Nowadays, the European Union only makes it to the news when it’s falling apart. Its member states are portrayed as each one for itself – the downgrading of the German rating, the nightmare of Spanish and Italian bail-outs and the usual “what are we going to do about Greece” question. But last week, a decision that reflected unity and a common commitment didn’t make the cut – the appointment of the new European Union Special Representative for Human Rights.
This reflects the scepticism with which any human rights related policy is welcomed; but now that this nomination has been received with complete indifference, we should ask ourselves what’s wrong with the morality of the Union and its citizens.
Stavros Lambrinidis was appointed for the first thematic EU special representative position on the 25 July, by Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The establishment of this post followed a continuous demand from MEPs since 2010 and it is the result of the adoption of a wider package in June this year by the Council of the European Union – a new Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, on which the two-year mandate of the new EUSR is based. But outside Brussels, who else knows about this? Has the traditional criticism on the EU’s “double standards” and the general “complexity” of the topic definitely turned human rights into a non-issue?
For Ashton, human rights are the “silver thread that runs through everything we do in EU Foreign Policy”. This is obviously a great exaggeration. Although the relationship between the EU and its foreign partners is always designed to cover all areas – economic, political, education, environmental, human rights, cultural – there’s a tendency for only the two first to stand out and tailor the approach to all others. In other occasions, the partnership is not even between equals, as is frequent with third-world countries. The Arab Spring has suddenly reminded the EU the sort of leaders it had been treating as esteemed business partners or lawful international representatives.
Nevertheless, the new Framework and Action Plan may represent a renewed morality for the Union. After all, the universality of human rights and democracy are straightforwardly stated. This is an ethical statement not everyone agrees with. Civil society is directly addressed as the basis without which no action can succeed and the need to act through multilateral organisations and bilateral partnerships is reinforced. Some of these issues are not new, but the discourse seems to be one calling for more action, more consciousness, more will. Some argue that, in contrast with the United States of America, the European Union is investing in its soft power as the instrument with which to engage with the world – through trade, culture, human rights, development discourses, among others.
The new Framework and Action Plan seems, however, to focus almost exclusively on the European Union’s External Action. But before trying to fix the world, the EU should invest more efforts on its neighbouring regions as well as in some of its own member states. Where human rights are concerned, Belarus is Europe’s shame. Hungary and Romania continue to show worrying signs of political rights violations. Migrants are increasingly perceived and treated as threats, with appalling reports of conditions in internment camps and of practises towards asylum seekers such as the use of handcuffs or leashes in trips to the Post Office or the doctor. The political transitions in Northern Africa and the Middle East may be opportunities for the EU to prove its renewed commitment towards the implementation of human rights through consensual and beneficial partnerships.
Questions should arise to clarify what could be a troublesome part of the Framework and Action Plan – “the EU’s policy on human rights will be carefully designed for the circumstances of each country”. Not only must the SRHR’s mandate be broad, but his actions must reflect the involvement of citizens and an effective coordination between the EU institutions. Mr. Lambrinidis isn’t going to save the world but his appointment represents a united and renewed will to address an issue which can be bitterly divisive but over which the EU must take a definitive moral stance.