Nikolaj VILLUMSEN (Denmark): Invest in equality as a way of tackling the crisis

Report by Nikolaj VILLUMSEN


Equality and social justice is a tool to tackle the crisis

We know much about the economic aspects of the crisis and austerity, but what are the effects for the citizens?

What are the consequences of the crisis for vulnerable groups? For young people, women, migrants, people with disabilities and older persons?

How is the relation between crisis and equality? That is the topic of this report which was adopted unanimously by the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination. 

I have had the honor to investigate the consequences of the crisis and the austerity policy in regard to equality. I have been on several fact finding missions to Greece, Iceland and Portugal.

Our Committee on Equality and Non-discrimination has held several hearings in preparation for this report with participation of Mr. Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Mr. Quesada, President of the European Committee of Social Rights and Mr. Cercas, rapporteur of the European Parliament on the Troika. Last October I participated in the high level conference on the European Social Charter in Turin.

I would like to use this occasion to thank all who contributed and help realizing this report. In particular the excellent staff of the Equality Committee and especially Mrs. Elodie Fischer.

Dear colleagues. The fundamental values of this Assembly are solidarity, equality and dignity for all. They are stated clearly in the Social Charter and are an obligation for our countries.

As Secretary General, Mr. Jagland, says: “The crisis and austerity should not allow us to accept to sacrifice the more vulnerable”.

The question is if austerity with drastic budget cuts as imposed in most countries has actually made the situation worse? Our plenary is not the only place this is being discussed. It was surely a discussion on the recent Greek election. Austerity can at times be necessary, but not all austerity measures are compatible with human rights standards and values as this report emphasizes.

Basic human rights have been violated in this crisis. Both the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Pillay, have pointed out that the costs of the crisis have not been borne by those primarily responsible, but those who where least able to absorb them.

Recently the studies of the French economist, Mr. Piketty, have started a worldwide discussion on growing inequalities in our societies.

It is crucial for me to state that it is individuals who suffer. Individuals who have not had their basic rights secured.

We have a young generation that for the first time since the II World War is facing worse conditions than their parents. In several countries we see unemployment rates for young people at around 50 per cent. In many countries the young and educated are pushed to leave their country to look for job opportunities.

These young people didn’t create the crisis, but suffer severe consequences and are in danger of losing hope in the future as they are faced with poverty and social exclusion. We are endangering the future of Europe by marginalizing the youth.

We have women who lose their job because they become pregnant or do not dare to leave their violent husband because there will then be only empty plates for the children. Women are faced with more unsecure employments. Forced to work part-time or feel themselves forced to accept sexual harassment in order to keep their job.

We have disabled citizens who no longer receive a helping hand. Cuts have effected the assistance programs for people with disabilities in many countries, but it has also limited the possibilities for people with disabilities to access our society.

We have elderly people who never got the calm life they dreamed of after a hard life of working. In many countries pensions has been cut and the price for health care has gone up. Elderly people are being pushed out of the labor market with no possibilities to find a new job.

We have migrant and Roma citizens who face racism and violence from extreme right groups. People from minority groups are all of the sudden blamed for the crisis though they have had no responsibilities for neither the crisis nor the austerity.

This report does not point fingers at specific countries. It looks into the facts and shows best practices and come up with suggestions on how to secure the value of equality in the future tackling of the crisis.

It is the responsibility of the Council of Europe to remind the member states, the European Union and the international lenders that human rights and equality is not a luxury.

Therefore I will also underline that it is an important part of the resolution that countries should ratify the revised Social Charter. As a key instrument to secure social rights in times of crisis.

We have to be honest to ourselves. We have a clash in Europe. Have a situation where Europe is fighting Europe. The obligations of the Social Charter of the Council of Europe are simply not being taking into account in the EU economic governance. And the obligations are simply not taking into account by the Troika and even forgotten by the member states.

I recently had a meeting with the IMF in Greece. There it was stressed that the program was lacking a social dimension. And that the burdens of the crisis and austerity had not been distributed equally due to the high level of corruption and tax avoidance from especially the wealthy part of the Greek society.

This report is clear in its recommendations to use equality and social justice to combat the crisis. Securing social floors, fighting inequality and maintaining social protection can stimulate development, help job creation and reduce poverty.

Instead of dismantling the welfare state the welfare should be preserved in times of crisis so that the weakest are sheltered. A society of every man for himself can be very costly in the long term and can destroy the spirit of solidarity.

The crisis should not be used to justify an important decrease in the levels of protection. But in the past few years, the economic crisis and austerity have undoubtedly had a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights and equality.

Politicians have a responsibility to ensure that we go forward with a Europe of people and a Europe of rights. I will encourage parliamentarians to take up this task and show our values of equality and solidarity to the public and the citizens.

This report also points to some best practices that could be used to mediate the consequences of the crisis for vulnerable groups. I would like to high light one of them:

The Welfare Watch set up by the former government in Iceland in order to get input from civil society on their crisis policy.

As the former minister of health and interior, Ögmundur Jónasson, put it:

“You can be sure that the big and powerful will compliant if they are affected by your policies, but the voice of the weak and small are never heard”.

This Icelandic initiative of the Welfare Watch was praised by civil society during the many meetings of my fact finding mission. The initiative helped monitor and correct the policies pursued to overcome the crisis. Without a social dialogue, without an active policy to secure equality, basic human rights will be forgotten.

As pointed out to us yesterday by the Irish President:

“Securing human rights in times of crisis is a responsibility for all member state that has signed and ratified the Social Charter of the Council of Europe.”

I hope you will support this report and draft resolution. It is a result of compromises and fruitful discussions in the Equality Committee.