Human rights: The EU’s conscience
31 January 2011
Although the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has on occasion been criticised by national administrations, Professor of European Law at Leiden University Rick Lawson argues that it remains an indispensable institution for the EU.
With controversy raging over its plan to impose a backdated tax on certain multinationals and its new media law greeted by outspoken criticism, the launch of Hungary’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union came at an awkward moment for the country.
Describing the law as “an unacceptable restriction of press freedom,” MEP and member of the Dutch liberal VVD party Hans van Baalen, argued that the European Union should verify the legislation’s compliance with the EU’s human rights law, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Hungary should be careful to preserve “the norms and values of the European Union.”
Although we do not yet know what the outcome of this affair will be, it is interesting to see that politicians of a range of political hues are counting on the European Union to bring Hungary into line. Of course, all of this begs the question: are they not overestimating the role of a European Union which was created for the purpose of economic integration? Actually, the answer is no: and we should be wary of this reasoning which is overly simplistic. The issues of markets and human rights cannot be fully separated, and as European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes, has pointed out, the British and French press are also critical of the Hungarian media restrictions.
Jurisprudence established in Strasbourg has an added dimension
In many ways, the Hungarian episode has served to highlight the fact that the EU is more than just a single market, and this has been the case for several years. There are many examples of cooperation in the field of economics – for example the introduction of legislation on the free movement of people – that have necessarily resulted in collaboration in other spheres. In a bid to avoid processing multiple asylum claims, national immigration services have been obliged to work together. Migrants or refugees who enter the EU via Spain, are not allowed to submit asylum applications directly to Dutch authorities, but must have their claims processed by Madrid. Conventions of this kind are entirely based on mutual trust, and on the conviction that the reception accorded to asylum seekers is appropriate and they will receive a fair hearing.
However, the problem is that on occasion, this confidence is not borne out by the facts. For example, there have been many reports of the unsatisfactory treatment of asylum seekers in Greece. Although it is possible to turn a blind eye to a situation for a certain time, sooner or later, we are inevitably forced to acknowledge that it has degenerated when violations in one jurisdiction result in problems in another, as they have done in the Hungarian case. And that is when we turn to the EU to remedy the situation.
It is perhaps obvious to say so, but the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, which has the expertise and the authority to issue rulings on specific human rights issues in the 47 states of the Council of Europe, plays a pivotal role in this regard.
Within the framework of the European Union, jurisprudence established in Strasbourg has an added dimension. If the court observes that a member of the EU is consistently failing to observe minimum standards, then their collaboration with the EU grinds to a halt. For example, in the M.S.S. vs. Belgium and Greece case, on 21 January 2010 the ECHR ruled that other member states could no longer return asylum seekers to Greece until the quality of procedures for processing their claims in the country were improved.
No government likes being on trial
Not only did this judgement provide the plaintiff with protection, but it also acted as spur to improve the situation. If the EU is willing to learn from this judgement, then we will be on the right path for the development of a credible European asylum rights policy. And if the message from Strasbourg does not get the attention it deserves, it will soon be re-echoed by another ruling in Luxembourg, where the European Court of Justice is also examining the quality of asylum procedures in Greece.
The European Union has a lot to gain from the ongoing contribution of the ECHR. Efficient European cooperation would be impossible without approprate protection for human rights – and this is also the reason why no country can join the EU without signing the European Convention on Human Rights. It is also unthinkable for a member state to tear up this convention – an initiative that would not make much sense in view of the role played by human rights in the entire body of EU legislation, and the recent reaffirmation of member states' commitment to this effect in the Lisbon Treaty.
No government likes being on trial and no political figure likes to see his room for manoeuvre restricted, but all of Europe's member states stand to benefit from well-conceived EU-wide protection for human rights – a fact that will not be changed by exaggerated criticism of the court in Strasbourg.