The EU’s fundamental values should not only be safeguarded from right-wing populism – they can actually serve as a tool to counter it. To that end, next to political and civil rights, we need to pay more attention to social and economic rights.
A Comment by Gabriela Langholf
Right-wing challenges to fundamental values
Remembering the founding ideas of the European Union, including solidarity and the creation of peace after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, ought to inspire consistent action against every step that undermines them. Drafted in 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights entered into force three years later, which led to the elaboration of European values as defined in Art. 2, Treaty on European Union: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.
Today, right-wing populists in almost every Member State reject the EU’s fundamental values. I will focus here on right-wing populism, because while leftist and right-wing populism use the same political style, they are different in their ideological content.
Right-wing populism, as mentioned above, rejects the fundamental principles of liberal democracy by dismissing individual and social equality, frequently on the basis of racism and favouring members of an allegedly homogeneous ‘people’. Minorities often serve as scapegoats of fear and deprivation. Anti-immigration positions combined with racist ideologies go hand in hand with Islamophobia in Western Europe and Romaphobia or anti-Tsiganism in Central and Eastern Europe.
European values are also fundamentally violated when it comes to the lack of possibilities for migrants to arrive safely in the EU without risking the most fundamental right, the right to life, or by outsourcing the solution of the problem to African states with authoritarian governments. But also embracing populist rhetoric in order not to lose voters or to strengthen one’s own position in negotiations already implies a capitulation in the wake of populist messages.
A democracy that fails to transmute right-wing populist mobilisation into democratic improvements becomes vulnerable to negative repercussions such as the marginalisation of certain groups of society, the weakening of political institutions or the undermining of minority protection. In other words, right-wing populism becomes a threat to liberal democracies by undermining democratic checks and balances and legitimacy.
Right-wing rising in European elections 2019
In most European countries, right-wing populist parties gained electoral success and have even come to form governments in Italy, Hungary, Austria or Poland. These parties clearly share radical anti-immigration rhetorics and eurosceptic approaches. This is why the chance of right-wing populists gaining power in the European elections taking place between 23-26 May puts the EU’s fundamental values and further EU integration in danger.
If far-right parties gain a third of seats in the European Parliament, they could significantly influence the EU’s, legislation, budget, and ultimately, legitimacy. The EU, however, does not have a shared vision for challenging right-wing populists, even though their electorate has significantly increased.
Nationalist and eurosceptic threats have been handled through addressing economic and social concerns of voters, dialogue processes as well as ostracism and legal measures. Still, European institutions, especially the Commission and the Parliament, are in a difficult position to fight right-wing populism as eurosceptic parties question their legitimation to act on a supranational level.
Economic inequalities and how to defy extreme right challenges
Studies show that right-wing populism has a higher electoral potential among societal groups that experienced periods of economic and social deprivation. Accordingly, the rise of populism is connected to societal malaise, a feeling of societal pessimism or dissatisfaction. People who are financially better off express rather optimistic views of the future, while fear of social decline lead to uncertainty and distrust in society, which can be regarded as one of the reasons for citizens to support populists.
Furthermore, economic, social and political rights appear mutually dependent. The division of human rights into civil and political rights, social rights, and finally collective rights was the result of historical and institutional developments, and does not imply an order of importance. The rights to life and to physical integrity are closely connected to the right to healthcare, while socio-economic conditions influence opportunities for political participation. Social support can be necessary to realise the right to equality and equal treatment.
This is why a broad human rights spectrum that includes economic and social rights is crucial to realise civil and political rights. Such a broad spectrum includes access to education, affordable housing, good healthcare, an adequate standard of living and fair working conditions. While Europe’s social security is among the most advanced in the world, inequality remains a major issue (e.g. in unemployment rates or in the quality of life more broadly).
Improving social protection in the EU
Theoretically, social rights are laid down by the European Social Charter, which provides monitoring mechanisms by the European Commission, but does not allow for individual complaints in front of the European Court of Human Rights. The most recent attempt to elevate European competences in this policy area is the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) that was proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission in 2017 to promote fair and functioning labour markets and social systems. The Pillar delivers 20 new principles and rights for citizens regarding equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection.
The attempt of the European Commission to improve transparency and predictability of working conditions, the promotion of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), or the attempt to adopt initiatives to improve work-life balance can also be seen as positive follow-up actions arising out of the EPSR – although the EPSR is not legally binding (yet). Making these regulations legally binding in the long term and creating agreements on minimum social standards in certain fields in the short term would be important steps to strengthen the social dimension of the EU and ensure sustainability and inclusiveness of European economic growth.
Taking legal measures against right-wing populism
Beyond taking better care of social rights, the EU needs to revive its vision of European values and bring them back to the center of political action. A strong stance against right-wing populism must include consistent handling of populist threats to democracy and democratic values. Politicians should never capitulate in front of populist pressure. Wherever possible, legal bases have to be activated.
Domestically, the European Commission as guarantor of the treaties can launch the Art. 7 (TFEU) procedure against Member States in which European values are under threat. The procedure proved to be successful when it was triggered in 2018, after the Polish ruling party (PiS) submitted a bill that put the rule of law and judicial independence in danger by forcing Supreme Court judges into early retirement.
Ultimately, taking better care of social rights and fighting right-wing populism through legal measures might not be enough to tackle the EU’s current challenges. Thus, it should be reconsidered if existing procedures intending to protect the Union’s fundamental values are sufficient.
The European Union in its current condition is not a “final product”. It is a construct to be further developed and enhanced. Protecting and enhancing democratic values needs constant politics of will and political imagination. European citizens have their role to play in this – at the polls and beyond!
The author would like to thank Sonja Schiffers for her strong efforts and support!
The article is published as part of the project Between a Rock and a Hard Place? Georgian, German and French Perspectives on European Values and Euro-Atlantic Integration. The project was funded by the German Federal Foreign Office in the framework of the programme “Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia”. #GEOEUvalues #civilsocietycooperation
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.
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Gabriela Langholf is a master’s student of European Studies at Viadrina University (Frankfurt Oder). Spending two semesters at Tbilisi State University in Georgia in 2018-19, she focused on political and cultural issues of the Caucasus and interned for the Georgian Think Tank GRASS (Georgia ́s Reform Associates). She currently works on her master’s thesis in the field of contemporary history and culture of remembrance.