Mind the gap

Sylvia Borren

Europe is more than just a single market. More than money, more than the euro. It was always about values.
President Jean-Claude Juncker’s 2017 State of the Union Address.

Many who worked so hard to achieve a value driven EU would agree. (Hedy d’Ancona is my personal favorite). Let us re-read and admire our EU aspirations:

The goals of the European Union are:

  • promote peace, its values and the well-being of its citizens;
  • offer freedom, security and justice without internal borders;
  • sustainable development based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive market economy with full employment and social progress, and environmental protection;
  • combat social exclusion and discrimination;
  • promote scientific and technological progress;
  • enhance economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among member countries;
  • respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity;
  • Establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro.

    And yet there is a constantly reported so-called ‘value crisis’ in the European Union which is largely associated with a growing nationalist and populist sentiment.I beg to differ. Yes, maybe there is a value crisis. A different one. I believe it to be about the increasing gap between the ‘espoused values’ of Europe (on paper, in speeches) and the ‘integrated values’, which really determine the behavior of political leaders and EU administrative forces. To put it more simply: it is not a crisis of values as such, but the disillusion of too many citizens about the gap between values (on paper) and real political and administrative behavior. This gap gives space to growing anger, cynicism and populist activism – actually on all sides of the political and public spectrum. 

    Examples of this gap? Where to start! Perhaps a comparison between the EU espoused values and researched reality will illustrate this.

    Human dignity
    Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected, protected and constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights.
    Apparently not applicable to Syrian and other refugees in Europe?

Freedom of movement gives citizens the right to move and reside freely within the Union. Individual freedoms such as respect for private life, freedom of thought, religion, assembly, expression and information are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Individual freedom under pressure through increased cyber security measures, and Google and facebook monopolies?

The functioning of the EU is founded on representative democracy. Being a European citizen also means enjoying political rights. Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament. EU citizens have the right to stand as candidate and to vote in their country of residence, or in their country of origin.
45% of EU citizens believe democracy is not working well in the EU. The representative nature of the European Parliament is doubted, because national politicians and media are not able to make relevant connections between their constituents and the work of the EU parliament and commission.

Equality is about equal rights for all citizens before the law. The principle of equality between women and men underpins all European policies and is the basis for European integration. It applies in all areas. The principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Although inequalities still exist, the EU has made significant progress.
Ha!! Significant progress? The European Institute for Gender Equality reports the following: the 2017 average EU gender index = 66.2, an increase of 4 points in 10 years. Share of women ministers in the EU is 27%. Share of women in boards of large companies is 21%. People doing cooking and housework every day = 79% women. Percentage of women in the EU who experienced health consequences of physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15 = 69%, in the past 12 months 33%. This is so insidiously structural that it needs a much larger #metoo movement of women and men to combat it.

Rule of law
The EU is based on the rule of law. Everything the EU does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by its member countries. Law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. The member countries gave final jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice which judgements have to be respected by all.
The Commissioner of Human Rights Nils Muiznieks of the Council of Europe writes in the foreword of his extensive report ‘Human rights in Europe: from crisis to renewal?’ on October 1st 2017 the following:
“…The two biggest gaps, in my view, are children’s rights and media freedom … During my country visits, I have witnessed the many ways in which the economic crisis affected human rights, including its impact on social and economic rights, but also its effect on conditions of detention, access to justice, the situation of vulnerable groups and policies and attitudes towards minorities and migrants…”

Human rights
Human rights are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These cover the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, the right to the protection of your personal data, and or the right to get access to justice.
Human Rights Comment published on 31 August 2017, p. 183: “Ethnic minorities and foreign nationals were not the only targets of the post-Brexit referendum spate of violent attacks in the United Kingdom; there were also reports of a dramatic rise in homophobic and transphobic hate crimes committed by private individuals in the summer of 2016. In its 2017 report on homophobia in France, the NGO SOS homophobie observed a correlation between advances in the recognition of LGBTI rights and increases in hate crimes and hate speech.”

The third and fourth goals of the European Union

  • sustainable development based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive market economy, with full employment and social progress, and environmental protection;
  • combat social exclusion and discrimination.

These are arguably the areas in which the largest groups of European citizens feel and voice their biggest disillusionment – and they are right. The increasingly dominant neo-liberal economic policies of the last forty years have been based on a number of clearly proven fallacies or lies, namely:
– That wages had to be kept low in order to ensure profits which would help grow the size of enterprises, and thus the number of jobs. (It did not, it did increase poverty, and lower consumption).
– That low wages would prevent business fleeing Europe to settle in lower wage countries. (They went there anyhow, and cheap imports into Europe are not controlled by agreed to ILO standards, such as no child labor etc.).
– That capital gain would ‘trickle down’ into all levels of society. (It does not).
– That wages need to be taxed to provide for our welfare state (around 30%), whereas capital gain should not be (more than 10%), and CEOs should see their salaries rise to keep them in Europe. (Let them go, and allow women CEOs to take their place).

This all has led to an unprecedented increase in the gap between rich and poor in Europe, a justified anger that wages for lower paid jobs including in public transport, health workers and teachers have hardly increased in decades – and a growing conviction that governments and the EU are working for the corporates, not for the people. The huge financial bail-out of the banks in the financial crisis in 2008, with taxpayers money at the cost of public spending, whilst the banks can continue their dubious products and practices, has increased the anger and frustration about ‘the powers that be’. And do not get me started on environmental issues, which despite the Paris agreement all EU governments are howling at, and spending much less money on than the bail-out of the banks.

What the rightwing anti-migrant populist parties are guilty of is to blame this striking economic imbalance and insecure future because of climate change on refugees and migrants – who are fleeing war, climate disruption and lack of perspective. They supposedly ‘steal our jobs’, ‘live off our welfare state’, and ‘make our streets unsafe’. This increases social exclusion and discrimination, and it is hard to discover how the EU is even trying to combat that. Happily many citizens on the ground show much more solidarity and compassion than their governments.

The economist Thomas Piketty has proven with extensive research that this growing economic inequity and lack of social progress in Europe (combined with a neo-liberal ideology, that if you don’t succeed as individual, then that is your own fault) not only hurts the economy, but it also damages social cohesion and democracy itself.

So here we have it. The conclusion.
Europe fails to live up to its own values and arguably to its most important goals.

Mind the gap!! But the gap is increasing.

Strangely enough, Europe is not all bad. In comparison human rights, security, economic safety, justice and environmental standards are still better served in Europe than in most countries and continents in the world. As many global reports show.

Which is why I disagree that a ‘new social contract’ is needed in Europe, or indeed in the world. The existing social contract in itself can stand. We have many good policies, intentions, institutions. Which many citizens, organized in civil society, civil service and political parties have worked hard to achieve. Beyond the EU goals and values are the global Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement, the many UN and ILO and OECD conventions and agreements.

But unfortunately too many political leaders of EU member states are behaving like bad middle managers:  talking tough nationally, taking undeserved credit for themselves (e.g. for economic growth), bowing their heads to powerful multinationals, and allocating as much blame as possible for difficult decisions to the European Union. They play the ‘blame game’ upwards (to the Commission) and sideways (to southern and eastern member states).

Instead they could and should take on collective leadership for a strong Europe which stands fully for its values: for its human and gender and diversity rights, for minorities, migrants, refugees, for its social contract with its citizens in terms of education, health, economic opportunity, social services, and a climate safe future.

Brexit shows us a younger generation in the United Kingdom which is sick of all these tactical shenanigans. They (70%) demand political solutions, and are shocked by how mainly English but also European political lies and apathy allowed Brexit to happen. Or worse, some of them are giving up on democratic processes altogether, because of the often-seen political hypocrisy and short sighted self-interest.

So I do not think populist activism has caused our European ‘value crisis’, but it has been able to jump into the gap left by EU leadership which is not seen to be working coherently and consistently towards diminishing the distance between European goals and values, and the reality of the daily lives of too many of its citizens. Too often political leaders are even publicly taking distance from EU values, some explicitly like Hungary and Poland.

There is also the administrative jungle which frustrates many who do try to work with the European Union. This affects corporate and social enterprises, citizens, and civil society.

But perhaps most seriously, the problem is the majority of silent citizens who somehow assume that peace, justice, security, human rights, economic equity, gender justice and safety, environmental problems etc. etc. will take care of themselves. The silent majority can and should demand coherence between the EU goals and values, and their delivery. We can and should all be world citizens wanting urgent progress on combatting climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. For reasons of justice, solidarity, as well as enlightened self-interest.

So the need now is to live up (seriously, urgently!!) to the EU goals and values we as Europeans have already agreed to. How about being explicit that when a country underwrites certain European (and UN) agreements, that this is indeed binding for all: for its political parties, its citizens and civil society. And do not forget: particularly for its businesses, corporates and banks (fill in your favorite names yourself). That would make a difference.

Let’s close the gap.

Let’s become (yes, politicians, corporates, civil society, citizens) serious about our European goals and values: trustworthy, reliable, clear about the ambitions and honest about how hard it is to fully achieve these. Let us become truly committed in our common efforts to achieve the Europe we (most of us) want – but are as yet not achieving.

Sylvia Borren
Former Director of Oxfam Novib
Former Director of Greenpeace Netherlands

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