The main message that Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, carried with him when he visited Athens recently was one of solidarity. The Norwegian believes that Greece needs more economic, as well as political, support from its European partners.
Jagland met President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during his visit last week. Tsipras is due to reciprocate by addressing the Council of Europe’s assembly in Strasbourg on June 22, when he will have the chance to convey his message to representatives of 47 countries who participate in the body responsible for upholding human and social rights in Europe.
Greece is mostly talked about these days in connection with the refugee issue, but to the vast majority of Greeks the main issue continues to be austerity. So allow me to begin with this, and to ask you, as a guarantor of the European Social Charter, if you have taken note of the contradictions between that treaty and bailout conditionality.
I cannot speak about eurozone policy. It's clear that austerity policies imposed on Greece are affecting social rights. That is why the Social Charter is more important than ever, because it guarantees certain social rights. The Convention on Human Rights and the Court of Human Rights also play a role when it comes to certain social rights in the labor market. So yes, it's true, austerity measures always hit the rights of people, in particular the most vulnerable. Nobody can hide that austerity measures are affecting people.
Is there anything the Council of Europe can do if the European Social Charter is violated?
We have the European Committee of Social Rights that monitors how the Social Charter is being implemented and it can make decisions with regard to that. This committee has already made decisions related to certain social rights in Greece, for example decisions that affect young people in the labor market, already under the previous government. What we cannot do is to change the general economic policy. We look at the social consequences and we try to prevent them.
You just came back from Turkey, where you met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Do you think the EU-Turkey deal will hold?
That is an open question at the moment. It depends on whether the agreement on visa liberalization will go forward. If it's all politics, then things become difficult to solve. But if you look at the judicial obligations that Turkey has, it may be easier. So, you know, the judgment by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is binding for member-states, so regardless of the EU agreement, Turkey is obliged to implement a number of rulings saying that articles of the terrorism law and the penal code are violating freedom of expression. As we see it, people are still being put in jail on grounds that are not normal in Europe.
What would the consequences for human rights be if the agreement fails?
If this fails I would say that it will be very bad for all of us. The point was to stop the smuggling of people and it has worked to a large extent. We have supported it as long as Greek and Turkish authorities apply the right to individual application for all those concerned. This is a precondition for us. I learnt today in my meetings that Greece is making a big effort in order to uphold this basic principle. We are trying to assist the authorities here with that.
Well, we have the best expertise in Europe on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights and we are providing Greek authorities with this expertise, training officials, those who are dealing with these issues on the ground. What I’m seeing is that the Greek authorities are doing their utmost to uphold this principle. But you know this is a huge effort, administrative as well as judicial. It’s not only about processing each application, it’s also about the right to appeal, and if you want to take seriously the right to individual treatment, this takes time. I see some are criticizing that things don’t happen, that people are not being returned to Turkey, but this may be because these things take time in order to look into each case.
Do you consider Turkey a safe third country?
We do not have a general assessment. This can only be assessed if you look into each individual case. This is a principle we apply to all European countries. All our member-countries can be safe for one individual but not safe for another one. That's why it’s so important to apply the individual right. You don't know what is safe or not safe before you look into each case.
It is becoming more and more common to hear rhetoric pitting the human rights of refugees against the rights of the local populations. How would you react to that?
I’m strongly against it. If we start making compromises or deviate from the basic principles that we have agreed upon in Europe, namely that everybody that set his or her foot on European soil is under the protection of the European Convention on Human Rights, the whole system starts to unravel and nobody can benefit from that. Safeguarding the rights of those who arrive on the continent is not in contradiction to the rights of the people already here. We all have to try to convey to the people at large why we have the Convention. But I see all the difficulties that we have politically with that. The situation is misused politically.
Political leaders have to entertain political leadership and explain to people why we have the European Convention on Human Rights, how important it has been in order to safeguard the rights of ordinary people. The only way to deal with these issues is the way we have agreed upon. If you start being opportunistic, if you go down that road and try to accommodate these forces, there is no end of the road. We have to run after them all the time and there’s only bad things, we have seen this before.
The East-West divide is coming back. You head an organization that bridges that gap.
Again, what unites us are the common standards. There are many political leaders playing with many things – with words and rhetoric. But one should not start to play with judicial obligations. This is what creates and unites Europe; this is what creates political space. If you put that aside, you create new dividing lines.
There’s some skepticism in bailout countries, especially in Greece, due to the fact that bailout conditionality is also hurting democratic standards. I read your annual report about democracy in Europe and I didn’t see any mention of that, so I guess it's not high on your agenda.
No, because we do not have the mandate to intervene in economic policy.
I refer to bailout implications for the rule of law and for democracy.
We didn’t make that concrete link between austerity and human rights. We do not have a view on the austerity measures other than that they hurt social rights. We have very strong opinions on issues such as independence of judiciary, protection of journalists, freedom of expression. I agree with you, things are interlinked.
When legislative agendas are dictated, as regards their content, their timing, this runs counter to democratic legitimacy. I’m not sure this is understood abroad.
Well, it’s understood, but what is the alternative? What I have understood is also that most of the Greek people want to stay in the eurozone, and why was the eurozone established? Because Europe saw a need for joining forces so as not to be exposed to global economic forces one by one. So they decided to establish the common market and the currency as response to this. So, yes, I accept that there is a democratic deficit here, but to conclude that we should do away with all the arrangements that we have made in Europe in order to remedy this, that I don’t buy. If Greece left the eurozone, would all the democratic problems disappear? I don’t think so.
Do you have any recommendations in the area of human rights in Greece?
There are problems that we have discussed today, there are lengthy procedures in the courts, there are problems in the prisons, problems related to corruption, a number of things we are discussing and cooperating with the government on. I think for any country that wants to safeguard the trust of the people, it is very important to have an efficient and independent judiciary; this is also very important in order to combat corruption. We have a convention to combat corruption and it has made recommendations to Greece, which we want to see implemented. And in the judiciary, we have an excellent assistance program which is used by many of our member-countries in order to educate judges on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights, so this is also being done here in Greece. At the Ministry of Justice there was agreement to step up our work to counter corruption.
Do you have anything you'd like to add?
I’m also here to show solidarity with Greece. I continue to call for more solidarity for Greece from other European countries, not only in terms of political support, but also financial support. We have put a heavy burden on Greece, when you look at what Greece has to do with regard of the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement – which is something it does on behalf of all of us – one can easily understand that there is a need for the other European countries to support it financially. This is about having resources, having people to do the job. To look at each and every application needs a lot of money. And all the people residing on the islands… it’s a heavy burden for Greece. The alternative is that they would still travel around Europe. It’s cheaper for Europe to assist Greece. So I continue to ask for more solidarity.