Thursday 5 August 2010

Europe: Speak up on Rights and Citizenship!

It's been disturbing over the last week or so to read about the state of politics in Europe when it comes to the Roma community and immigration. There's a great post over at 1848 that picks up on a Guardian story of the treatment of the Roma across the EU, and it's hard to understand at a basic level why the EU institutions or politicans don't speak out strongly against this. What happened to European values and our supposed pride in human rights standards? Is it to do with the East-West power balance in the EU - i.e. it's ok to speak out against Eastern member states on gay rights issues, but western member states prejudices are ok?

So I'm writing an open letter to Commission President Barroso, Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy to urge them to speak out more on these issues, and explaining why I think these matters are not just "national issues", but issues that are vital to how we view ourselves, and the kind of Europe we want to live in today. I don't know if it would have any effect whatsoever, but as I've written before against political apathy, I think I should at least say something.

In the past few days I have read and heard about political moves against the Roma community in several member states (see the Guardian: as well as debate in France regarding stripping people of citizenship or rights as being a possible feature of the criminal justice system. Expulsion and the loss of citizen rights is a horrifying prospect and shows that we need to remain vigilant so that European political discourse does not slide back into the politics of exclusionism and the scapegoating of minorities. The criminal justice system is meant to deal with law-breaking and law-breakers through fair process based on the equality of citizens before the law. Attempts to set individuals or groups outside the normal processes - to label them as "other" or "non-citizens" - is contrary to the European values and the rights we claim to uphold. Therefore it has been very disappointing that there have been no strong voices from the EU institutions on this matter.

Obviously in each case the legal and social circumstances are different, but the same values and rights are at stake. Will the EU closely monitor each case to prevent any breach of rights (e.g. of free movement) under EU law? In cases where EU law is directly involved there is a natural role for the EU institutions in speaking out against discrimination and rule-breaking. However, I would urge you to take a political lead in defending European values. Even though cases may involve national law and politics, these issues are of such gravity that they touch on the ideas of what kind of Europe we want to live in. The European Union, in its current and past forms, was founded to help Europe and her nations cement values of equality and tolerance as well as working to break down barriers to help make this continent prosperous.

The importance of rights and values in the EU can be seen from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, plans for the EU to join the European Convention on Human Rights, and in Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which provides for the suspension of certain rights of a member state which breaks these standards. Therefore I believe that there is a place for political debate and leadership at a European level on these issues. How will the EU help strengthen citizenship and human rights in Europe, and how will the EU help protect minorities and protect the right of free movement? It may be more difficult and politically sensitive to speak out on these issues at home than abroad, but I believe it to be a vital part of the debate, and I urge you to take a public part in these debates.

Yours sincerely,

Conor Slowey.

NOTE: It turns out that my email didn't send properly to Reding and Barroso. I'll try again later/tomorrow (internet hasn't been working well lately).

UPDATE: I've sent it to Viviane Reding, but the website still refuses to send it to Barroso.

UPDATE: I've been slow to do this (because I've just moved house), but I've sent the email as a letter to Barroso. Better late than never! (23/8/2010)


  1. Very good initiative Conor.

    Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to take away the French nationality from criminals of foreign origin is:
    - against article 1 of the French Constitution which state that all citizens are equal before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.
    - against articles 20 and 21 of the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union, which states that "everyone is equal before the law" and "Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic
    features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited."
    - against articles 4 and 5 of the European convention on nationality of the Council of Europe which states that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her nationality" and that "Each State Party shall be guided by the principle of non-discrimination between its nationals, whether they are nationals by birth or have acquired its nationality subsequently"
    - as such, also against article 5 of the French Constitution that states that "The President of the Republic shall ensure due respect for the Constitution" and "He shall be the guarantor of national independence, territorial integrity and due respect for Treaties."

    Some people are reacting in France but really not enough!

  2. Thanks, Europasionaria.

    It's deeply worrying that this kind of politics is spreading, so I hope people stand up to it - which I suppose is the basic reason why I find it objectionable that EU figures are washing their hands of it as a "national matter".

    I'm not sure if my email will make any difference - how can an email from a citizen overcome political disincentives? - but if more people write personal (as opposed to copy-and-pasted emails) letters/emails, then it could make an impression. But I think it's important to do something (even if it's just voicing your opinion). When it comes to issues like these, it's particularly important not to stay silent.

  3. The defense of both human rights and rights of EU citizenship depend upon strong, timely and effective courts capable of taking action on both the European and national levels.

    I believe that a unique problem in Europe is that human rights and citizens' rights are not absolutes defended by strong, timely and effective courts -even if Europe actually had them. The problem that plagues Europe is that the rights of minorities are often in danger at the ballot box and election outcomes can mean that minorities become the subject of persecution. In other words, elections outcomes are of greater value than human rights and citizens' rights of minorities.

    Europeans seem to believe that the right to allow hate groups to obtain political party status and the right to vote for such "political parties" is of greater value than basic human rights and citizens' rights. The ballot box is of greater importance than human rights and citizens' rights for all!

    Here in the US we have both rights (in most areas) that are absolute and courts capable of defense against ballot box outcomes. Last week, an appeals court in California ruled against a referendum outcome that prohibited Gays from civil marriages. Currently, no such timely and effective exists procedure exists in Europe - although you would say that it does (COE is slow and ineffective). Politicians like Sarkozy fear the next election, and even do members of the Commission, and so accommodate far-right policies for votes.

    Europe needs to develop effective institutions in the area of human and citizen's rights that are capable of nulling and overturning these policies that are based on fear of what the electorate will do at the ballot box in the next election. There should be easy procedures to also overturn the results of a referendum that are aimed at a religious, ethnic, racial minority.

    Europe will continue to suffer from impedance and minorities will continue to be persecuted unless Europeans develop a sense that absolute human rights are of greater value than the right to vote for far-right and anti-human rights political parties and politicians in election. Human rights are of greater value than "free" elections!

  4. @eslaporte

    You're right on the necessity of strong court protection of human rights, and protection is disappointingly patchy across the member states. Still, it's vitally important that we have a political culture that articulates the rationale and need for these rights to defend against whittling them down (because, in the end, all constitutions can be amended). It's also a good place to start when aiming for advancing the protection of rights, so I think we should all try and add our voice to that goal.

  5. Free movement does not mean free stay. If you want to move from one EU country to another and stay there for more than 3 months you need to either be employed, self-employed, a student, a pensioner or you have to prove that you have suffiencient means to support yourself. I suspect many Roma do not qualify. This is an EU-wide law, and certainly in Belgium where I live the authorities enforce it. The US with their strict visa policy would not let groups of EU Roma into their country, I guess.

  6. True, but the state needs to act within the law. It appears that these people are being ejected without regard for their rights - it hasn't been checked whether they have exhaused their right to stay or not. The French state has been acting faster than it is possible to process these matters, and appears to be expelling people based on their membership of an ethnic group. This is prohibited under EU law.

    Member states can deport non-national EU citizens under certain conditions, and that means that the state needs to follow the law on the matter too.