Socio-Economic Rights and the European Dream

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My name is Sebastiano I’m a 24 years old student in Macroeconomics and co-founder of TRAM:E (Theory, Reflection, Action, Movement: Europe). Born Italian, raised Belgian, French, German. Migrant by nature. Boundaries, borders… not my thing. Polyglot.

British philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said, during a famous lecture delivered before the University of Oxford in 1958: “’Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others. Freedom for an Oxford don, others have been known to add, is a very different thing from freedom for an Egyptian peasant”. The lecture focused on two different, sometimes conflicting, but nonetheless equally necessary, concepts of freedom. More than fifty years later, this lecture still funnels many a lessons not only about freedom, but human rights as a whole.

Human rights – following Czech jurist Karel Vasak’s classification – can be ordered in three generations, corresponding respectively to the “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” components of the French Revolution motto. First-generation human rights are those political and civil rights (blue, liberal rights) that negatively protect the individual from the authority’s intrusion: these are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, voting rights, the rule of law. With notable exceptions in authoritarian countries, these rights are universally agreed upon as fundamental and form the basis of a democratic society.

Second-generation human rights – known as red rights for being the results of the people’s struggles of the 19th and 20th century – are those socio-economic and cultural rights fostered when the powers that be positively and proactively act to guarantee their enjoyment, namely by setting up the supporting services that go along with the right to be employed, the right to housing, the right to healthcare, the right to education.

Lastly, third-generation human rights are collective rights – blessed with the moniker of green rights – that are not (yet) integrated in human right treaties, albeit no less important to the globalised world. These include the right to peace, the right to economic development and prosperity, the right to access natural resources, the right to environment protection and a healthy environment, the right to participation in cultural heritage, rights to communication and digital rights.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Human rights, however, are no natural law, nor laws of physics: rather, they are eminent political choices. One cannot escape Newtonian gravity, unless the body providing gravitational attraction is somehow removed. One can ‘escape’ freedom of speech by simply…negating freedom of speech. In this sense, most countries have made a clear political choice to protect and foster first-generation rights by adopting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other similar documents. But if the American Dream is “everybody can make it on its own”, the European Dream is “no one will be left behind.” The European Social Model, the Welfare State that sets it apart from the USA, has been the practical implementation of second-generation, socio-economic rights.

Starting in the 1980s – long before the Great Recession and the European Sovereign Debt Crisis – and as a direct consequence of the oil crisis of the 1970s, the end of the Fordist economic model and the increasing role of financial markets in the production of wealth, this “acquis communautaire” has undergone heavy scrutiny resulting in a revision of the foundations of the Welfare State, giving way to a global process of privatisation of social services. The process has been widely presented as “alternativlos” (Unwort des Jahres 2010), to borrow Chancellor Merkel’s words. Consequently, crucial questions arose: is the direction of the evolution of the economic system without alternatives, and must we cope with this evolution by taking away from the state the duty to foster socio-economic rights? Does the privatisation of the services needed to support these socio-economic rights hinder their enjoyment by the citizens?

These concerns are all the more significant in light of the austerity policies sponsored by the troika and the TTIP negotiations undertaken by the EU in the past years. The tightening of public expenses and the secrecy of the trade negotiations, too, were presented as if there were no alternatives. Critics have said this was another favour to financial markets, banks and big businesses. Austerity policies undoubtedly had an impact on the access to public health services and on workers’ protection and pay.

One may recall the November 2013 report issued by the WHO on self-inflicted HIV in Greece to access state benefits. In Italy, the media have been reporting on a “wave of suicides” concerning unemployed workers and entrepreneurs with no more access to credit. Much is to be said about the media’s taste for sensationalism, scandal and bold-but-short-lasting statements. The public’s perception and sentiment, though, are strong: there is much disbelief in the end of the crisis and there are calls for more solidarity between citizens and less with the financial elites. The report was promptly retracted due to its anecdotic nature and the statistical significance of said «wave» is doubtful at best, yet hard evidence is not sufficient to counter the populist response.

There is an increasing acknowledgement that first- and second-generation rights are deeply interconnected, that freedom can’t be if there is no social justice to accompany it. What – in my opinion – should be the focus of the public debate is whether politicians in Member States and the EU are reconsidering the political choice of deeming rights as fundamental, in favour of financial consolidation and the sustainability of public debt. In other words, if – like Berlin’s warning earlier – they are privileging “freedom for the Oxford don” against “freedom for the Egyptian peasant.” And if they are, and if we don’t want to double back on what I believe to be the centrepiece of the European ideal, what are we going to do about it?

Sebastiano Putoto is a guest on this blog.

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