On 5 May, the Council of Europe, the oldest and most comprehensive organisation of European integration with 47 member states, celebrates its 72nd anniversary.
In the words of Marija Pejčinović Burić, Secretary General of the Council of Europe “it is very easy to take our fundamental rights for granted but vital to remember that they have transformed the way we live in Europe over a very short period of time.” (Speech to the European School in Strasbourg, February 2021).
To understand how deep the transformation of European societies has been, just look at what has happened with respect to the death penalty. When the Council of Europe was set up, only a handful of European states had abolished it. Today Europe is almost a death-penalty free zone, with the exception of Belarus (a non-member of the Council of Europe).
Today the most important protagonists in the struggle to defend Europe as a safe space for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, are not national governments or international institutions but rather the citizens themselves.
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On the one hand, we see the power of those driven by fear and anger or by national sentiment, nostalgia and even hate towards a politics of exclusion. On the other the courage of those who protest their loss of rights, social inclusion or the shrinking of civic space.
Between these mobilisations, lies a comparatively silent and passive majority. How powerless is the silent majority when it comes to affecting real change? That is a question we are addressing at New Europeans, as we work to build a civil rights movement of citizens and non-citizens who want to make their contribution to the future of Europe.
The challenge for a pan-European organisation like New Europeans, is that many people in Europe will say “why should I bother, what do events in Poland, Hungary, Denmark, France or Britain have to do with me?” This is our response: “By the time it does have something to do with you, it will be too late to do anything about it.”
Today, New Europeans is launching a new membership platform inviting citizens and non-citizens to join us in a common endeavour, to join us in playing our part as individuals in safe-guarding democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe.
As well as the right to life, the rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, include the right to liberty and security, and the protection of our privacy, right to be judged in a fair manner by an independent tribunal, the ability to express ourselves freely, to organise ourselves in associations and to experience freedom of religious beliefs.
Many of these rights are under threat in Europe today, including within member states of the EU. In Orban’s Hungary, freedom of the press has all but disappeared. The Polish judiciary is being undermined by the Polish government, while in Britain, draconian measures are being rushed through parliament to curtail freedom of association. In France and Denmark, new security law threaten fundamental rights.
As these examples make clear, the key threats to human rights in Europe today are not the actions of individuals and non-state actors but rather those of governments – governments that dismantle the rule of law, undermine democracy, remove civil rights such as the right to freedom of expression and assembly and erode the civic space.
Europeans came together after the war to build a new society in which war would no longer be possible. The Holocaust also taught post-war leaders that Europe had to become a safe space for human rights. Today as we celebrate 72 years of the Council of Europe, we also need to remember that this noble and necessary project is still far from complete.
There can be no half measures when it comes to safe-guarding human rights, nor should we accept any form of backsliding with respect to what has already been achieved.
The campaigns for the rule of law in Poland, the future of democracy in Hungary, the right to protest in Britain, or for civil liberties in France and Denmark are not parochial affairs of interest only to the citizens of the states concerned. Each individual fight is much more than that. Each is part of a wider battle for the soul of Europe, for our European identity.
We believe that the future of Europe as a safe space for human rights, democracy and the rule of law depends above all not on the actions of states and of international bodies, important as these are, but rather on the actions of citizens. In fact it depends on the commitment of citizens and non-citizens, all who are willing to stand up and be counted.
It was citizens, not governments that took to the streets in the Fridays for Future movement to force more urgent action internationally on climate change. And it will be citizens who decide the future of democracy in Europe on which our common future, peace, prosperity and the resilience of the European model depends.
Shortly after the exit polls were published after the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016, there was a spike in Google searches for the words “European Union.” By that time, it was too late to do anything to keep Britain in the EU – the decision had been made.
There is a well-known expression in most languages which says “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” Can Europeans afford to find out the hard way?
If this article made you think about what you can do for Europe, why not join New Europeans? The organisation is launching its new membership platform on Steady to coincide with the Council of Europe's founding day.
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