Joining forces to protect social rights

As populists capitalise on the widening gap between rich and poor and the resentment that comes with it, protecting people’s social rights to tackle extremes of poverty and inequality should be a priority, writes Humbert de Biolley.
Photo credit: Holyrood

By Humbert de Biolley

20 May 2019

This isn’t what a peaceful and prosperous post-war Europe was supposed to look like.

In many European countries, the gap between rich and poor is the widest it has been in 30 years - and it is still growing.

Some countries have stubbornly high levels of unemployment, while others have huge numbers of “working poor”.


Data released earlier this month, for example, show that while UK unemployment remains at its lowest level since the mid-1970s, some 4 million workers are living in poverty.

Meanwhile, a lack of social housing and the high cost of buying or renting property have led Ireland to launch a campaign to tackle the growing number of homeless children. This is happening in 2019.

In many places, austerity measures have exacerbated the human consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, disproportionately affecting vulnerable people and having long-term effects on society.

The result of all this? Hope fades, resentment grows and dark clouds begin to gather.

“Austerity measures have exacerbated the human consequences of the 2008 financial crisis, disproportionately affecting vulnerable people and having long-term effects on society”

Last week a report from the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that widening inequalities in pay, health and opportunities were driving “deaths of despair” and undermining trust in democracy.

Across Europe and beyond, populists are using this resentment to challenge the basic values on which post-war Europe has been built: respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

So what can be done to help protect people’s social rights - from education, to housing, to employment and healthcare - and to tackle extremes of poverty and inequality?

The EU launched its European Pillar of Social Rights in 2017. Despite the fact that it is not legally-binding, this offers an excellent opportunity for the 28 EU countries and various social partners to work towards inclusive growth that benefits everyone.

Meanwhile, the European Social Charter - a legally-binding treaty overseen by the 47-nations Council of Europe - remains undervalued and often overlooked.

43 countries across Europe, including all 28 EU members, are bound by the charter, an economic and social counterpart to the European Convention on Human Rights which dates back to 1961.

The findings of the European Committee of Social Rights, which oversees the charter, can be used to identify shortcomings in specific countries and help to develop targeted policy responses.

There is also a “collective complaints” mechanism, under which trade unions and NGOs can bring specific challenges against participating countries and receive legally-binding decisions.

To reach its full potential, however, governments across the EU and beyond should commit themselves to the revised version of the charter, launched in 1996, and join the collective complaints mechanism.

The European Social Charter could and should become a pedestal supporting the European Pillar of Social Rights, with the European Union and important partners such as national human rights institutions, equality bodies and other civil society organisations helping to enforce its provisions.

This can serve to improve people’s lives, to reduce dangerous inequalities and to restore faith in democracy across Europe.

For all of our sakes.

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