Wednesday, 25 April 2012
Tuesday, 17 April 2012
Tomorrow and Friday the Council of Europe, representing 47 member states and over 800 million citizens, will meet in Brighton to discuss reforming the figure head institution of the European Court of Human Rights. At the helm of the discussion is Britain, who currently chairs the Council of Europe, although rumour has it that David Cameron himself will not be attending.
Surprising? Perhaps not so. A series of embarrassing and unpopular defeats for the Government by the ECHR, such as the ban on deporting Abu Qatada to Jordan, has led to widespread media outcry over the supremacy of European law over British law. Since the ECHR was established in 1959, 61 per cent of judgments have gone against the UK government.
David Cameron has often come out and publicly condemned decisions made in the Strasbourg court, and following pressure from his own backbenchers, has promised to dilute the powers of the European Convention on Human Rights over the domestic court system. Earlier this year, he stated that Strasbourg must not "undermine its own reputation" by overruling national courts and has put forward reforms including restoring powers to national courts, which will be discussed at the summit in Brighton this week.
However rumour has it that the latest draft of the planned reforms has massively watered down British suggestions, before the summit has even commenced.
The main thrust of the British authored reform proposals involve a change in the synergy between national law courts and the ECHR.
One proposal suggests Strasbourg should rarely rule over cases which have already journeyed through the entire domestic court process. Already, this demand has been effectively erased.
Instead the UK Government proposed a more advisory role for the ECHR, witht he jutification that this would reduce the need for certain cases to be taken to Strasbourg. Instead it would come under an agreement that the “interaction between the court and national authorities could be strengthened” suggesting closer adherence to the Convention in British law.
The suggestion was made to supposedly reduce the backlog of cases at the ECHR, where more than 160,000 cases are yet to be tried. In its first forty years, only 45,000 cases were presented to the ECHR, compared to the 61,300 the court was asked to consider in 2010 alone.
The British suggestion, which essentially is designed to allow individual states to some extent ignore court rulings and adopt their own positions, comes in the wake of the case of killer John Hirst, where the UK blanket ban on prisoners voting was ruled by the ECHR to be unlawful. The matter reached the Houses of Parliament where MPs voted by 234 to 22 in favour of defying the ECHR judgment and the issue was kicked into the long grass.
David Cameron’s stance is, one imagines, partially designed to make sure this issue, and other controversial media spinners, are kept out of the public eye and are thus non problematic for the Government. However fears that compensation claims of UK prisoners appealing to the ECHR could run into millions has forced the Government to reopen this thorny issue.
The biggest issue faced by both the UK Government and the ECHR is the perception of an existing democratic deficit, whereby unelected judges have primacy over elected decision makers.
Most people often make the mistake of conflating the European Court of Human Rights with the EU. The two are separate institutions. Yet all new signatories to the EU must sign up to the ECHR before accession. As an original signatory, the UK Government’s membership of both is in many respects like being a fully paid up member of two separate clubs.
Despite this, successive Governments have always denied calls of leaving the ECHR, although confusing parallel legislation, such as the proposal to create a British Bill of Rights, to subsume the Convention and create a more idiomatic text, has been recently debated.
The rights set out in the ECHR itself have not been debated. The sticking point has been over how those rights are adjudicated, the main thrust of this week’s proposed reforms, and how rights are counterbalanced and interpreted and ultimately, by whom. Most often trials have to conduct a sort of titration of juxtaposed human rights, leading to conflicts of opinion between judges and legislators. What perhaps is lacking is a democratic override, whereby Parliamentary sovereignty is at the top of the food chain, or indeed the UK Supreme Court. As such assurances have been made that a British Bill of Rights would be “ECHR plus” in order to subsume the extant legislation to which Britain agreed when it signed up to the Convention into the newly drafted Bill.
Currently the House of Commons is obliged to accept Strasbourg’s rulings, however unpopular the conclusions. Yet what is unlikely to happen would be a shift of supremacy to the Commons, whereby all unpopular rulings could be overturned. What the British Government are trying to bargain for instead this week is a shift in priority.
Yet what is perhaps the most interesting aspect in this narrative is the potential sting in the tail that could emanate from Brussels.
This week, Parliament, also in Strasbourg, are debating the EU accession to the ECHR. Despite new signatories having to sign up to the convention, the EU itself is not a fully fledged member. Technical anomalies have thus far postponed the full accession of the EU tot he ECHR, which amounts to judicial positioning rather than the application of European law into EU courts.
What is interesting, essentially, is this:
Currently the UK could conceivably opt out of the ECHR. However if the EU signs up in its own right, the only way out for the UK would be by leaving the EU. This opens the door for future debate on the equilibrium between national sovereignty and ECHR supremacy to be both intruded upon by Brussels, and essentially slammed shut.
No wonder David Cameron is trying to push through these reforms. It may well be the UK’s very last chance.
Thursday, 5 April 2012
The tragedy unfolding in Greece has escalated to such a stage now that I am increasingly concerned by pan-European complicity in the austerity measures planned to save the Euro - a currency nobody wanted - which are putting so many human lives at stake.
I have talked about Greece repeatedly in this blog. It's been hard not to. It has after all been the focal point of European news for over a year.
But today's news about the suicide of a 77 year old retired chemist outside Parliament in Athens last night has to be talked about. In fact, it has to be shouted and screamed about.
This high profile case caught the public's attention and sparked further rioting in the country's capital. Petrol bombs were hurled at police and tear gas fired back.
The carefully written note was without doubt designed to strike a chord with society. In many people's eyes, the man unofficially named by the Greek press as Dimitris Christoulas, is a martyr.
The retired chemist, with a wife and a daughter, had sold his pharmacy in 1994.
He shot himself in Syntagma Square in the city centre just before 09:00. His note accused the government of cutting his pension to such an extent that life had become unbearable.
"The government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state.
"And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting... I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance."
Hundreds of demonstrators turned out onto the streets outside Parliament on Wednesday evening, pinning notes to trees that read "Enough is enough" and "Who will be the next victim?"
Greece used to have the lowest suicide rate in Europe. In recent months it has soared, in Athens alone it has risen by 25%. The face of the country has changed. Shop fronts are closed up, homeless people are more evident, there's a sense of discord hanging in the air.
Early elections due in just over a month could bring about interesting results. The question is whether the results will be quashed by Brussels if they do not serve up on a platter an ideal puppet for the European Commission to manipulate in order to save their beloved single currency.
The situation in Greece is no longer about the Euro. It is no longer about free trade and rules on bendy bananas and protecting post war Europe through solidarity. It is about real people who cannot work, cannot live and cannot eat.
Almost a third of Greeks are at risk of poverty, with one in five of those unable to afford meat every other day.Suicides increased by 18% in 2010 from the previous year, according to Reuters.
When the price to pay for a political ideology is people's lives - then the international community has a duty to stand up and say
Tuesday, 3 April 2012
What sort of society, what sort of culture, what sort of world will they inherit?
It's a question that is often asked.
But perhaps we should be questioning what sort of children are we leaving for our world?
With some of the worst youth unemployment figures in the developed world, Europe is home to a disengaged, disenchanted and disenfranchised generation who will soon be expected to take over the mantles of their nations.
Figures for youth unemployment are largely double the incidence of adult unemployment in many European countries. The economic slowdown is hitting the young the hardest, but we are yet to truly see the scars that will be left behind. Those will only become apparent in around a decade or so.
While Generation X, the post war baby boomers, may be held accountable for the strain on economies brought by capitalism, credit and unsecured loans, Generation Y have managed to squeeze through and are largely upcoming professionals who have completed education and are well on their way to careers. It's the next generation down, dubbed Generation Z. that we should perhaps be worrying about.
There is an increasing incidence of NEETs in Generation Z - Not in Education, Employment or Training. A lost generation who are likely to be living at home, and as such are delayed in becoming fully engaged young adults who are taking an active role in society. Together with their peers, they look at everyone else around them and perceive a world that is forn the most part inaccessible to them. They feel they must carry the burden of the mistakes of their elders on their shoulders, while they are stripped of responsibility, indepence and pride.
Youth unemployment is largely the product of structural factors, where there is simply no capacity to accomodate those entering into the jobs market for the first time in the system. This is then exacerbated by the sort of austerity measures we are seeing in Southern Europe that has put youth unemployment in Spain higher than in Greece, with both running over fifty per cent for 18 to 24 year olds.
Youth unemployment across the Eurozone as a whole was 21.6 percent in February, according to the European Union's statistics office, Eurostat. That accounts for hundreds of thousands of unexploited, underused and wasted capable people who are not only contributing to society, but are starting to feel like society is not contributing anything for them.
Youth unemployment is often the first symptom of a failing economy. Service industries are hit by the reduction in available spending money and the perceived threat of joblessness, causing people to stop going out and buying, or eating in restaurants. It is well noted that service industries are one of the biggest employers for this sector of the demographic. How many of us toiled in pubs and restaurants, or shops, during our youth? Yet with so many places affected by the recession closing or having to cut back significantly, the first area affected is often staff.
Meanwhile, job cuts in other areas are seeing better qualified, better equipped, and perhaps more motivated members of Generation X and Y taking up jobs that Zedders would otherwise have access too.
On top of that, large amounts of immigration, both EU and non-EU, is providing cheaper employment for already struggling businesses who are more likely to be tempted to take on a foreigner for less money.
Youth unemployment is not just about joblessness. Various studies have shown clear links between youth unemployment and antisocial behavior, alcoholism, mental and physical illnesses and suicide. Meanwhile a large number of the protestors involved in the riots that have spread across Europe and are likely to continue and escalate well into the summer, are unemployed youths who feel disconnected from society as a whole. You only have to look at pictures from the London riots and the most recent scenes in Barcelona to see the majority of people who took to the streets feeling that their voices were not being heard, came from the younger generations who feel they are unfairly having to bear the brunt of matters they could not possibly have contributed to.
Not only that, but economists have also argued that youth unemployment creates a scarring effect that reduces the capacity to earn throughout a person's life compared with someone who did not suffer long term unemployment at an early age. Therefore the majority of those young people stuck in an unemployment rut now will be blighted by a decelerated passage of progress compared to their counterparts who are able to traverse the current economic situation relatively harm free.
So what can we do to help Generation Z?
The primary driver of employment is growth, especially for those just beginning their careers who can be taken on baord and groomed and moulded into the future workforce of an industry. But with ongoing austerity measures designed to to tackle structural problems, growth is being sacrified on the altar of a quick fix recovery.
The other solution is to take these people out of the job market by placing them into training. While they may not be earning money, many believe the best solution is occupying them with studies which will also prepare them for participation in the workforce when the better days finally do arrive.
However, with structural state deficits as they are across European nations, governments are ill placed to pour money into the further education of a group of people who have already negotiated the school system and have either chosen not to enter further education, or have come out of it to find no job at the other end as well as potentially a large amount of debt already accrued in their bank accounts.
The situation isn't uniformly bleak across Europe. In Germany, young people's prospects for work have never been brighter. Yet this may also be a reflection on the higher number of young people engaged in education and vocational training.
It is essential countries like Spain and Greece need to ensure Generation Z are well rounded, fully engaged and highly skilled young adults, ready to compete in an ultra competitive global market place. However strategies to encourage youth into training schemes work best when they come with guarantees of employment at the end. However prolonging the amount of time spent in education is not the solution.
Whilst in Germany the length of a degree is similar to that in the UK, in Spain many courses take much longer. As a result, young people may be dissuaded from signing up to such a big commitment, with many degrees taking up to six years, when they are already demoralised by the society in which they live and as a result would be less likely to want to make such an investment when their prospects look bleak.
At the same time, austerity measures are seeing an increase in retirement age across Europe . It's ironic that at one end of the demographic you have people seeking work who are unable to find it, while at the toher you have people wanting to leave work but finding they must remain in employment for years to come. On top of that, regulations and directives from Brussels restricting flexibility in the workplace are preventing dynamic handling of the socio-economic situation from the bottom up. From the working time directive to the agency workers directive, legislation is costing companies billions in red tape and making it expensive to take on new staff.
It is also likely that such social regulation has also affected the expectations of Generation Z, who are becoming less willing than previous generations to perform what they deem menial tasks, or work for long hours for perceived little pay.
Meanwhile the generation in question has been brought up in a Western capitalist society where they know little other than a culture that demands recognition, luxury items and a certain lifestyle which in itself denigrades the usual forms of employment for those just starting their working lives. As a result, many 18 to 24 year olds look down their noses at employment opportunities in supermarkets or manufacturing plants. As a result, many of those jobs are taken up by migrant workers who essentially flee unemployment in their own countries, but by doing so, essentially shift the burden of jobs creation and welfare onto another country.
The cost of youth unemployment in Europe could be very high. This summer as Spain joins the ranks of Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Greece in economic turmoil, expect to see more riots from a disgruntled public on the streets, with a large proportion of protesters hailing from the 18-24 year old age bracket.
For every young person out of education and out of work, not only is an individual's capability wasted, but also their spirit. It is high time Brussels sought to rescind restrictive regulation that places a stranglehold on enterprise and curtail uncontrolled and exacerbatory free movement of people, if only to give the youth of today a chance while the going is tough.
Meanwhile as adults and as parents, it is our job as a society to keep the fire in their bellies alive, and thank or lucky stars when we have a solid income and a stable job.