2016 was one of the bloodiest years in the recent history of Europe. European states increased their security measures in order to prevent and protect their peoples from Islamic terrorists and Islamic extremism. Europe and West found a new phenomenon without precedent and now they are called to battle with it.
However, the real nightmare is not the constant fear of terrorists but the rising fear of our Muslim neighbor. How many times have you suspiciously watched a Muslim imam during the boarding time of your flight? How many times have you felt in sorrow or in anxiety about a Muslim woman wearing a niqab? How many times have you found yourself thinking that all women in Muslim countries get married before their teens or that all men beat their wives? Religion has started to set boundaries, bridge walls and bring hostile feelings into the surface: hostile feelings against our religious and cultural “unknown”.
Living permanently in Greece, I came face to face with the refugee crisis. Greece had to deal with thousands of Syrians coming from a different cultural, political and religious background. This was the breaking point where we understood the impact and the power of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Greek political and social life. First of all, in order to understand all these facts, I should mention the privileged position of the Church in the Greek Constitution. According to the Article 3, which governs the relations between the State and the Greek Orthodox Church, of the Greek Constitution (1986), the Greek Orthodoxy is the prevailing religion and the Greek Orthodox Church has the full autonomy to run all the operations related to the religious affairs. The Greek Orthodox dealt with the refugee and migrant crisis in really bad terms. Many bishops referred to them as a miasma for the Greek society and a crusade against them has to be started in order not to let them convert Christians into Islam. In September 2016, when the first refugee children would go the Greek primary schools, some Church’s representatives condemned this action and put the blame on the State that these children should not sit next to the Greek young generation. The ex-Minister of Education, Mr. Nikos Filis made an effort to change thecourse of religion in High Schools and introduce the course of World religions. The reaction of the Church led to replacement from another Minister who would follow the instructions of religious leaders and would maintain the course in the form of indoctrination as it is since the late ’50s. The specific form of the course puts in the margin, students from different religions, humanists or atheists and does not provide an inclusive school community.
Moreover, Greece is one of the countries that have not yet built a mosque for the Muslim communities. Muslim communities gather and pray in their own apartments or basements which serve religious purposes. The building of a mosque is one of the most problematic debates in Greece, especially after the pressure by the Turkish government in order to reopen the Theological School of Halki (closed since 1971).
As I already mentioned, both secular and less secular states of Europe such as Greece, are called to deal with problems and difficulties arising from religions and their embodiment in the field of politics and of human rights. This paper is going to discuss some of the most alarming issues in the current public debate related to religious expression. A special emphasis will be put on the relations between Islam and Christianity.
This article is divided in the following parts: The first part is going to examine the secular character of Europe and its challenges and consequences in a multireligious society. The second part is going to examine the issue of Muslim women veil and its ban from National Laws as well as women rights in both Muslim and Christian communities. Both primary sources and secondary sources have been selected in order to investigate the issues from various perspectives. A special attention has been paid on the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights on cases related to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
A Secular Europe
According to the study of Pew Research Center which was conducted in 2010, Europe counted 550, 2 millions of Christians, 139,9million Non-religious and 43,3million Muslims. The prevailing religion in every single country in Europe was Christianity except for Estonia and Czech Republic where the majority of population was non-religious (59.6 % and 76.4 % respectively). Only in Albania, Islam is the prevailing religion counting 80.3% of the population. Following this study, in 2015, European Commission conducted a research related to values and European spirit. For Europeans, the most important things are the human rights, peace, life respect, individual rights and religion. Instead, they believe that the followings things represent most European Union and are less important for them: respect for other cultures, Law of the State (l’ état de droit) and democracy.
What is secularism and secular identity?
According to Casanova, secularization of Europe is an undeniable social fact. Religion does not play a key role in the fate of people and a new social model emerged in the recent decades of European history. According to Ferrari, secularization is the process where decisions affecting politics, law and economics must be based on reason, not on the faith of one or other citizen. The private and the public life are completely separated. In the era of secularization, religion belongs to the sphere of private life and public life has no room for religious affairs. Taking into account the flux of foreign minorities in Europe which carried with them new cultures and religions, secularism was the ideal solution to create inclusive societies without discrimination on the grounds of those cultural elements. To prevent the danger of a clash and to ensure the equal treatment of all religions, it is essential to ground the public sphere on a principle that is universal and neutral and therefore capable of being accepted by all people regardless of their religion: this principle is human reason. Consequently, Church and State are two different entities with different goals and different means which sometimes may cooperate for the social and common good.
Secularization has been a new and universal concept which according to Weber is a unique feature of European thought. But how has secularization emerged and prevailed in European societies? According to Linda Woodhead, there have been numerous social and political changes which favored the emergence of secularism after the 1970’s. First of all, individual rights gained ground and people determined their lives as they wished without letting anyone get involved in their decisions. Other changes such as late capitalism and consumer capitalism, tertiary knowledge open to large part of people, urbanization, globalization of economy in the post-colonial era, well — educated and skillful young people from all the social classes, women rights and women emancipation, sexual revolution and feminist movements, political emancipation constituted the fertile ground where secularism built its own building. Linda Woodhead offers two definitions for secularization. The first one is the social secularization which is the process whereby religion loses its power and influence over and within society while personal secularization has to do with the decline of individual allegiance and commitment to religion. State marginalized Church in Western states but still lays on its support in cases of emergency. Church still has impact on many people lives and its messages are strong enough even if many people decide not to follow strictly these guidelines and instructions.
A secular Christian identity
Someone would wonder how European and enlightened, secular societies are compatible with the rates of the study by Pew Research center where the majority identify themselves as Christian. As Casanova mentions, large numbers of Europeans even in the most secular countries still identify themselves as “Christian”, pointing to an implicit, diffused and submerged Christian cultural identity. According to Casanova, “secular” and “Christian” identities are intertwined in complex and rarely verbalized modes among most Europeans. However, scholars coming from different backgrounds, support the view that European secularism is selectively secular and is more friendly towards Christianity and less tolerant towards other religions and especially Islam. According to them, European secularism is a result of Christian cultural identity which still applies its standards and ignores other cultures and religions. Ferrari mentions related to that view that this secularism is double-standard secularism where the conditions of access to the secular public sphere, apparently the same for all religions, are actually more demanding for non-Christians religions whose doctrinal and organizational characteristics are less compatible with the secular profile that distinguishes the public sphere. The secular character of the current European societies has a lot been under doubt by the leaders of the Church and of various religions. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in his message towards the “Le Parti Populaire Européen” for its 21st Congress writes “ The history of Europe which contains some common features has been abandoned by modernity. We have to take into consideration the religious dimension if we want cohesion…and this is why our Church and PPE have started a fertile dialogue since 1995”.
Le Foulard Islamique and Women rights in Christianity & Islam
During summer 2016, mainstream and social media were full of images from arrests of Muslim women wearing burkini in French beaches. Burkini is officially banned by French Law and these arrests generated a wave of protests by human rights activists and Muslims all over the world. These protests had to do with the freedom of expression of Muslim women and Muslims in general and if finally the French secular state treats equally everybody without discrimination. On the other side, secularists talked about respect to the secular state of France and its laws of forbidding ostentious religious symbols.
France is the first European secular state where the State and Religion were separated and where the neutrality (Laïcité) of the State towards religion was applied. The Government passed the Law of 9 December 1905, installing in France a regime of Separation of Church and State which remains the current regime. The State must provide to everyone the possibility of attending at the ceremonies of his Church and of being instructed in the beliefs proper to his chosen religion. Equality between the various religions implies that there is no state religion, no “official” or dominant religion, no recognized Churches..No religion has a particular public status. Toleration must be extended to all religions, and even to unbelief. What is more, the church must be subject to political control.
These values have been reflected also on the European Convention of Human Rights and especially on the Article 9, paragraph 1 which protects the freedom of religion. The second paragraph sets the limits between the public and the private sphere where religion belongs Article 9 (2) allows governments to limit “manifestations” of religion or belief, albeit “only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedom of others” The wearing of veil brought initially in France a clash of cultures and traditions. As Ferrari writes, “On the one hand, immigration have brought into Europe an increasing number of people who follow religions that are not traditional in the Old continent (in particular, Islam): on the other hand an increasing number of citizens claim the right to follow publicly the tenets of their religion in matter of dress codes, gender relations, family law and so forth, and this is outside the private domain to which religion had been confined.
The veil of Muslim women reflected a symbol of oppression in European secular societies and lack of human rights. In 2004, the French National Assembly passed a legislation which makes it illegal for Muslim women to wear headscarves within French public schools. To be precise the legislation refers to the banning of ostentatious religious symbols within the secular domain of the public school system. The Jewish kippa (yarmulke) as well as “oversize” crosses are prohibited with the Muslim headscarf.The ultimate objective was the complete assimilation of these religious groups to the French values and principles and the creation of a more cohesive and inclusive society. The scarf only gradually became a charged political symbol of the presence of Islam in France. The beginning was made in 1989 where a principal in secondary school in Creil (a suburb in Paris) expelled three girls because they wore the headscarf. After this, a series of social battles in favor of the scarf or against the scarf was followed for many years. Cultural differences were brought into the surface. Muslim women who wear a hijab often being represented as agents of “fundamentalism” or “terrorism” and as indicators of the inassimilable nature of Muslims in Europe. On the one hand, people defended the cultural and religious traditions and the freedom of religious expression and on the other hand, people defended the secular values, the place of religion in the private sphere, the freedom of Muslim women from oppression, violence and patriarchal structures. Each side accused the other of ignorance or xenophobia but both sides defended human rights from a different perspective.
But what Muslim women say about this? Islam as every religion is internally diverse and has many branches with different views, more or less strict, towards human rights and women rights. In the study of Sara Silvestri, 132 Muslim women living in European countries took part in order to reach some conclusions regarding how they embody their Islamic tradition in their daily lives. Young generations are eager to access Islamic knowledge, to intellectually, spiritually and critically “own” their religion. Many women seek personal empowerment through close and conscious adherence to religious performance, by studying the Quran and Arabic independently, by attending lectures, by becoming able to challenge tradition and to dispute male leadership from within. Also, many women reject the male dominant and traditional forms of Islam and stop belonging to institutions and conservative communities. Consequently, they live their own spirituality in their own unique way even when they do not follow religious practices (non organized Islam). In the study of Nadia Jeldtoft, where she interviews people who do not belong to organized Islam, she states “ The practices have been adapted to fit into everyday life. They are spiritual because they provide interviewees with a space of their own to practice Islam on their own terms.” As Jeldtoft mentions, the nature of this form of religion is private and internalized with an individual approach. Many Muslim women believe that headscarf is a symbol of universal values and modesty and they feel better wearing it and not oppressed.
It is of crucial importance to make a short comparison with the liberty that women enjoy in Christianity. Europe has its roots in Catholicism and later some countries were led by Lutheranism and Protestantism. After the Early Christianity, the position of women got deteriorated and they became objects under the ownership of their family male members or second class citizens. Lutheranism place the male in the position of everybody’s master (paterfamilias) and women were confined in the domestic sphere with no public speech or influence. A new model of civic order where women were excluded, was promoted by Lutheran theology. Apart from their marginal role as care takers of their family, women also were depicted as devils who try to bring troubles (witch hunting).
After many centuries, women started playing a more crucial role in the Church and its operations. In a money based economy, men were absolutely interested in the profit making and women took care of charity affairs. In the last decades, modernity paved the way for Christianity. Its traditional and conservative methods were not tolerant by young people and radical measures should be taken in order to find an effective balance. Female autonomy led to the first steps for the change in the traditional typology of gender models in Christianity. In November 2016, Pope Francis extended power to priests to forgive abortion. This is the next big step of Roman Catholicism to the female reproductive autonomy which was unconceivable some years ago. Female reproductive autonomy was established as a human right in international law by the Convention of the Elimination all Forms of Discrimination against women, in force since 1981 ratified by 168 states. The Holy See, along with eight Muslim States has not signed this Convention, nor the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women.
China “seems” to be moving closer to the Holy See
The two-year provisional agreement which was signed on September 22, 2018 between the holy see and China for the appointment of bishops in China, with the pope having veto power over such appointments, is likely to be renewed by mutual consensus before the accord nears its expiry later this month.
The agreement was initially seen as a clincher for both China and Vatican, especially after diplomatic ties were completely severed in 1951. However, many observers and experts have claimed that, the agreement does more harm than good to the credibility and popularity of the monolithic Catholic institute. Besides the main propaganda campaign of the Chinese to retain unabridged control over bishop nominations, their ultimate goal is to get Vatican to discredit the government in Taiwan to assert its One-China policy. Although, the Vatican has agreed to support China on its One-China policy, it should still be weary and apprehensive of the Chinese politics.
How is Taiwan central to this agreement
Taiwan, a small island in East Asia, which China claims as part of its own territory, considers Vatican as its last partner in Europe. This puts Vatican in a critical situation while China is struggling to maintain cordial relations with the West.
According to Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at the Remnim University in Beijing, China wants to be seen as an ally of the Pope because it realizes the soft superpower that the Catholic church yields over millions of followers within China and abroad. He says, When the pope speaks, everyone listens.
A logical conclusion thus one can derive from it, is that the Vatican’s endorsement of the One-China policy by discounting Taiwan’s authority to maintain independent diplomatic ties, will generate currency in China’s favour.
Two-years of signing the provisional agreement. What it means for China’s Catholics?
In a bid to renew the agreement, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated last week that the interim accord has been implemented successfully. However, the ground scenario provides a different factual story. Even after the deal was signed in 2018, there were several reports of harassment and detention of the underground Catholics and Clergy in China. Many Churches have been shut down, crosses and other religious symbols have disappeared from public spaces. These events have taken place even after the Vatican tabled such concerns during negotiation with China.
This is the direct result of the “Sinicization” policy of the Xi administration, that calls for showcasing loyalty to the state and the Communist Party during religious processions and practice. As per this restrictive policy, people below 18 years of age are strictly barred from entering places of worship and publication of any religious material is only allowed following a close scrutiny.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, retired cardinal of Honk Kong had expressed wide concerns for this accord. He had described the Vatican’s overtures with China as selling out of the Catholic Church in China. Zen knows that the agreement is largely going to benefit the Chinese authorities and the Communist Party in asserting its policies and international agendas.
It is also essential to highlight that the exact details and terms of the agreement are kept secret between the two parties. This may mean that if any violations of the agreement that may have taken place in the two years it was in place, it would become difficult to prove it in a court of law, owing to the confidentiality. This almost gives China full immunity over its inability to fulfill its obligation under the agreement. Vatican must therefore be cautious about China’s commitment towards the agreement and must device alternate ways to shelter and safeguard its priests and followers in China.
The EU-China angle
2020 was supposed to be the year for refinement of EU-China relations. The pandemic has however forced cancellations of governmental meetings, bilateral programs, and other scheduled events. And on the contrary, it has deepen the cracks between certain EU countries and China because of China’s propaganda campaign and geopolitical policies.
Last year saw a hard stance being adopted by EU legislators and policymakers, which was reflected in the policy paper released by the Federation of German Industries. The paper had described China as a “systemic competitor” and highlighted grave concerns over its international economic practices. The same line of charge was showcased in European Commission’s strategic reflection paper, where it referred to China as a negotiating partner with a need for finding a balance of interests and a systemic rival promoting alternative model of governance.
This position is attributed to China’s unfair and biased foreign policy that limited European companies from major EU countries to venture into the Chinese market. At the same time, China was employing economic tactics to woo smaller European countries to promote investments and improve trade relations with itself. The effect of this has been that many economically weaker countries have started looking towards China for monetary aid and trade related matters rather than cooperating with their fellow EU members. This has led to some kind of frustration and discordance amongst the EU nations.
The tensions might have heightened due to China’s diplomatic missteps, from its infamous wolf warrior diplomacy to its amoralistic mask diplomacy during the Covid outbreak. This will however not completely change the course in the relation between EU-China because there is too much at stake for both sides to risk everything. These instances must however caution Vatican about its handshake with China because, although it may have soft superpower but there’s nothing stopping China from pulling off an economical stunt.
A closer perspective
Taking the EU-China experience and the Sinicization policy collectively into consideration, it will be safe to assume for the Pope and his council of minister to rethink and weigh the merits and demerits of its diplomatic ties with China with utmost seriousness. Even if China promises more stability and monetary benefits in the short run, the Vatican must not forget that the deal indeed puts at risk, the values and principles that it has preached over the decades, to its people and followers globally, the repercussions of which may be beyond repair.
It needs to consider the plight of its brothers and sisters who have unlawfully been punished and detained in China and must push for more humane laws and remedies for them.This can be done by carefully executing a three-level approach. Firstly, the Vatican must put in place a strict mechanism to scrutinize and verify the inflow of investments so as to limit the interference of Chinese money in its decision making. This is similar to the foreign policy introduced by EU last year. Secondly, the Vatican must try to accommodate and align its interests with its European allies so as to strengthen the unity and solidarity in the region. It will also help them to collectively stand up against China if China tries to play hard ball against them, in terms of trade policy or indulges in any human rights violations for that matter. Lastly, the Vatican must push for transparency and openness with respect to the terms of the agreement that it has signed with China. This will allow the Holy See to rightfully claim any damage or remedy if any wrongful act or omission is committed by the Chinese side.
EU acting a “civilian power”: Where & How
Authors: Yang Haoyuan, ZengXixi & Hu Yongheng*
In 1946 when Winston Churchill addressed in Zurich, Switzerland, he called on urgent union of Europe, but not many people took his remarks seriously if not suspicious at all.This was because that economic recovery and social stability of the day were more urgent to the people across Europe. Since then in one decade, Europe has not only witnessed a rapid and robust social-economic reconstruction, but also an increasing integration of sovereign states coming of the age. It is true that throughout this process of the European integration, the United States has played a sort of patron role—at first as a passionate advocate publicly and then a powerful supporter through the Marshal Plan and finally a lead ally of the NATO.
In1963, the United States endorsed a fully cohesive Europe which, whether it functions as a grouping of nation-states or as the European Union, has shared America’s burden in terms of the Atlantic collective security. Yet, this strategic tie is not unconditional, for example, the EU support to the Washington’s policy decision depends upon only if its objectives parallel with America’s own and if it deems that without its contribution the common purposes will not be achieved. The diversions in policy between the two sides of the Atlantic are essentially more philosophical than technical. As a result, American unilateralism which usually comes out of Washington has been challenged by the EU involving three key structural issues: the EU’s self-image; the impact of the EU policy; and the U.S. attitudes toward the different options for European integration. As Henry Kissinger argued, in defining the role of Europe in the future world, the EU depends upon more their historical experiences than abstract concept of universal goodwill as a facilitator of diplomacy, or put it simply that “persuasiveness in negotiations relies primarily on the options the negotiator has available or is perceived to have at his or her disposal.”
Since the beginning of the new century, the EU has become close to an equal to the United States economically, technologically and socially. In terms of soft power, European cultures have long had a wide appeal in the rest of the world, and the sense of a Europe uniting around Brussels has had a strong attraction to East Europe and Turkey as well. Samuel Huntington put it in the 1990s that a cohesive Europe would have the human resources, economic strength, technology, and actual and potential military forces to be the preeminent power of the 21st century. Although the EU has effectively constrained American unilateralism, it is out of the question that the U.S. and the EU would move on the road towards political conflict. Due to this, the EU has vowed to play a new role in the world affairs that might be termed as the “civilian power”.
According to scholar Helene Sjursen, civilian power is defined as playing a primary role in the international system but differing from the traditional great power which has pursued power politics by military means. The EU prefers acting a civilian power since it has committed to economic cooperation and social justice in the age of globalization. Accordingly, the acquisition of military means, or the EU’s ambition to acquire such means, might weaken at least the argument that the EU is a civilian power and could provoke a shift towards a policy more akin to traditional great powers. Despite this, this article opines that the EU has acted a civilian power in the world affairs. For sure, this is not an easy mission to achieve in view of the complexities of the world affairs.
On September 16 of 2020, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed her first annual State of the Union, painting a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history and calling for EU members to build a stronger health union amid COVID-19. She laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises. In order to demonstrate the EU’s resolve and sincerity, she doubled down on the flagship goals sheset out on taking office in 2019: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. In addition, von der Leyen unveiled a plan to cut the EU greenhouse gas emissions substantially and vowed to use green bonds to finance its climate goals. She also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States and said the EU would invest 20 percent of a 750 billion euro economic recovery fund in digital projects. Meanwhile, she said that the coronavirus pandemic had underlined the need for closer cooperation since “the people of Europe are still suffering.” It is noted that the competition mentioned involves only the unconventional rather than conventional security issues.
As a matter of fact, solidarity among the 27 member states performed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they refused to share the protective medical kits with the worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. Also the EU leaders jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies. Yet, since last July,27 member states agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration. Addressing the EU Parliament, von der Leyen pledged her commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, promising a biomedical research agency and a global summit. In effect, the EU has all the means and resources at its capacity.
Yet, externally the EU has to deal with the troubled talks with the United Kingdom on the future links after the Brexit divorce is done. All the deals and pacts between the two sides could not be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. Von der Leyen reiterated that “This is a matter of law, trust and good faith… Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”The EU leaders also have the same attitude towards the United States and Russia since Europe is located between the two giants in all terms. Yet, the U.S. under the Trump’s administration has provided the EU with diplomatic rows. In a long run, the EU remains hopeful of improving relations and believes common ground can still be found, despite their current differences. As she reiterated “We must revitalize our most important relationships – we may not agree with the White House, but we must cooperate and build a new transatlantic agenda on trade and other matters.” Regarding the great challenge from Russia, she reiterated her condemnation of Russia over Navalny – though the Russian government has strongly denied any involvement – and said that the EU is on the side of the people of Belarus. They must be free to decide their own future and they are not pieces on someone else’s chessboard. However, the EU leaders seem to forget that the “color revolutions” have caused the disasters across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Under such circumstances, the EU has to deal with China strategically and smartly, which during the first seven months of 2020becomes the top trading partner of the EU, a position previously held by the United States, followed by Britain, Switzerland, and Russia on EU’s main trading partner list in the first seven months. As France has suggested that the EU and China, as the defenders of multilateralism in international order, should set the tone for multilateralism and lead the international society to cement cooperation in areas such as vaccine research and climate change. Yet, it was arguable that von derLeyen defined China a “competitor and a rival” although she previously admitted that the latest video summit between China and the EU was “frank and open”. In fact, she said that progress had been made on a host of key areas and hailed the potential of a fruitful future trading partnership with China although there was still much work to be done. Understandably, as one of the key leading figures of the EU, von der Leyen used her speech to again address the challenges both sides face in working together in the years ahead in spite of their conflicting political ideologies. But this is what she said, “The latest EU-China summit highlights one of the hardest challenges. China is a competitor and rival. We promote very different systems.”
In sum, the EU has several challenges ahead to deal with. First, it must update its long-term climate change goals to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement signed before. Second, the EU must manage the numbers of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe from Asia and Africa. As von der Leyen said that it is of vital importance that the EU’s member states work together to share the burden of taking in migrants and refugees and providing them with the tools for a brighter future. Third, since EU member states have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has much to be done and in its response to the pandemic and continued efforts to cooperate with other nations to find a vaccine. As she called,the EU stepp ed up to lead the global response. With civil society, G20 and the World Health Organization and others the EUhas brought more than 40 countries together to raise $19 billion to finance research on vaccines, tests and treatments for the whole world. This is the EU’s unmatched convening power in action.
Meanwhile, the EU leaders have openly called on China to do more to aid the world’s collective fight against all the challenges mentioned above. As von de Leyen said recently, China has shown willingness to dialogue on climate change and fight against pandemic. She also warned of the dangers of countries not working together on vaccine research, with the U.S. recently announcing its plans to withdraw from the WHO. Both China and the EU share the common ground that vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk, only vaccine cooperation saves lives. We endorse a strong WHO and a strong WTO – but reform of the multilateral system has never been more urgent.
In view of this, it is fair to say that the EU wants to lead reforms of the WHO and WTO. But it is possible only if it works together with other responsible powers including China.
*Yang Hao Yuan from the School of Governance, Technical University of Munich; Zeng Xixi & Hu Yong Heng from SIPA, Jilin University
An occasion for the EU to reaffirm its standing on Security policies and Human Rights
Vice-President of the EU Commission Margaritis Shinas was a keynote speaker at this summer’s Diplomatic Conference in Vienna organised by the International Institute IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy and their partners. High dignitary of the Commission seized the occasion to express the EU’s take on the 75th anniversary of victory over fascism, unfolding health crisis and to it related pressure on human and labour rights, as well as on the Union’s continued efforts towards remaining a ‘rock’ amid the volatile climate.
It is known by now – and acknowledged by the EU Commission VP – that the COVID-19 crisis has had some severe implications for Human Rights and, to a lesser extent, for cooperation outlooks. In the face of the first wave, countries in Europe and elsewhere have adopted different courses of actions in order to manage the health crisis and attempt at containing its threats. Placed in an unprecedented situation, governments have undoubtedly each reacted in ways they deemed most appropriate at the time.
However, the pandemic itself topped with the varied policies have caused notable restrictions on Human Rights. Most notoriously, the right to life and that to health have been challenged in extreme circumstances where, at the peak of the crisis, health institutions were so overflowed that the provision of maximal care to every single individual was compromised. The effective and equal access to healthcare has therefore quickly become a central preoccupation of many governments, drawing on some dramatic first-hand experiences.
On that, I will say that if the global health crisis has been a synonym for many negative impacts, it has also been a precious opportunity to rethink carefully the existing narrative of programmatic and progressive rights – such as the right to health – needing no immediate attention, nor realisation. This narrative held predominantly by some Western democracies ever since the adoption of the UN International Covenants, has been unduly weakening the universal and indivisible stance of Human Rights. Needless to say, in adhering to that dangerous narrative, planning for and prioritizing health access, resources and system capabilities is undermined. This, in turn, contributes to the difficult and insufficient responses of some governments that have been witnessed. May the victims of inadequate infrastructures due to an obsolete distinction between rights serve as a poignant reminder: social, cultural and economic rights need be readily available to all.
Equally interesting is the toll taken on a whole other range of Human Rights – an international system built up in last 75 years on the legacy of victory of antifascist forces in Europe and elsewhere. Numerous individual freedoms have also suffered limitations, often as a direct result of actions taken to promote and ensure the right to life and the right to health for the most vulnerable. Indeed, people’s freedom of movement, that of religion (external dimension), that of assembly and association, as well as their procedural rights – only to name a few – have all been greatly affected during the crisis.
Of course voices have raised their discontent at those restrictions put in place to mitigate the crisis, considered by many to be too incisive and too manifold when cumulated. But despite an apparent clash between two groups of interests protected by different rights, the resolution which has emerged from the approaches followed by most countries is very telling. In fact, a balancing exercise revealed that protecting the right to health and to life of the minority of people ought simply to be considered predominant in comparison to the other individual freedoms and rights of the majority. This reasoning, grounded in solidarity and the protection of minorities and vulnerable persons, is in fact very encouraging in an era of growing individualism combined with overwhelming challenges which will certainly require peoples to unite against them.
Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that the full and optimal enjoyment of Human Rights has generally been seriously affected as many interests have been caught in the crossfire of the fight against Coronavirus’ harmful effects. Moreover, the crisis has also created some divides amongst European countries. This is because the sanitary emergency has caused for precarious contexts of resources shortages and sometimes unfruitful cooperation, even shift in alliances.
This has naturally brought about separate criticisms and questioning of the EU cooperation strategy and security arrangements. In that sense, growing expectations are felt for the EU to uphold and promote its fundamental values including the rule of law, solidarity, non-discrimination and antifascist line.
Vice-PresidentSchinas is well aware of that reality and reiterates the EU’s unalterable commitment to peaceful cooperation, human dignity, liberty, equality and solidarity in these troubled times. He further ensures that the most recent security strategies led by the Union do not – and never will – eat away at the protection of fundamental rights. What is more, whilst the EU’s arrangements can be seen as slightly ‘under attack’ currently, the VP feels that rather than seeing this period as a high-stakes test on EU democracies it should be seen as an opportunity to take a bigger stand than ever for the European common values and call for strengthened multilateralism. This necessities constructive reciprocal and respectful active engagement with the EU Mediterranean and eastern European neighbourhood.
All that is because it is not too difficult to imagine that the aftermath of the C-19 crisis can open several paths of new dynamics in international relations. Yet, as it cannot be stressed enough, an upcoming change in the conception of relations between nations could be decisive for numerous other contemporary challenges – namely: migration crisis, armed conflicts, climate change. While one of the paths could consist in an increase in protectionism and nationalist attitudes, another one would involve, on the contrary, a shift towards reinforced cooperation and enhanced solidarity. The latter outward approach, advocated by the EU Vice-President and believed to be the best hope for the future, is one deeply enshrined in the antifascist legacy and the very raison d’être of the Union.
Above all, at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory Day, Excellency Schinas reminds us with much humbleness that the journey for safeguarding Human Rights is one that is perpetually underway.
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