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The right to affordable housing: Europe’s neglected duty

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Increasingly making the headlines, the scarcity of affordable housing in Europe is a serious and growing problem that pushes an ever-larger number of people into housing insecurity and homelessness. Unless governments in Europe step in to take decisive measures to turn back the tide, this crisis will continue to intensify and increase existing inequalities, exclusion, and segregation.

Housing is in short supply in Europe today, in spite of increasing demand. In many countries, the overall level of housing construction is lower now than in previous decades, contributing to structural shortages which are especially acute in large cities. This scarcity of housing is pushing up rents as well as prices, which in most European countries surpass the increase in wages. These trends cause many people to gradually be “priced out” of certain neighbourhoods and force them to accept homes of substandard quality or to move to areas where they face poorer prospects of finding work within a reasonable distance, decent education, quality healthcare, and other basic social needs.

Affordable housing: whose problem?

According to the European Committee of Social Rights, housing is affordable if the household can afford to pay initial costs, rent and other related costs, like utility bills and charges, on a long-term basis, while still being able to maintain a minimum standard of living. Meeting this challenge is an uphill struggle for many Europeans today as the cost of housing consumes the lion’s share of their household budgets. Frequently, this results in the so-called housing cost overburden, which arises when more than 40% of one’s disposable income is spent on housing. For instance, this affects around two out of five people in Greece, one in five in Bulgaria, and one in six in Denmark and Germany.

Although the problem concerns many people across Europe, high housing costs have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty and those at risk of poverty, including the “working poor”. The numbers are telling. A report on housing inequality, published by the Council of Europe Development Bank in 2017, showed that the housing cost was an excessive burden for nearly a third of the lowest earners in the EU/EEA area.

Between 2007 and 2017, the average housing cost overburden rate among poor households increased in the majority of European Union countries. The highest figures in 2017 stood at 90% in Greece, 75% in Denmark and 50% in Bulgaria. Among the EU’s youngest citizens living below the poverty line in 2017, 42% on average were overburdened by the cost of housing; this ratio reached 63% in the Netherlands, 84% in Denmark and 91% in Greece. A similarly discouraging picture appears outside the EU: a 2017 UN study found the cost of housing in Armenia to be unaffordable for most citizens. In the same year, Ukraine’s capital Kyiv was ranked second least affordable in Bloomberg’s Global City Housing Cost Index.

The availability and quality of housing is a closely related problem. In Armenia, according to UNECE, the 2011 census reported 16,000 people (2% of all households) to live in structures unfit for housing, like metal shipping containers. Also according to UNECE, in Ukraine in 2011 more than one million households were in need of housing while the average waiting time for social housing was estimated to exceed 100 years, and 20 years in Russia. Eighty thousand households have been reported to lack long-term housing solutions in North Macedonia.

Social housing: outsourced and underfinanced

As a result of the shortage of affordable housing, the social housing sector in Europe is coming under pressure. While there is no single formula for getting social housing policies right, state responses to rising demand have so far been to withdraw and to shift the burden to the local government, private sector, housing associations and non-profit organisations. In 2017, overall spending by governments on social housing represented only 0.66% of the European GDP and continued to fall. In many countries, the emphasis has been placed on increasing housing allowances. We need fresh ideas in this area. A new toolkit published by the European Housing Solutions Platform outlines 50 out-of-the-box solutions making use of social housing, the private rental sector, and integrated approaches to overcome financial and political barriers within European housing systems.

Rising homelessness and forced evictions

As observed by my predecessor in the 2013 Issue Paper on safeguarding human rights in times of economic crisis, the 2008 crisis and growing unemployment led to a sharp increase in evictions and rising homelessness in many European countries. While tenant protection laws often serve as a safety net, overall they do not seem to effectively tackle the problem. The 2017 and 2018 annual overviews, published by the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) and Fondation Abbé Pierre, found evidence of rising homelessnessin all the EU/EEA countries surveyed except Finland and Norway. The decline in homelessness experienced in these two countries was attributed to the implementation of long-term strategies of successful cooperation between the state, local authorities and local stakeholders, and approaching homelessness from the perspective of a human rights violation.

Increasing homelessness has been observed to particularly affect migrants, young people, women, families, and children.The 2018 FEANTSA report noted that children are becoming the largest group of people in emergency shelters. In 2015, children accounted for one-third of Ireland’s entire homeless population; from 2014 to 2017, their number rose by 276%. In the UK, the number of homeless children in temporary accommodation reportedly rose by 40% in the same period. In Russia, although the available figures appear to vary greatly, one rough estimate put the number of homeless children in 2010 at hundreds of thousands, while other reports hint that this number might be even higher. During her 2015 visit to Serbia, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing touched upon the risk of homelessness and exclusion that weak protections for renters and no access to social housing meant for certain vulnerable groups, including young people.

State responses to rising homelessness have often been characterised by a short-sighted, punitive approach, in a misguided attempt to move the problem out of public sight. My predecessor’s visit to Hungary in 2014 shed light on the national and local government bans on “sleeping rough” on pain of fines, which were imposed on more than a thousand people, and in some cases led to the imprisonment of those unable to pay. Similar bans were observed during his 2015 visit to Norway. More recently, in the UK, press reports found that as overall numbers of rough sleepers continued to rise, in some localities homeless people were banned from town centres and fined.

European institutions have intervened in some cases related to forced evictions. The European Court of Human Rights has notably balanced interests of landlords against the need to secure accommodation for the less well-off, and on some occasions has acted as a last resort for families threatened with imminent eviction. The European Committee of Social Rights has in several decisions identified the safeguards that must apply when evictions do take place: respecting the dignity of persons; no evictions at night or during the winter; taking measures to re-house or financially assist the persons concerned. The case-law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, for its part, has empowered domestic judges to suspend or annul evictions if the rights of occupants have not been respected, for instance in the context of abusive mortgages. While these interventions offer helpful guarantees, states should prevent such emergencies affecting families and children, among others, from occurring in the first place.

The way forward

In a poignant introduction to her January 2018 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, noted that “[w]e are at a critical moment. Globally, housing conditions are fraught. Homelessness is on the rise, including in affluent countries; forced evictions continue unabated; (…) and housing in many cities is simply unaffordable even for the middle class”.

We should pay close attention to her call. We need to fully grasp the extent and urgency of the problem in Europe with regard to housing, one of the most basic human needs. As demonstrated above, this is an issue which affects the population at large and contributes to a growing sense of uncertainty and precariousness. Leaving it unaddressed leaves our societies vulnerable to increased social tensions.

States’ obligations towards the full realisation of the right to housing must go beyond providing emergency and individual solutions. There is an urgent need for genuine political commitment to adopting sustainable, long-term and inclusive solutions, in line with the UN 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goal of providing adequate, secure and affordable housing to all by 2030. Housing is not simply a commodity, but a human right. It should move to the top of the political agenda in Europe.

First, member States which have not yet done so should promptly accept to be bound by Article 31 of the revised European Social Charter (RESC) dealing withthe right to housing. Of the 34 member States which ratified the Charter, so far only 10 have accepted its Article 31 while 4 more have accepted to be bound only by some parts of that provision.

Second, States should adopt and implement sustainable national housing strategies with clear targets to end homelessness, harnessing to the maximum extent the available resources, establishing credible and independent mechanisms for monitoring progress, and paying close attention to their impact.

Third, States should step up investing in social and affordable housing in view of eradicating the housing cost overburden, particularly among disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

Fourth, States should urgently adopt long-term measures to prevent and eradicate homelessness, in particular among children and other disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. In adopting and implementing such measures, states should involve all stakeholders and be guided by respect for the human dignity of homeless persons and the realisation that homelessness is a violation of human rights.

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What to Do with Extraterritorial Sanctions? EU Responses

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One of the important decisions of the new US administration was its revision of the sanctions policy inherited from President Donald Trump. The “toxic” assets of the departed team include deterioriated relations with the European Union. The divisions between Washington and Brussels have existed since long before Trump’s arrival in the White House. The EU categorically does not accept US extraterritorial sanctions. Back in 1996, the EU Council approved the so-called “Blocking Statute”, designed to protect European businesses from restrictive US measures targeting Cuba, Iran and Libya. For a long time, Washington avoided aggravating relations with the EU, although European companies were subject to hefty fines for violating US sanctions regimes.

The situation deteriorated significantly during the Trump presidency. At least three events served as a cold shower for the EU with respect to the bloc’s relationship with the US. The first was the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA—the “Iranian nuclear deal”. Trump renewed American restrictions on Iran in full, and then significantly expanded them. His demarche forced dozens of large companies from the EU to leave Iran; they were threated by the American authorities with fines and other coercive measures. Brussels was powerless to convince Washington to return to the JCPOA. The EU authorities were also unable to offer their businesses guarantees of reliable protection against punitive measures being taken by the US Treasury and other departments. The second event was Washington’s powerful attack on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Trump has openly opposed the pipeline, although the Obama administration was also against the pipeline. Congress has passed two sanctions laws targeting Russian pipeline projects. The US Congress and the State Department directly warned European business about the threat of sanctions for participating in the project. In addition to Iran and Russia, concern in the EU was also caused by the aggravation of US-Chinese tensions. Brussels distanced itself from Trump’s cavalry attack on China. So far, US restrictions against “Chinese communist military companies”, telecoms and officials have minimally affected the EU. However, Washington aggressively pushed its allies to oust Chinese technology companies. It cannot be ruled out that in the future, US foreign policy towards China will become a problem for Brussels.

For the EU, all these events have become a reason to think about protection from extraterritorial US sanctions. The work on them was carried out by both European expert centres and the European Commission. Currently, we can talk about the formation of a number of strategic goals, the achievement of which should allow the European Union to increase its stability in relation to extraterritorial sanctions of the United States and other countries.

Such goals include the following:

Strengthening the role of the euro in international settlements. Already today, the euro ranks second after the dollar in international payments and reserves. However, unlike the United States, the EU does not use this advantage for political purposes. Many transactions between European businesses and their foreign partners are carried out in US dollars, which makes them more vulnerable to subsequent coercive measures. Calculations in euros could reduce the risk of transactions with those partners against whom the sanctions of the United States or other countries are in effect, but the sanctions of the UN Security Council or the EU itself do not apply. Here the EU authorities have laid serious groundwork and have a good chance of achieving their goal.

1.Creation of payment mechanisms, which cannot be stopped from the outside. INSTEX, a payment channel for humanitarian deals with Iran, is often cited as an example of such mechanisms. In 2020, the first transactions were made. However, success in this area raises questions. INSTEX has been widely advertised by EU politicians, but initial expectations were too high. The mechanism has not yet justified itself, even for humanitarian purposes. The Treasury Department can impose blocking sanctions against INSTEX at any time if it considers that the mechanism is being used to deliberately circumvent US restrictions against Iran. Switzerland’s SHTA mechanism, which is used for humanitarian deals with Iran, looks much better. It was created jointly with the Americans and it should not have any problems with functionality. However, regarding payment mechanisms in the EU, there are not only humanitarian transactions. There’s also the matter of plans to create secure transaction mechanisms in the trade of energy or raw materials; the question of what prospects these have for implementation remains.

2.Ensuring the possibility of unhindered settlements and access to other services for individuals and legal entities in the EU that have come under extraterritorial sanctions. In other words, we are talking about the fact that a citizen or a company from the EU, which fell, for example, under the blocking sanctions of the US Treasury, could make payments within the EU. Now European banks will simply refuse such transactions, and the courts are likely to side with them. In fact, the European Union wants to create infrastructure that has already been created, for example, in Russia. Moscow was considering the establishment of a national payment system even before the large-scale sanctions of 2014. Despite the limited weight of Russia in the global financial system, the country has its own sovereign payment system, which allows its own citizens to carry out transactions on its own territory.

3.Updating the 1996 Blocking Statute. In particular, we are talking about the development of an instrument of compensation for companies that have suffered from extraterritorial sanctions.

4.Creation of information databases in the interests of European companies under the risks of extraterritorial sanctions, as well as the provision of systematic legal assistance to companies that have come under foreign restrictions. In particular, we are talking about assisting European companies and citizens of the EU countries in defending their interests in US courts, as well as using other legal mechanisms, for example, within the WTO.

If necessary—balancing the extraterritorial measures of the United States or other countries with restrictive counter-measures.

However, the EU sanctions agenda is far from limited to the threat of extraterritorial sanctions. Ultimately, the United States is an ally and partner of the EU, which means that the opportunities for smoothing out crisis situations remain broad. Collaboration at the agency level is also highlighted as a recommendation. Moreover, after Trump’s departure, the United States may be more attentive to the concerns of the European Union.

The main priority remains the development of the EU’s own sanctions policy. Here many problems and tasks arise. The main ones include the low speed of decision-making and poor coordination in the implementation of sanctions. The centralisation of sanctions mechanisms in the hands of Brussels is becoming an important task for the European Commission.

The article is published as part of the Valdai Club’s Think Tank project, continuing the collaboration between Valdai and Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi).

From our partner RIAC

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Trinity for Scrutiny: Council of Europe, Human Rights instruments and Citizens

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Building on the tasteful piece written recently by Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic, this article will endeavour to explore further why the Tromsø Convention(Norwegian International Convention on Access to Official Documents)[1], although adopted more than a decade ago, is in fact deserving of much more credit and fuss than it appears to have mustered so far.

To briefly catch everyone up, the Council of Europe (CoE) adopted in 2009 a Convention on Access to Official Documents foreseeing a general and minimal right for all to access public authorities’ official documents. Having entered into force last December, this convention pioneers a uniformed standardised right to obtain official documents and thereby information from official sources.  Evidently, the treaty draws on the pillar values of any and all healthy democracies that are transparency, pluralism and self-development of the individuals making up our civil societies.

Freedom of information, within which the right to access official documents is encompassed, is indeed crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is essential from a somewhat ‘hostile perspective’ in order to oversee public bodies’ conducts and uncover behaviours who clash with Human Rights and might otherwise be sanitized precisely when these call for remediation, sanction and reparation. Secondly, in a ‘friendlier’ outlook, it is indispensable for the purpose of feeding the public debate and thus, allowing for militant democracies, but also to strengthen legitimacy, foster public trust and endorsement of their elected government.

Lastly but perhaps most importantly, it should be pointed out that in a similar manner as the right to life, the freedom of information is in fact a key that opens, if not all, many doors embodied by other ECHR rights such as the freedom of expression and that of thought, procedural guarantees or even the freedom of assembly and association. In effect, without being adequately informed, how could one be aware of their rights and exercise them diligently? Without receiving quality information, how could one forge their convictions and gather with others to share affiliations and work towards a common goal? And without access to verified information, could one really form an educated opinion meant to be expressed freely subsequently?

In addition to being a prerequisite to the proper exercise and enjoyment of other fundamental rights, it also echoes directly with the first article of the ECHR providing for the Contracting Parties’ duty to respect Human Rights – and in reality, render them available to all persons under their jurisdiction. In that sense, the CETS 205 can and should be looked at as a practical example of States fulfilling Human Rights and hence as falling squarely within the same scheme.

Another link certainly worthy of some emphasis is the one that can be made between the advent of such a Treaty and the recent recognition and growing establishment of the right to truth. The right to truth, as devised by Special Rapporteur Louis Joinet in 1996, is made up of several dimensions amongst which there is the right to know. The latter, in turn, involves a right to access archives and historical official documents in order to shed light on past events – and ultimately heal a society. Thus, just like we – the civil society – have a right to know our past so as to reconcile and repair wrongdoings, we also have a right to get acquainted with our present and perhaps prevent wrongdoings at all. Both instruments’ emergence form part of a single reactive movement: the reinforcement and extension of human dignity and a renewed appreciation of individuals through greater access and involvement.

Whilst keeping these elements in mind, let us say a few words about the Convention’s content and characteristics. The project is said to have been guided by the concern of identifying and generalising a core of basic compulsory provisions in a way that will “encourage the Parties to equip themselves with, maintain and reinforce domestic provisions that allow a more extensive right of access, provided that the minimum core is nonetheless implemented.” Hence, this instrument does not purport to be a binding ‘best practice’ guide, but is rather the fruits of a (well-known) compromise resulting in the establishment of a minimum threshold likely to be accepted by the largest majority.

Say we embrace the path taken by the consultative committees and concede that realistic (aka lower) standards will amass more signatures and spread wider its application, what then of an equally realistic rapid examination of the outcome? Indeed, since its adoption in 2009, only ten countries have ratified the Convention whilst the instrument is said to merely reassert what already exists in most internal frameworks of the CoE countries.

The puzzlement does not end there: when looking closer at the contracting parties, one cannot help but notice that the ‘star students’ are MIA. European countries that ranked in 2018 in the top 10 of the world-wide Human Freedom Index[2] such as Switzerland (2nd), Germany (9th), Denmark (4th), or Ireland (7th) are nowhere to be found on the ratification addendum of the Convention. It is hard to imagine why such States that are already doing so well in that area would not want to lead the example and reaffirm principles that match their internal policies.

Commissioner Dunja, for her part, had highlighted that although the majority of CoE’s members have already adopted freedom of information laws on the domestic level, some definite issues remain with regard to their practical enforcement. This referred to disparities in degrees of transparency depending on the public body as well as failures to meet requirements set for proactive disclosure. We may then wonder, provided those trends are correct, if – ironically – there could exist a lack of transparency on those regulations. In other words, if national laws on freedom of information already exist almost everywhere in Europe but they do not satisfy the thresholds put forward by the Convention in practice, civil society should know about it to remedy the situation.

Still, you may wonder: why is it so important that we enquire about, and ensure that, a smooth implementation is possible on the domestic or – if need be – regional level? Because although this article has managed to avoid bringing up COVID-19 so far, the current pandemic only enhances the stakes surrounding an effective freedom of information. As we all know by now, in times of emergency, rapid and impactful decisions have to be taken. These decisions are then in that sense less prone to gather strong consensus and yet more likely to concern the public given the serious nature of the decisions’ object.

The year 2020 has shown that misinformation and somewhat tendentious media coverage of the pandemic’s evolution was damaging enough in terms of civil discontentment and eroding our trust in the Government. But adding to that the withholding of some facts and a lack of transparency on the part of public officials is simply a recipe for disaster.

This can perhaps be better grasped when looking at the cases of France versus Sweden. Civil unrest and vocal dissents have been taking place last year against the French government, said to be lacking transparency on several issues such as shortages of equipment, rationale for measures chosen, allocation of vaccines or even the number of vaccinations. In the fall of last year, a local survey recorded that two-third of the French citizens did not trust their leaders to fight COVID efficiently. The handling of the crisis tainted with obscurity and ambiguities resulted in an unfortunate loss of popularity for President Macron and civil disobedience.

In contrast, the Sweden government remained consistent with its strong stand on, and reputation for, transparency towards its population taking roots notably in a national law favouring public scrutiny adopted in 1766. Their tradition of ‘ultra-transparency’ as is sometimes called is closely related to the country’s culture of shared responsibility and mutual respect between State and citizens. With the national Agency for Public Health taking the lead on the crisis management by remaining very open on the data available and reasons for pursuing collective immunity survey showed in Spring 2020 that nearly 80% of the population entrusted both their health system and the national Agency. Moreover, this ought to be placed against a backdrop where even the King of Sweden did publicly air his reservations regarding the confinement-sceptic management.

Now whatever anyone thinks of the Swedish strategy a posteriori, it must be acknowledged that not only did their information and transparency handling maintain its citizens, numbers show it even did as much as increase the legitimacy of their prime minister. To top it off, Sweden is one of the first to have ratified the CETS 205.

To put it plainly: some countries’ tendencies to filter information, strive to maintain composure and showcase confidence in uncertain times simply proves to be more detrimental than an approach where full transparency and efficient dissemination of available information is endorsed at the risk of revealing some inconsistencies or displaying dubiety in the process.

It is hoped that this can serve as a support for reflection around the understatement of international agreements we may take for granted such as the one 2009 Convention on Access to Official Information and the realisation that in our case, having ratified such a document could be a real game-changer in the second phase of our pandemic and rehabilitate good governance where it has been shattered.


[1]hereinafter referred to in the text as ‘CETS 205’.

[2]Which, for the record, encompasses personal, civil and economic freedoms, and is based on indicators in various areas such as the rule of law, the freedom of expression and information, that of association and assembly as well as civil society.

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Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now

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Laura Codruta Kövesi © CC-BY Flickr/usembassyromania

EU chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, rejected almost all of the Bulgarian candidates nominated by Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev to serve in the new EU prosecutor office. Most of the proposed candidates have no experience as prosecutors, no experience in pleading, no experience in criminal investigations, and no experience in investigating EU funds. Laura Kovesi is reportedly irritated, and here in Bulgaria we certainly share her frustration with Ivan Geshev, as I have also previously argued for EurActivEuronews and LSE.

The new EU chief prosecutor office is tasked with the very narrow mandate of going after EU funds theft or mismanagement. It has to stick to EU funds related cases only; it does not cover all legal issues as an overarching EU prosecutor service which could potentially correct mistakes at the national level — much to the dissatisfaction of local groups. We’d really much rather have the option to turn to an EU prosecutor for many other cases but the EU system is a la cart, not a free choice menu. That’s why, in her very narrowly defined legal mandate, particular EU-funds experience is key to the new posts that Kovesi is trying to fill.

This is Kovesi’s first blow against the Bulgarian chief prosecutor who was convinced that the Bulgarian institutions are sending their best and brightest to the new high profile EU office. Unfortunately, most of the candidates turned out to be highly inadequate for the very specialized job at hand. Reportedly, no other country had its candidates rejected.

The question — as with any international nominations — persists: couldn’t they really find candidates who will be able to hit the ground running, ready to aggressively suck their teeth in EU funds crimes, which let’s face it, Bulgaria has a lot of? Surely, there must be Bulgarian prosecutors who have criminal, funds-related cases under their belt. Aren’t there any Bulgarian prosecutors who have successfully closed with convictions EU-funds theft, embezzlement, fraud, waste, and mismanagement cases in the Bulgarian system? Surely, these seem like the top candidates and most obvious choices for the Bulgarian chief prosecutor. People like that are the ones that know the nuts and bolts, and the legal tricks in the Bulgarian system. They would be Kovesi’s fiercest hounds in Bulgaria and that would be a good thing, right? Seasoned, fierce hounds ready to turn everything upside down: these are the kinds of people that Ivan Geshev wants as European prosecutors, right? 

But something tells me that these candidates were the first to be struck down by Geshev. Bulgaria is demonstrating from the outset, before the work has even began, that addressing EU funds crimes is the last thing on this Administration’s mind. And the upcoming elections in April will not change that because the Bulgarian chief prosecutor has a mandate of 7 years, and he is the one that decides who gets an EU prosecutor nomination.

As we await the second batch of candidates after this political blow, the message has been sent. Laura, for EU-funds crimes please don’t call Bulgaria. We are busy right now but please be assured that your call is very important to us. We will return your call as soon as we can.

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