ANN CAHILL: Report demands EU wide look at social impact of austerity drive

The European Central Bank faces criticism over its denigration of employment and social rights during the ongoing austerity drive, says Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill

THE European Central Bank needs to be challenged in the courts over its continued refusal to acknowledge social and employment rights in its role in enforcing austerity, according to Labour TD Michael McNamara.

The EU institutions, including the ECB, are all bound by the human, social and employment rights voted into being by EU governments, and by referenda in Ireland.

The report by Mr McNamara, a human rights lawyer, will be discussed by the standing committee of the Council of Europe — the 47-nation body often referred to as Europe’s human rights watchdog — in Paris today.

It calls on the EU to assess the social impact of austerity measures and, in future, to ensure there is transparency and democratic and judicial control of agreements on all future bailouts.

The highly critical report also questions why the EU will not adopt the European Convention on Human Rights as it is bound to under the Lisbon Treaty, and suggests that the recent ruling against doing so from the European Court smacks of “institutional rivalry”.

The strongest criticism is reserved for the austerity measures, however, and Mr McNamara — member of the Council of Europe — met former ECB president Jean Claude Trichet and European Commission officials with the council’s legal affairs and human rights committee when preparing the report.

“Mr Trichet and decision-makers in Brussels and Frankfurt had no regard to social and economic rights when making the decisions he made,” says Mr McNamara.

Mr Trichet contended that the role of the ECB is only to deal with monetary policy without regard to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but the EU Treaty is explicit in saying that the charter applies to all EU institutions when making decisions and EU law, says the Clare TD.

In effect, the ECB claims not to be accountable to anybody, but Mr McNamara says members of the Socialist group, to which the Labour Party belongs in the council, are very concerned about how to make the ECB accountable. He believes it must be taken to court if it is breaching the fundamental rights of the EU treaty.

On the other hand, the EU’s bailout body, the ESM, is not accountable to anyone since it is not an EU institution but a financial vehicle established in Luxembourg. This immunity is despite the fact that its actions, and any default on the money it borrows to lend to countries, could have major knock-on effects.

“The ESM is not accountable to the [European] Parliament or anyone and cannot be referred to the Court of Justice, which is a crazy situation,” says Mr McNamara.

Measures imposed on Greece by the troika were contrary to the treaties signed between the member states guaranteeing social and workers rights, he says, adding: “We are seeing denial of economic and social rights that were hard won and enshrined in the Turin Social Charter and the Charter of Fundamental Social Rights of Workers.

“The attitude is that you can have those rights if we can afford to give them to you, and we will guarantee rights that do not cost us. This has to change and there has to be judicial oversight of such decisions in the future.”

Mr McNamara added that it was vital to address this now, especially considering the growing feeling that the EU lacks democratic legitimacy.

Ireland has a good record in human rights and while its efforts to ensure the survival of the euro cannot be endangered by a reckless Greek government, it must support Greece in fighting measures that impinge on the rights of its citizens.

A draft recommendation, also up for discussion today, calls on the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers to have experts draw up criteria for austerity measures that would be in keeping with the Council’s European Social Charter.

The report also considers how and if the EU deals with incidents and countries that breach rules on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. There have been a series of events over the past few years about which the EU failed to take action, says Mr McNamara.

“Hungary is very worrying, as was the negative reaction from several member states to the stand taken by the then [European] justice commissioner Vivianne Reding against France’s move against the Roma,” he says.

These, and the crises in Austria and Romania, have shown the EU still has difficulty in ensuring the continuing adherence of its member states to democracy, human rights, or the rule of law, the report says.

The usual approach of political and diplomatic persuasion has not always succeeded and the last resort isolating a country has never been applied, mainly because of the high threshold required for it to be triggered.

The European Commission proposed an interim step — a type of monitoring mechanism that would allow the commission to highlight shortcomings of member states on the rule of law. However, EU state leaders rejected this, saying the EU had no legal right to introduce such a step.

The EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency in Vienna vets legislative proposals before they are negotiated by the council representing member states and the European Parliament — but it is not asked to look at the amendments, says Mr McNamara who worked with the OSCE in Vienna.

The European Parliament must engage more with the Rights Agency, he concludes.

The European Court of Justice recently ruled against the EU signing up to the European Convention on Human rights — despite the fact that all member states agreed to doing so as part of the Lisbon Treaty.

The report says the long list of problems the court found suggests institutional rivalry. “It calls into question the Luxembourg Court’s willingness to accept the very idea of EU accession to the ECHR,” says Mr McNamara.

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