Impact of cuts and restrictions applied during economic crisis requires redress to ease long-term harm, writes Struan Stevenson
The future of human rights has come under considerable strain during the economic meltdown, which began in the US in 2007 and quickly spread to Europe and the wider world.
The ensuing economic collapse led to six consecutive years of recession in some European Union member states, resulting in dramatic cuts in pensions, healthcare, education and other areas. Some countries, like Greece and Spain, have still not recovered, with austerity measures affecting areas such as access to justice, freedom of expression and assembly, freedom of information and basic rights such as the right to property, the right to work and the right to social security.
The crisis also had a disproportionate impact on some minorities and groups of people like immigrants, thereby jeopardising the principle of equality. The knock-on impacts on the rights of foreigners and the rise in hate crimes was an unattractive consequence of the austerity agenda.
School mergers and closures and dramatic reductions in teacher numbers undermined the basic right to education. This was particularly evident in Greece where student-teacher ratios were affected and services to vulnerable children, such as children with disabilities, were withdrawn. The cuts also caused a general deterioration in the cleaning and heating of classrooms in many EU countries and an increase in the number of unemployed workers in education. The long-term impact has yet to be evaluated, but clearly the cuts will have affected the quality of education and the success of children in EU schools.
Similarly, cuts in the EU healthcare sector led to restricted access, hospital closures, reduced salaries, a freeze on recruitment, increased costs for drugs and treatment, increased waiting times and additional financial burdens on citizens. Once more there was a disproportionate impact on certain groups of people such as the poor, the homeless, elderly people, people with disabilities and undocumented migrants.
The right to engage and remain in employment under fair conditions was also affected with many countries introducing legislation that allowed employees to be easily dismissed during the economic downturn, leading to massive job losses, wage cuts, increased working hours, facilitation of the use of temporary and part-time employees, zero-hours contracts, imposition of involuntary mobility and decreased unemployment protection. These measures disproportionately affected women, young workers, people with disabilities, migrants, Travellers, low-paid workers and retired and single people.
Spain now has 50 per cent youth unemployment. In fact the UK seems to be the only country that has bucked this trend, creating more jobs in the past 12 months than all of the other EU member states combined. Thirty-one million people in Britain now have jobs, 80 per cent of them full-time. It is a historic high for the UK, but sadly, this has proved to be the exception rather than the rule in the 28 EU member states, where 24 million men and women are jobless.
But it is not only jobs that have been hit. The impact of the economic crisis on pensions has also been dramatic, particularly in Greece, Cyprus, Ireland and Portugal, where the pension age was increased, pensions already awarded were cut and new rules on the calculation of pensions were introduced. Cuts in judicial staff and the closure of courts in many countries, together with cuts in legal aid have made it more difficult for citizens to access justice to enforce their rights and seek redress.
Other basic rights have also suffered impacts during the crisis including, for example, the right to housing in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland and Spain, where there has been an increase in foreclosures and evictions due to increased rents and cuts in housing benefits. We’ve seen protests in the UK over the controversial “bedroom tax”, which slashed housing benefits for people with empty bedrooms. In Cyprus, property rights were affected by the seizure of bank deposits above €100,000 – the so-called “deposit haircuts”. The introduction of costly water metering in Ireland led to claims that a citizen’s fundamental right to access clean water had been illegally infringed.
All of these impacts on fundamental human rights have, of course, led to disputes and protests. Mostly these have been dignified and constrained, but as we have seen on television, on occasion the disputes have become violent and often the police have been accused of using excessive force. This, in turn, has led to some EU member states rushing to introduce controversial legislation aimed at limiting or curtailing protests, impacting on the right to freedom of expression or assembly.
The European Parliament is now working on a raft of policies aimed at protecting and securing citizens’ fundamental rights at a time of economic crisis, ensuring that spending cuts are proportionate and effective and do not impinge on basic rights to education, healthcare, employment, pensions, justice and freedom of expression and assembly. But the European Parliament needs to keep reminding EU member states about their international obligations towards ensuring these basic freedoms.
Nelson Mandela famously said: “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” All international human rights instruments need to be complied with when implementing austerity measures, and national protection measures need to be applied to deal with any violation of these rights at national level.
• Struan Stevenson was a Scottish Conservative MEP from 1999 until retirement in 2014.