Four EU Successes; 2. The defense and promotion of common European values

Four EU Successes; 2. The defense and promotion of common European values

Much of the discourse around the EU over the past year or so in Britain has been about its role in managing the Single Market and about the free movement of European citizens between member countries. However, the ideas of “reclaiming sovereignty” and “taking back control” also seem to have caught the imagination of many voters when presented as slogans by the “leave” campaign leaders. Surprisingly, what they mean in practical terms seems to have been given little thought.

Indeed, since the announcement of the referendum result, the executive arm of government has actually contradicted its stated intention to genuinely reclaim sovereignty. Instead, it has tried to hijack it by doing its best to keep Parliament – the main institutional locus of British sovereignty – out of taking decisions on the most important policy issue of our lifetime. Theresa May has twice gone to UK courts to prevent Parliament from deciding on the invocation of Article 50 to signal the UK’s intent to leave the EU; she then muzzled open debate by decreeing a 3-line whip that prevented MPs from her own party from standing up for their constituents’ preferences; and now, contrary to her earlier pronouncements, she has called a “snap” general election, claiming that “divisions in Westminster” risk hampering her Brexit negotiating position.

When drawn into the issue of “taking back control” we have to understand more about the values that the EU stands for and the extent to which it has actually assumed “control” from national authorities to get them to stick. A closer look at the EU would reveal that its underlying goal is to promote peace and well-being amongst its members, by bringing them together around a set of common values that serve as the basis for a shared view of the foundations for “good governance”. Some people talk of these values as the “glue” which binds the European Union together. No country can be considered as a qualified applicant for EU membership unless it subscribes to these values and puts in place legislation and instruments to underpin them. By joining the EU in 1973,  the UK took these values on board, but now, by going for Brexit, it is implicitly seeking to unbind itself from this glue.

The central values that are defended and promoted by EU members relate to human dignity, human rights, individual freedom, democracy, equality (including gender equality) and the rule of law. The priority attached to each of these values by different members varies and may change over time to reflect local changes in the political environment. The extent to which individual citizens of EU member states subscribe to these values also differs from one nationality to another, but across the Union, younger, better educated and higher social status individuals are strongest in their support. In Britain, respondents to a 2012 survey gave highest importance to respect for human life/dignity, followed by human rights, peace, the rule of law, and democracy. Interestingly, UK respondents, asked about subsidiary values, gave very low importance to solidarity/support for others, but attached above average significance to tolerance towards others, to respect for other cultures and to greater equality.

It seems fair to claim that most of us feel quite comfortable with these values in that it comes naturally for us to adhere to them in general and to conduct our lives broadly in line with them.

Many of the values are non-enforceable in a “hard” legal sense and serve merely as points of reference for good national policy making. However, when there are signs that a country is deliberately defying any of the values, the President of the European Commission can schedule a debate on the issue and, if approval is given, set in motion a 3-stage process of assessment, issuance of a “rule of law” recommendation, and monitoring of compliance. In the event of non-compliance, the Commission may suspend a country’s voting rights.

In matters of human rights, however, there is necessarily a much stronger enforcement regime than that applying to the other values. However, contrary to an impression given by some pro-Brexit campaigners, most arbitration over human rights issues is not handled directly by the EU but by the Council of Europe which was created in 1949, with both Churchill and Bevin being amongst its “founding fathers”. It now includes 47 of continental Europe’s countries, Belarus being the only one that is not a member. Its focus is on upholding human rights (including the rights of minorities), democracy and the rule of law. Its European Court on Human Rights, rather than the Court of Justice of the European Union, serves as the main point of dispute settlement on human rights in Europe within the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights, ratified by the UK in 1953. Cases can be brought to the attention of the Court not only by institutions but also by individuals.

Much more recently (2009) the European Union has adopted its own Charter of Fundamental Rights which entrenches the rights and freedoms enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights into European law. It is also significant that, to be a member of the EU, a country must be a member of the Council of Europe and hence also of the European Court on Human Rights.

The referendum result sanctioned the Brexit process only as it concerns the UK’s exit from the institutions of the European Union. If this goes through, Britain will still remain committed, through its membership of the Council of Europe to upholding most European values and to respecting the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Whether the Conservative Party will return during this election campaign to pursue its intention of leaving the European Court of Human Rights, as part of its wish to “take back control” will not be clear until it publishes its manifesto.

The concern must be that if a future Conservative-led government was to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the Court, it could open the way for a selective dilution of human rights for short-term political motives or competitive advantages. This could lead, for instance, to a down-grading of workers’ rights. When Theresa May was Home Secretary and Michael Gove was Justice Secretary, a draft Bill of Rights (to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act, through which the UK formally adopted the content of the European Convention on Human Rights) was proposed that would preserve “fundamental human rights” for British citizens, but assign fewer rights to EU nationals and still less to foreigners – a proposal that is inconsistent with the very notion of human rights…..

If these ideas were to surface again, this would this not only risk the undermining the acquired rights of people living in Britain, but it would also weaken Britain’s international credibility as a nation that has long been committed to the promotion of human rights. The UK would be joining Belarus in its self-imposed isolation.

Henry VIII’s break away from the Roman Catholic church almost 500 years ago seems to have been driven more by his failure to get the Pope to annul his first marriage than by any theological differences. It now looks as though Theresa May’s declared interest in leaving the jurisdiction of the of the ECtHR may have more to do with her having lost two high profile cases taken to the Court while she was UK Home Secretary, than to substantive concerns on her part about the nature of human rights oversight in the European region.

It would be unfortunate if the UK’s future relationship with the Council of Europe should be vulnerable  to the prejudices of a rather churlish former Home Secretary merely because she was slapped in the face a couple of times by the Court.

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