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EU: Parliament Debates Role Of Rights In Foreign Policy

Chinese migrant workers at a Beijing construction site (file photo) (AFP) The European Parliament on 14 February debated a report calling on EU member states to give greater weight to human rights in their dealing with non-EU countries. Although the report is not binding, it reflects a growing concern the EU is turning a blind eye to human rights violations and breaches of democracy in countries where its member states have important political or commercial interests.

BRUSSELS, 14 February 2006 (RFE/RL) – The European Parliament today made it clear it wants more effective, flexible, and strict implementation of the human rights and democracy clauses that have been obligatory in EU agreements with non-EU countries since 1995.

Debating a report on the issue at a plenary session in Strasbourg, a vast majority of deputies agreed the EU must use its political and economic weight to promote democratic change abroad.

Selective Implementation

There was sharp criticism of the apparently selective way the EU has implemented the clause. So far, it has been invoked on 12 occasions -- against 10 African countries, Haiti, and Fiji.

Sajjad Karim, a British liberal deputy representing heavily Muslim constituencies in northwest England, accused the EU of bowing to ulterior considerations.

“It has become increasingly apparent that when dealing with key countries, strategic partnerships and double standards of realpolitik still eclipse the fundamental human rights which this clause seeks to protect," Karim said.

The same criticism was volubly echoed by Socialists, the second-largest faction in the parliament, but received less support from the largest, conservative grouping. However, the right-wing European People’s Party also agreed the implementation of the rights clause must be tightened up.

Increasing Pressure

The report argues that the promotion of fundamental democratic principles must underpin all EU foreign policy in its political, economic, and trade dimensions. The report is not binding on EU member states, but will increase pressure on them to enforce the democracy clause.

The report says that although the clause is now obligatory in all general EU agreements with non-EU countries -- with the exception of the fields of agriculture, fisheries, and textiles industry -- it is too generally worded.

The clause does not clearly allow the EU to offer extra incentives to those countries that improve their record. More importantly, it does not provide a clear mechanism for sanctions or the suspension or termination of cooperation treaties with countries that systematically violate human rights or breach principles of democracy. Member states must unanimously agree to consider any negative action and, in the words of the report, it leaves the “member states’ national imperatives to hold sway over the more general requirements of human rights.”

The debate did not go entirely in one direction, however. Gerard Batten from the Euro-skeptic UK Independence Party said that while buttressing human rights is a laudable aim, the EU cannot treat all countries identically.

But What About China?

“If applied, it will apply with China and other developing economies of the Far East and other parts of the world," Batten said. "Now, many, many jobs depend on trading relations with China and this number will increase in the future. Are we really saying that we are going to turn the tide of history by telling China to change to a democratic country with full human rights overnight by means of one report from the European Parliament? I think not.”

Nonetheless, Batten’s remained a lone voice during the 1 1/2-hour debate.

Somewhat unusually, the British radical found himself on the same side of the argument with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who was also present at the debate.

Ferrero-Waldner defended the EU’s record, saying the bloc faces a “difficult balance and cannot expect “to change the world in one day.”

“Our agreements have a wide range of policy goals," she said. "We want to contribute to stability, to the increase of welfare for all the populations concerned. Please, honorable members of parliament, it is not a lack of courage if we do not always have the same human rights clause or if we don’t go always into sanctions. I think we also have to contribute to the development of the population. Look at the African, look at some Asian populations. Some of you said it, there is also the freedom [from] want, the freedom [from] fear.”

War On Terror, Weapons Proliferation

Ferrero-Waldner argued that other clauses sought by the EU in cooperation treaties are also important, including those relating to commitments on the fight terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

She said that in many instances commitments won by the EU through dialogue on the rule of law, police, and judicial reform were also relevant to promoting human rights. “These things come through slowly,” was the commissioner’s verdict.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner (epa file photo)

The report argues that the EU should ask more than the generic “democracy clause” from countries in the so-called European Neighborhood Policy, with which the EU shares fundamental values. The extended conditionality for cooperation should be based on the “sharing of common institutions for promoting democratic principles and human rights, on the example of the Council of Europe and/or other regional agreements.”

The report says the EU should also ask the neighborhood countries to allow each other to observe their legislative and presidential elections. It also suggests the EU should measure their progress against the so-called Copenhagen criteria, so far used only as accession criteria.

The report, as well as many deputies, said the EU itself must be open to criticism from countries with which it holds human rights dialogues. These include Russia, China, and Iran.