It is almost a cliché to say that Europeans are worried about the economy and that ‘soft’ topics like human rights are of no interest to them. And that consequently they should not be a priority for the EU – or at least not until its economic problems have been solved.
But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Eurobarometers, which measure the opinions of EU citizens throughout the 28 member states, show consistently that human rights is a topic high on their agenda. And they look to the European Parliament to defend them: 56 percent of Europeans say the protection of human rights should be a matter of priority for the Parliament.
We need to ensure that human rights continue to be a lynchpin of the Parliament’s work, safeguarding the values that make Europe what it is today: rich, diverse and vibrant. That is what the majority of Europeans want. And as events unfold at the EU’s borders, we can see that this is also what Europe needs.
Human rights are not just for some people. They are for everyone. And the European Parliament has done much to promote the human rights agenda since the last election in 2009. MEPs have pushed to ensure the private data we provide online is not misused, either by governments or by private companies. Following last year’s revelations of large-scale abuse on both sides of the Atlantic, the Parliament lost no time in launching an enquiry into the mass surveillance of EU citizens, recommending the development of an independent European data cloud and demanding protection for whistleblowers.
Then there is the work the Parliament has done to combat violence against women. MEPs called this year for an EU-wide strategy, including training for police to deal with such violence and assistance to help victims rebuild their lives and recover their self-confidence. A recent survey by the Fundamental Rights Agency showed how necessary action is: it found that a third of women in the EU have been physically or sexually abused, with victims of domestic violence suffering from depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems. A fifth or all young women have been sexually harassed online or via other new media.
These are all issues that affect and concern millions of people. And the European Parliament ensures that the voice of each of the 500 million citizens in the EU is heard and can make a difference.
The importance of being heard has become particularly important in the aftermath of the economic crisis that shook the EU six years ago. We see a greater risk of human rights abuses across the board as unemployment has risen and with it poverty, uncertainty, and intolerance. And it is precisely those who find themselves in the most precarious situation that are most at risk of human rights infringements. At the same time, as legal aid has been cut in many countries as part of national austerity programmes, they are frequently the ones who have the most difficult time in accessing the justice they need – and to which they have a right.
This has been recognised by the European Parliament, which has also held an in-depth enquiry into the actions of the Troika, the three international institutions that awarded bailouts to EU member states in the wake of the crisis. MEPs raised the question over the impact of austerity packages on social and economic rights, and whether the broader consequences of some measures had been sufficiently considered. It is vital that the new European Parliament continues to bring the human rights factor into the ongoing discussion on economic and financial policy.
Human rights are therefore not just for the good times, “once we’ve got the real problems out of the way.” On the contrary, it is precisely in times of crisis that a broadly based, well- resourced approach to safeguarding human rights is so vital.
It is crucial that we keep this in mind in the run-up to the European parliamentary elections. After all, this parliament will be taking decisions that affect us, Europeans, for the next five years. Not all of the issues it debates will make the headlines. But if your right to privacy is important to you; if you want to ensure that you do not face obstacles in setting up a business because you are a woman, or young, or disabled; or you want to have access to support if you become a victim of crime while you are abroad – then the work of the European Parliament will be important to you.
All democratic elections are an opportunity, and the European parliamentary elections are no exception. The EU itself is founded on a sense of opportunity: to move, to be innovative, to trade, to meet new people and acquire new skills. To solve the EU’s problems – and nobody is denying they exist – we need constructive proposals that build upon the success and experience of many decades. To rise to the challenges ahead, we must work together.
Because the Europe we end up with is up to the Europeans.
*Morten Kjaerum is the director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights