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Human rights – the best argument for a federal Europe

The European Union can be proud of having the highest degree of human rights protection in the world. The promotion and protection of human rights is one of the guiding principles and objectives of EU policy, according to Article 2 of its treaty and the adoption in 2009 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights as a legally binding set of rules was a big achievement. Having the same legal value as the EU’s treaties, it strengthens the protection of fundamental rights by making them more visible for EU citizens and binding for EU authorities. However, this should only be seen as a start. A true integration of fundamental rights into the political life of Europe can only be ensured through Europe’s federal unification.

An uneven playing field

We believe that human rights should not be subject to the principle of subsidiarity. They are universal and must ensure the same protection and opportunities for all human beings. Unfortunately, this is not the case yet in the EU due to varying criminal laws and other standards applicable across the Member States. This is one of the main indications that we have yet to become a union of equal citizens.

In the EU today member states apply different criminal sanctions for the same crimes. One could be sentenced with, say, five years imprisonment for tax evasion in one state but eight or three years in other states. Furthermore, they would all be tried under different procedures. People are being treated differently and have either poorer or better trial or detention conditions, depending on the region they live in. The EU is split between regions that respect and guarantee gay rights, for example, and those that do not respect them fully. It is split between those regions that permit citizens to use certain drugs and others that punish the consumption of exactly the same substances. It is also split into regions of varying gender equality. According to a 2017 report from the European Institute for Gender Equality, Sweden posted the best index score at 82.6 (based on a scale of 100), followed by Denmark at 76.8. Conversely, Greece ranked at the bottom with 50, followed by Hungary (50.8) and Slovakia (52.4). This is unfortunately the situation in the EU today, despite the major progress in creating the internal market and its classic four freedoms.

Moreover, there are still many restrictions in the EU about where citizens can live, work or own properties. It is absolutely natural for France to allow a Parisian to move and fully settle in Marseille without hindrances. By the same token, Latvian, Irish or any other EU citizens should have the indisputable right to move, work, invest or conduct their lives in Italy, Romania or anywhere else in the EU without restriction. However this is also not the case in the EU. For instance, there are still large discrepancies regarding the status of posted workers – employees who carry out a service in another EU member state on a temporary basis and who do not enjoy the full labour rights of the host state.

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Image credit – Peter Schrank

We are thus convinced that only within a federal European republic would it be possible for the European citizens to move, work, settle, marry, establish associations, vote, run for office, seek justice or be sentenced in the same manner and without discrimination. Only in such a framework, too, would the rights for women rise to the same level of protection of rights across the European continent. Some fundamental changes should thus be introduced to remove the existing discriminatory situation in the EU – and those changes can only be achieved within the framework of a European federation with no variations per state or region.

Create a legal framework for all Europeans

A federal European republic would adopt its own civil and criminal codes applicable across all its territory. It would have its own administrative, family, inheritance and penitentiary laws applicable invariably for everyone. This joint legal framework would combine the best elements of all the legal traditions of Europe’s continental and common law. Such a framework would be the first step towards a union of universal rights and obligations for all.

All European citizens would have the absolute freedom to move, settle, work or study in any region within the federation without restriction or discrimination. European citizens would have the same choices in their private lives and families, regardless of their sexual orientation. Homosexual couples would have full rights to marriage, with all its entitlements, and full rights to adopt children to exercise their right to family life.

Possession and marketing of certain soft drugs would be legalised under strict conditions. Although the legalisation of those drugs would likely lead to some proliferation of their use, their consumption would be safer, better controlled and reduce many forms of criminality linked to illegal drug trafficking. It would also, to a large extent, alleviate the workload of police and judicial authorities, while reducing Europe’s prison population as well as the personal tragedies caused by imprisonment.

Women would have control over their bodies and the choice of abortion at the early stages of a pregnancy. Abortions are not our preferred option, but it is in the interest of society that this option remains legal and safe, though limited in its possibilities. The authorities would instead run campaigns of sexual education to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and especially at the young ages.

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Ireland’s recent referendum on right to life proved that with the correct information available to citizens, decisions on issues can be obtained with minimum social conflict

The same rules would also apply to the right to euthanasia. This varies considerably across EU member states today: active euthanasia, passive, assisted suicide or no form of euthanasia at all. The federal European republic should eliminate this variance by allowing all individuals the right to opt for euthanasia in case of prolonged or unbearable suffering.

State and church across Europe would be strictly separated. Religion is a personal spiritual affair with no relationship to citizenship. Marriage, divorce, death and the granting of names fall within the realm of the state, regardless of any co-existing religious customs and procedures. Any existing laws on blasphemy would be further abolished: no one could be punished for insulting a religion any more than for insulting any other subject of dignity. Religious symbols would be removed from the working environment of public buildings.

Minority groups would be treated with respect for their identities and needs. Minority linguistic groups would have the right to use and learn their own language, even if it was not one of the official languages of the federal European republic or its constituent states. Minority religious groups would have the possibility to use their own temples, schools, cemeteries and other sites, and to celebrate their own holy days. We would not support positive discrimination in favour of minority groups since all citizens must be treated in the same way. We would, however, support introducing certain incentives and programmes to support the development and better integration of the minority groups such as Roma people in the societies where they live in.

Finally, great emphasis would placed on eliminating the salary gaps between men and women for equal jobs, and on the elimination of any other form of gender-based discrimination in a working place. This is an objective that has miserably failed under many EU member states and could only be addressed within a federal European structure.

The deal clincher for a federal Europe

There are many good arguments for bringing Europe together as a federation: the need for a more integrated and robust economy, the requirement to compete with the emerging economies of the rest of the world as a unique block or the need for a joint and robust defence and security policy. However one reason may stand above all: the need for equal treatment, rights, freedoms and opportunities for millions of EU citizens.

As many of them are deprived of certain important rights and miss many opportunities due to the poor record of their national states, the federal solution might prove a boon for them, their families and societies. We should therefore make sure that a common rights and freedoms framework becomes a major argument for all of us who campaign for a federal Europe. This is a very substantial argument to be communicated to millions of marginalised and discriminated fellow citizens of ours.

This could also prove a convincing counter-narrative against the nationalists and illiberal populists who have poisoned the hearts and minds of so many poor, excluded and disoriented people.

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2 replies »

  1. As you may have worked out by now Yannis, my career has been long since embedded in human rights. I specialise in children’s human rights, often inaptly called ‘children’s rights’ and defined as such by the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child and 30 years later in 1989 when the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted. However, to be correct they are human rights, inseparable from all others with the UDHR as the basic principle beneath the CRC, thus not referring to a subspecies of humanity. That has taken me from a fieldworking researcher a little before the time you gained your human rights in 1970 through a passage from seeing many things that are unjust or just outright immoral in this world to becoming an involuntary user of international conventions, not just one but many interrelated as they are, and working for UN agencies and NGOs accumulating more and more knowledge of how human rights is more of a vision than a reality. I am a ‘fan’ of the UDHR, ECHR and other international treaties but working at grassroots in the most extreme human and physical environments up to being in some of the most apparently privileged places in the world but still seeing menial workers such as cleaners and catering staff treated like shit tells me something is far more than simply wrong.
    I have dared be openly critical, I was to be a co-author with somebody I published with in 1989 a bit before the completion then adoption of the CRC by the UN to reprise our case studies and review the changes. Unfortunately she died, so I wrote the book. I went for the throat, metaphorically, exposing some f the serious flaws in the CC. One thing I dared say that is the case across the board of all nations is that there is neither a means of enforcing nor policing human rights. How either or both would be achieved is a wishful thought at best. There are impossible boundaries confronting us. Of the 193 nation states recognised by the UN, three in a kind of limbo, and a couple of dozen that would like to exist, there are over 200 constitutions, legal systems and other legal and political barriers. Then we have religions, not just the major ones but the many hundreds still practised, culture, traditions, social systems, languages and yet another long list that define values. Reaching into many countries that have signed the CRC and ratified it. Only the Republic of South Sudan has not yet signed it although they ratified first in 2015, leaving the USA the only non-ratifying state in the world.
    For all of that apparent goodwill, at one point in time I used to receive UN mail sacks of state parties periodic reports and the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s comments back, then I added the ‘Disability Convention’ to my repertoire doing much the same, began looking at other reporting mechanisms and status reports. My conclusion is that we have lost the way by attempting to have and apply universal values. Last September a UN report appeared that tells of 29 countries that have been seen to retaliate against citizens that help the UN’s human rights work in those countries. Nine of the 29 countries listed are actually members of the UN’s Human Rights Council; Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. There have been unsuccessful attempts to have Saudi Arabia dismissed from the Council on accounts of multiple human rights breeches and each numerous including all forms of execution such as decapitations and stoning and mutilations such as dismemberment of hands and whole limbs. Little is done to act on complaints.
    I agree that human rights must be implanted deep and unmovable in a Europe that comes ever closer together. However there are countries beginning to talk far more about the reintroduction of capital punishment, there the slippery slope begins. There is always a great deal of talk about human trafficking and the extent of slavery in EU countries but far too little done to really tackle those things. Discrimination in several forms that include gender, racism, ageism, nationality, religion, disability and a few others are much talked about and perhaps a largish body of NGOs operating to attempt to deal with them, but they are still quite immovably implanted in Europe. Equal treatment, rights, freedoms and opportunities are an aspiration. Given that was the objective when the UDHR was adopted a few weeks after my birth in 1948 and similarly the ECHR in 1953, progress is not just slow but often indiscernible.
    That is not, Yannis, to criticise what you say at all. I am simply presenting the world in which those of us engaged work on the ground through to intellectually and how it is really rather than notionally. You, I and all other individuals are powerless and at the mercy of the political will that should but does not exist to end the failure of the principles expressed in the UDHR that need be taken seriously and acted on from the political heights down to the lowest level on the street. We can talk about this forever my friend, but action is not generated by words alone. I am neither cynical nor pessimistic, simply critical of the failures and do not want to see the UN or any other body declared a useless failure and disbanded. No, what I would like to see is the bodies there to deliver and oversee human rights given ‘teeth’ and the power and freedom to act and be open and honest. Those things are achievable but even here in Europe I cannot see it happening because the political will just does not exist beyond occasional rhetoric.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am a bit dismayed that nobody else is commenting here. Yannis is working out of a base that is the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The CFR itself draws on rights and freedoms enshrined in the ECHR all the rights found in the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU. Those, in turn, draw on other rights and principles resulting from the common constitutional traditions of EU countries and other international instruments and share the common basis in the principles of the UDHR.
    Yet we are at a point in time where ‘populist’ political parties and movements are undermining some of the fundamental rights, particularly the principle of transparent administration. The UK is still in the EU, may remain in although the withdrawal process is ongoing with a deadline for completion next 29 March. With that event the CFR ceases to have effect. At this point in time a great deal of attention is turning to the campaign and abuse of funding rules, misinformation and outright lies, the UK is apparently becoming more xenophobic and unelected forces such as splinter groups within parties and mainstream media are driving the agenda. It is almost impossible to consider the administration of the UK transparent. No action is being taken. The CFR may be legally binding but it is apparently not enforced, albeit defining transparency would itself require juristic examination in great detail before action is pursued. It should be borne in mind that one of the intention is to leave the auspices of the CJEU as well and bear in mind that, prior to becoming prime minister, in her role as Home Secretary Theresa May stated her intent that the UK also leave the ECHR. That was dropped, albeit it was apparently temporarily.
    The UK is perhaps the most obvious example of where the CFR, and indeed the ECHR, is fragile and somewhat toothless. In 2010, the European Commission adopted a strategy by which it could monitor and ensure effective implementation of the rights and freedoms in the CFR. However, over the last eight years evidence of such intervention has been scant and enforcement of implementation not at all apparent. It is hard to identify where the preamble is shared in common national standards, particularly looking at what is happening in Hungary and Poland in particular. Moving on to the articles and part two of article two when it appears that the death penalty that this charter outlaws has been mooted by EU member states now ruling parties, allowing for the fact that that has been said before they were in office. RN (formally FN) in France long supported the return of the death penalty; although Marine le Pen has not referred to that it is not clear whether it is entirely outside party policy, other populist parties appear to have spoken of it but not included it in manifestos. The threat remains nonetheless. Article four stating that o one shall be subjected to treatment or punishment is questionable, torture is not entirely ruled out there although it is something often not well enough defined to prove definitively. Article ten, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are not entirely ensured at present, if anything they are mainly restricted or to an extent prejudices against them tolerated rather than pursued and prosecuted. Article eleven, the freedom of expression and information is becoming, in some cases, increasingly restricted. Article twelve, the freedom of assembly and of association is subject to restraints and controls, often with bias toward particular (governing party supporting) groups.
    Thereafter we can go through the CFR finding weakness and restrictions on a large number of articles: 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 whereby I am engaged as a professional in the relevant children’s human rights sector, 26, 28 31, 34, 36, 37, 41, 45, 47, 52, 53 and 54. The task for those entrusted with the task from the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission down to each employed legal officer and lawyer is enormous and close to impossible.
    If we are to take the future of Europe as a union that in turn will become a federal structure, unless a charter and supporting legal instruments are properly implemented, monitored, reported and enforced then that union of nations remains a fragile ambition made impossible by the incompatibility of what actually happens in each nation that disregards the notion of common standards, thus either remains outside them or simply will not conform or implement them.
    It is because I believe enough of us know that this is the case and yet we somehow avert our eyes to look at other, less complex, matters that I was struck by the fact that this topic is not attracting comments. It is highly contentious because people tend to hold very different views and may see what I see as weaknesses or failures exaggerated or not at all the case. In that sense, I would wish even to provoke response because this is a very big part of our shared vision for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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