Conference on the Future of the Protection of Social Rights in Europe

Brussels , 


First let me thank our Belgian Hosts.

Last year, in Turin, we began a process which aims to put social rights at the heart of our work.

The Belgian Presidency has taken on this project with energy and drive and I am personally very grateful. The Council of Europe looks on this conference as a very important part of this process.

As you know, I have made social rights a priority for my second term.

And it is a cause which grows more urgent by the day.

“Us versus Them”

Right now, two big things are happening across Europe.

First: in many places, deep economic frustration is taking hold.

There is a growing feeling that Europe is being divided into clear winners and losers.

Some countries are growing steadily.

Some even have more people working than ever before.

Yet in other European states around half – half – of all young people still cannot find jobs.

Within many countries we are also seeing see worsening inequality.

People are despairing:

After years of austerity and sacrifice, they know more is still to come.

At the same time, our societies are becoming more diverse.

Over the last two decades the number of people entering Europe has shot up dramatically.

In the EU, more people than ever now enjoy freedom of movement.

So we are mixing, moving, our cultural fabric is evolving – in some places with dizzying speed.

In many ways, it’s nothing new.

We are a continent of immigrants – and our countries benefit hugely from it.

But we have to understand that…

…when people can see their communities changing…

…at a time when they feel their prospects are shrinking…

…the two become linked in the public mind.

Newcomers are blamed for the lack of opportunities.

Institutions are discredited for failing to “do something” about it.

Mainstream politics is shunned.

Division, nationalism, class warfare, xenophobia, envy, radicalism – these forces become increasingly appealing.

The overriding mindset becomes one of “us” versus “them”.

European Social Charter

So, against this backdrop…

…I ask all of you to renew your commitment to the rights enshrined in the European Social Charter.

Yes, Europe needs economic policies which promote growth. Of course.

Yes, we need to teach people how to live as democratic citizens, respecting each other’s differences.

But part of our response has to be showing people that we see their hardships and anxieties…

…and we are willing to act.

We have a responsibility to prove to Europe’s citizens that…

…no matter what your background is…

…no matter where you live…

In Europe, you will be given a safety net if you fall.

In Europe, you are guaranteed a fair chance at a decent life.

Rights in housing, in health, in education and at work.

The right to be with your family and to be free from discrimination.

The right - when you are at your absolute lowest – to a basic level of support.

These rights are the glue that will hold our societies together.

Because if you give people these things, they don’t need to find someone else to blame.

I want to be completely candid with you:

When I made social rights a priority for my second term…

…I wasn’t sure how far we would be able to go.

What was the future of this agenda?

Would states really agree to limiting themselves at a time of economic uncertainty?

But our Charter isn’t limiting, it’s liberating…

…because it is a way of reaching out to people out there.

This isn’t a set of heavy-handed European obligations…

…it is the basic social rights – universal rights – on which we should all be able to agree.

And I can tell you today that we are now starting to overcome some of the hurdles that were blocking our way.

Switzerland will soon hopefully be in a position to ratify.

Luxembourg, which has ratified the original Charter, is taking steps to ratify the revised Charter.

Turkey is about to adopt more provisions including, crucially, the right to organize.

Increasingly we are seeing judges in national courts taking the Social Charter into consideration when applying their national law.

Just last month a Czech court relied on it to enforce the right of children with disabilities to live with their families.

Our partners in the European Union are here today because they see the Charter’s value and they want to work with us to overcome the differences in our approaches.

So there is now real momentum we can build on and successes we can lock in.

In my conversations with member States I am pushing for more ratifications.

It is also important to me that we now reallocate resources within the Council of Europe to create a unit to help member states implement the Charter.

Monitoring is important, but we are not just here to watch you – we want to help you overcome the challenges you face on the ground.

So we stand ready to help in whatever way we can and we need all member states to give the European Social Charter your full and strong support.

Collective Complaints

The same applies to the Additional Protocol on Collective Complaints.

I want to single this out today because, for me, it is a unique and genuinely groundbreaking innovation in upholding social rights.

Under the Collective Complaints procedure, representative bodies like international NGOs, trade unions and employer organisations…

…can raise their concerns with the European Committee of Social Rights…

…on behalf of someone else – in the name of otherwise silent victims.

The first time it was ever used was by the International Commission of Jurists to highlight child labour practices.

These were not children who could have easily come to the European Court of Human Rights.

Their parents were not going to do so for them.

Yet our process allowed someone else to step in and give them a voice…

…and it ended with those exploitative practices being changed.

This point is crucial:

When an individual victim wins a case in a Court justice is served – and this is extremely important.

But when a State accepts that they are contravening their obligations under the Social Charter, there is the possibility of far reaching reform.

Not just one child given justice, but many children given a better life.

We need more members to ratify this Protocol.

I know some of you are considering it – I urge you to take a lead here.

And I hope that over the next two days we can build an even wider consensus.

The Collective Complaints procedure gives a voice to the voiceless…

…it triggers widespread reform…

…and, for me, it keeps the Council of Europe at the vanguard of human rights.

Sum up

On that note, I’ll hand over the floor.

But let me end on a memory from Turin.

Those of you who were there may remember the extremely heavy security needed for the Conference.

350 of us sat together.

Around us was a ring of police officers.

Around them, a wall of protestors.

Why were people protesting?

Because they thought we were a group of European Finance Ministers, meeting to deepen our austerity measures.

So we spoke to the journalists and we said, please, tell them we are the Council of Europe.

We are their governments coming together to agree ways to protect their social rights.

What happened?

The tension immediately disappeared.

I think it is worth recalling that today.

European Finance Ministers have been meeting, and EU leaders will meet today, not far from here…

…to take difficult decisions over Greece’s austerity plan and financial stability in the Eurozone…

…and they will do what they have to do.

So let us do what we have to do.

Promoting and strengthening social rights across Europe – to help make the tension disappear.  

Thank you.