefits for families and children, as well as persons with disabilities. It has also seen funds to combat poverty and social exclusion reduced. It is a tragedy that the countries worst affected by the financial crisis have witnessed some of the highest expenditure cuts in various areas of social protection.

Ensuring financial stability and controlling public debt are certainly important tasks. However, I am deeply concerned about the paradigm shift that has taken root in the EU in recent years. A previously balanced approach ensuring economic stability, equality and social cohesion now tends to be undermined in favour of an enhanced focus on budgetary discipline and competitiveness.

Unfortunately, austerity policies have all too often gone hand-in-hand with undermining economic, social and cultural rights. Simultaneously, inequalities in income and wealth have increased within the EU and its member states. Fiscal consolidation and structural reform policies implemented in Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have deepened economic recessions and further increased unemployment and poverty. Harsh cuts to public expenditure on social protection, health care and education cast doubt on whether sufficient priority was given to sheltering vulnerable groups from the effects of the crisis.

In the report, I highlight various efforts deployed by the European Commission with a view to mitigating the consequences of the economic and financial crisis. Amongst these efforts, I underline, for example, the Youth Employment Initiative to address youth unemployment endorsed by the European Council in 2013. I also refer to the recommendation titled Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage published by the European Commission in the same year. In addition, I welcome the considerable effort made by the EU to incorporate a human rights-based approach in its development cooperation and external policies, as set out in its Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.

However, there is a need to enhance policy coherence in the field of EU external and internal human rights policies. No credible argument can be made that what can be done externally for the benefit of rights holders outside the European Union can not be done internally for the benefit of its own citizens and residents. A human rights-based approach should therefore also guide country-specific recommendations and inform the lending of European institutions to its own member states.

I welcome that the European Commission has published in April 2017 its final vision of a European Pillar of Social Rights. In my view, the outcome has definitely benefitted from a consultative process and entails stronger rights-based language compared to its initial staff working papers.

EU Pillar of Social Rights – a mixed assessment

The Pillar’s 20 principles include the rights to “qualitative and inclusive education”, “adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life”, “timely access to affordable, preventive and curative health care of good quality” and gender equality. They also reflect an accompanying effort to track trends and performances for the European Pillar of Social Rights through a ‘social scoreboard’ across EU countries using a set of indicators. This is much welcome, however, ensuring monitoring and accountability must go beyond data collection on a limited set of indicators. It is also important to see to what extent economic and social rights considerations will be fully mainstreamed into the European Semester of economic policy coordination, country-specific recommendations and financial assistance programmes supported by the European Commission.

In addition, I would have liked further references to relevant international human rights treaties, in particular those binding for all EU members states. While the European Social Charter is mentioned in the communication setting out the Pillar of Social rights, one wonders why, for example, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations, which is binding for all EU member states, is not mentioned once in the document.

The Pillar of Social Rights should not only be applicable to euro area states, and some other EU states that may wish to join on a voluntary basis; the Pillar should become a common ground for all EU member states.

Human rights, including social rights are indivisible; there should not be different “implementation speed” for social rights. This should particularly not be the case if one wants to foster social cohesion across the entire EU. Different speeds may work for some aspects of economic integration, but this same path should not be followed when it comes to human rights obligations for all EU member states.

Finally, we must ensure that social rights can be enforced. As the communication mentions, the Pillar is not directly enforceable by individuals living in the EU. In order to empower individuals, legislation at EU and national levels must ensure that individuals have access to effective remedies.

Economic reform programmes should undergo human rights and social impact assessments. Such assessments should be carried out in consultation with affected rights holders and civil society. They should be more than an exercise in ticking boxes. In addition, evaluations of past reform programmes should not only assess whether they managed to reduce budget deficits, restore debt sustainability or enhance economic growth, but whether they ensured a fair and equal distribution of the burden of adjustment within society.

This brings me to a follow-up project that the Human Rights Council has requested me to undertake: to develop guidance on how to undertake human rights impact assessments on economic reform policies. I would like to invite everybody, including the European Commission, international financial institutions, National Human Rights Institutions, civil society organisations and social partners to take part to this process. I have therefore published a public call for contributions.

In my view, human rights impact assessments need to be carried out before austerity measures, pension or labour market reforms are considered and designed. I hope the guidance will ultimately give governments and international financial institutions better tool to carry out such assessments against existing international human rights standards. We have to learn from past mistakes. I believe it is possible to prevent the suffering that many people in Greece continue to experience. There is no need for such an erosion of economic, social and cultural rights in Europe.