Europa & die Welt Debattenbeitrag

The European Union as a Human Rights Superpower

Can the EU become a superpower without a vision for the future? Peter Weisenbacher argues that global Human Rights provide the answer.

Lack of a vision is often cited as one of the main reasons for the current crisis of trust in the European Union. While much is already being said about those down-to-earth reasons for the crisis, which inevitably play their role in the day-to-day affairs, what can be said about the vision for the EU?
Taking into account the history of the European Union, it clearly comes as no surprise that there is no „official“ vision. Even the values or founding myths of this “political entity”, if that is what we should call it currently, are all build around peace. Since peace is taken for granted, easily forgotten and undervalued for those of us who have never lived through war, it is not sufficient to build a future on.

Let’s reflect on what the EU represents for others in the world, a method less Eurocentric, if nothing else. An economic giant, a diplomatic dwarf and a military non-entity would be the most probable outcome of such an endeavour. Once again, taking into account how the EU came into being it makes perfect sense to us, it does not, however, to others. Every other superpower – yes, the EU is a superpower, not Germany, not Britain, not France alone anymore – fulfils these three categories. If we want to compete with the USA, China or any other superpower, we need to do that as well. And do not be mistaken by the „if“ – this is a rhetoric question leading to the important “how”. In case we should decide not to compete (or not be able to decide anything at all), we will not be a global player for much longer.

But there is a problem – and I do not mean the problem with how to actually accomplish this with all those nationalistic, short-sighted and cowardly local politicians and uninterested public. Do not misunderstand: I appreciate the sheer magnitude of creating a vision for EU, therefore I will not even attempt to cover it here from different aspects. The problem I’m addressing is the lack of vision, values, founding myths or whatever you want to call it.

At the end of the day the values are the answer to the question European citizens ask: “Why is there an EU?” This answer, if good enough, will not only make those short-sighted local politicians irrelevant, more importantly it will make Portuguese soldiers understand why it is worth their time to protect the Polish-Russian border. This unclear vision is actually one of the most powerful tools for how to achieve lasting peace.

So, what is the answer? Today it is peace and prosperity. We already covered peace earlier, it is a hard sell to a population that has known nothing else then peace for decades. Prosperity? Free market theory? Even without the consideration of the current global economic crisis, is it not too little? As a vision “prosperity” brings the same problems as “peace”: do we not actually have it and cannot imagine anything else? Is the current economic crisis and the fall of middle classes in European countries actually proving the point that what we have is not enough?

Sure, we do not lack the resources to provide adequate public services like education, health and housing to every person, unlike many other regions of the world. Sure, we would like to provide for all members of our society, it is inherent in our culture. So why don’t we do it? Quite simply: there is no basis for it. We lack the vision and the values with which to built a foundation. There is no mention of equality in the struggle for peace, no mention of the free market theory.

Human rights could very well be the answer. Human rights could be the values upon which we can build the basis. Fulfilling human rights for every person could very well be the vision of a united Europe. Please note: I am not speaking about the so-called “first generation” of human rights like freedom of speech and assembly, which once again we have and take for granted in Europe. I speak about economic, social and cultural rights. About the right to an adequate level of medical care regardless of your income. About the right to clean water and sanitation, no matter if a government decided to privatize some plants or piping networks. What I mean is dignity, the actual precondition to consummate all those other rights, which we tend to take for granted, but somehow, deep down, understand that they are only for those who can afford them. Is the idea of guaranteed standards of living, high quality public educational facilities for your children and high-quality free medical care for your parents and grandparents worth building a real European Union?

We have the power and the tools to make it happen. We have even more: We have the means and possibilities to support human rights globally. They are, after all, universal. Please disregard any post-colonial sentiments at this point. I am talking about empowering the oppressed and getting rid of savage regimes whose claims to power are as illegitimate as were our predecessors’ claims centuries ago. That is actually what we owe to the people. Our continent oppressed so many in the past centuries, now we cannot stand by silently. Of course this will come at a cost. We may need to take active steps in getting rid of tax havens, even in our midst. We need to take into account some temporary economic repercussions after diplomatic and economic clashes with oppressive regimes as they tend to control everything in “their” countries. Some toothless sanctions will not do the job. This is when the guaranteed standard of living in the EU achieved through high quality public services, should come in handy for those sacked because some international business contract went bust.

This is one possibility – food for thought if you like. It’s designed to provoke. I welcome, actually I urge you to discuss and disagree with it. The main threat for our future is the lack of discussion about a vision and the lack of a vision itself as the result of it. We loose ourselves in trivial pseudo problems which no one will remember five years from now. Our political elites are short-sighted and still think in boundaries of national states that de facto do not exist anymore, thanks to the Schengen treaty. The problem is the lack of any decision rather than the wrong decisions. We may go wrong, but we should at least try to get it right. If we do not decide and do not act, although we have the means, it will be decided for us, and enacted by others without a chance for us to influence the outcome. Which, as history teaches us, will inevitably go wrong.

This article was first published on European Circle.