European Right to Freedom Act

We should recognize that the national context and legitimacy is here to stay for some time. We might overcome it one day, but not tomorrow. We therefore need to develop a new approach that allows for combining the national more legitimately and more democratically with the European. 

Franziska Brantner
4 April 2013

Demotix/popicinio. All rights reserved.

Ulrich Beck proposes in his book German Europe a sort of ‘deal’ in order to overcome the Euro(pean) crisis: a simultaneous introduction of joint financial liability and a new social contract. Instead of pursuing austerity in return for rescue packages, we should pursue a new social contract, which would actually build the sustainable basis for our joint future. Many, not least Mario Monti in 2008, have proposed similar deals, and it seems evident to most of those working on the crisis. So why are we still not there?

Beck argues that one main impeding factor is what he calls ‘German Europe’. And yes, it is flabbergasting how quickly Germans forget that they were just yesterday the sick man of Europe.  Or how quickly Bavarians forgot that they have managed an impressive economic transformation within decades with the financial support of the rest of the German society.

More fundamentally, Germans have been able to transform from evil Nazis into democratic citizens within decades. More recently, East Germans have undergone the process from a communist regime to the democratic and capitalist BRD.

But while we Germans are rightly proud of such an impressive transformation, obviously more fundamental than introducing a proper taxation system, people like Thilo Sarrazin deny southern Europeans even the capacity to transform. ‘They are lazy and corrupt, will never implement what they have signed up for’ and they will never change (in Sarrazin’s view because laziness is a factor of geography, more precisely of hours of sunshine).  This fatalistic view is rife throughout the arguments of the new anti-euro party.  And yes, the current attitude, ‘the other countries just have to follow the German model and then they will be fine’ is basically nationalist, as it presupposes that the German nation has found a better way than the others - that it is better than others.

However, as worrying and devastating as these attitudes and the ensuing policies are for the people living in the crisis countries and European (social) peace, ‘German Europe’ does not reflect the entire story. It is perhaps no surprise that in the same book Beck cites another major stumbling block, which is not purely German: the fact that those currently taking the crisis decisions at the European level (not just the German government) have mainly their national audiences in mind while deciding, and not the European common good.

A necessary but not sufficient explanation for this is their reelection on national tickets. There were moments in time, however, when political leaders dared to think beyond the next poll. Beck is therefore concerned that this is not just about leaders but that European citizens actually do not want to pool further competencies at the European level. He is rightly worried about a downward spiral: the discrepancy between the democratic legitimacy of the European level and the necessity of pooling further competencies at European level to actually overcome the crisis without destroying the European project on the way.

This discrepancy is increasing with every day of ‘meddling through the crisis’ management, which refuses to take citizens into the heart of decision-making instead of balance sheets.

One way of gaining the requisite legitimacy is to fight a common enemy. Today, some German pro-Europeans tend to mystify China or the US as a common threat in order to illustrate the necessity of working jointly. Beck prefers the more liberal option of arguing that sovereignty is de facto no longer practicable in many areas at national level in times of globalization. Only acting jointly can we exercise sovereignty, for example vis-à-vis the financial markets.  The problem with this argument is that it does not hold true in reality. Greek citizens do not (re)gain sovereignty over their own lives via the rescue packages.

We should recognize that the national context and legitimacy is here to stay for some time. We might overcome it one day, but not tomorrow. We therefore need to develop a new approach that allows for combining the national more legitimately and more democratically with the European.

A European Right to Freedom Act

I would like to develop the idea of a European Right to Freedom Act as follows. This act would guarantee a few fundamental freedoms to all its citizens: Freedom from human rights abuses, freedom from corruption and maladministration, freedom from poverty, freedom from unequal access to quality education and health care services, and freedom from state collapse. Freedom from corruption, poverty and unequal access to quality education and health care services would require the setting of common minimum standards.

The main responsibility for guaranteeing these freedoms would be at the national level. The European level would only be responsible for assisting the national level in carrying out this obligation, more precisely in preventing any member state from undermining, let alone rendering impossible, the capacity of another member state to guarantee these rights. Only if national authorities are unable or unwilling to guarantee these rights to their citizens would the European level react and step in.  The competencies then handed over to the European level must serve to restore these rights (and not just fiscal targets).

One preventative task of the European level would for example be ensuring sufficient revenue for the national state to actually guarantee these rights. More precisely this could mean tax harmonization, the closing of tax havens, but also a Europe-wide capital tax. It could also mean preventing state collapse due to bank collapse, e.g. common banking rules, insolvency rules and common deposit schemes. It would entail monitoring public over - or under-spending and macroeconomic imbalances. But it would also mean preventing state collapse by offering joint liabilities.

The decision for the European level to step in to replace the national authorities in guaranteeing the mentioned rights could either be launched by the respective government calling on the European level to help, or by citizens of that country calling on the European Parliament for help. The European Court of Justice could also launch the procedure. The European Parliament would in any case decide, based on a recommendation from the Commission and the European Council.

The stepping in would entail adopting laws, invalidating existing laws and adapting budgets. The European Parliament would for these actions be equal decision-maker with the Council, based on recommendations from the Commission and following joint debates with the concerned national parliament.  Two important principles would underpin any such action: proportionality and ‘do no harm’. 

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