Many of us are lucky enough to live social rights every day: when we make a living out of a decent job, when we earn enough to have a home, when we visit the doctor, when we register for a training or when we visit a museum on the weekend. For many people though, those social rights come with an expiry date. Being denied some of our rights because we become older is not a fatality, but it requires concrete political measures.
Ensuring greater equality and reinforcing the protection and promotion of social rights in Europe was exactly the subject of the meeting organised by the Council of Europe on 18 September 2019 in Strasbourg, France. Member States, human rights experts, researchers and lawyers, trade unions and civil society organisations discussed how to use the political momentum around the European Pillar of Social Rights to encourage governments to ratify the European Social Charter.
Too weak legal instruments?
The European Social Charter was adopted in 1961 (revised in 1996) to complement to the European Convention of human rights, which did not enshrine economic, social and cultural rights, such as access to employment, housing and health. It is the first instrument that included a specific provision on the rights of older persons. It is also considered the cornerstone of protection of social rights in Europe, since the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU has been largely based on its provisions. However, its application still remains weak in practice. Member States of the Council of Europe are free to choose which articles they are bound by in a cherry-picking manner. What does it say of our commitment to social rights when governments ratify only part of the text? Or when only a short list of those Member States agree to allow trade unions and NGOs to lodge collective complains against them if they do not respect the Charter?
As far as older people are concerned, a recommendation adopted by the Council of Europe in 2014 confirms the numerous gaps in the protection of human rights in older age. Social rights are not the odd one out to this observation. In far too many European countries, we still note age limits hindering the access to education and lifelong learning or leading to inexistent or inadequate long-term care services in older age. Many Europeans also experience discrimination in the access to certain goods and services like housing, banking and insurance products, car rental, among others.
An important moment to show commitment
The appointment of a new European executive and the clear incentive of the new European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights is a critical moment to invite our governments to ratify the whole Social Charter, agreeing to be held accountable through the collective complain mechanism of the Council of Europe and adopt policies that align with those human rights frameworks.
At European level, the Commission will have a sound role to play: besides adopting specific pieces of legislation to implement the Pillar, it will be critical to deliver coherent country recommendations in the frame of the European Semester. Those recommendations should invite national governments to shape policies to primarily ensure the dignity and well-being of their citizens before strictly complying to rules of the Stability and Growth Pact.