As pandemic prevention policy protracts and becomes increasingly interwoven into the fabric of European society, the fundamental rights and freedoms laid out in the ‘EU Convention of Human Rights’, ‘Charter of Fundamental Rights’, and ‘EU Social Charter’, face increasing jeopardy.
Clauses of “secured without discrimination”, and “informed consent”, stand pitched against those that aspire to “prevent as far as possible” epidemics and disease, that that allow states to “take measures derogating from its obligations (to rights)”.
It was conceptions of a ‘Social Europe’ and worker’s rights promoted by then EU Commission President Jacques Delores in the late 1980’s, that appeased the Eurosceptic elements in The UK’s Labour government under Neil Kinnock. Also appealing to the wider trade union movement, European integration amongst the political left came to be seen as providing some means of resistance to the onslaught of Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies of deindustialisation and privatisaton.
Former president of ‘Young European Federalists’ (JEF) Jon Worth, defines a Social Europe, “as the antithesis to a raw free-market Europe”, in which welfare policy and protections are paramount. Yet, social rights such as the freedom to movement, that allow citizens to live and work in another member state, have largely developed as an accompanying necessity to economic integration and the free movement of capital.
But if social rights are to be tethered to economic integration, in a climate of looming global recession, how can we better understand the immediate and future EU strategies being presented to restore and protect rights, and mitigate the severe damages suffered under EU endorsed lockdowns.
Your Papers, Please
On May 20th, The European Parliament and member states agreed the roll out of a new ‘EU COVID-19 certificate’, instead of the ‘Digital Green Certificate’ suggested by Commission president Ursula Von de Leyen in March. The system which is currently agreed to be in place for 12 months and not longer, also applies to citizens from third party states traveling within the bloc’s jurisdiction. The certificates have been announced as a means of facilitating a return to free movement, in aid of recovery of the free market, with Von de Leyen tweeting:
“The aim of the Commission’s legislative proposal is to ensure the functioning of the Single Market by gradually enabling Europeans to move safely within and outside the European Union. Whether to allow or require further uses of digital COVID-19 immunity/test result/vaccination certificates is to be decided by Member States”.
A desire to use euro passes to collectively restart the single market, isn’t matched by one to establish collective protection agreements on the scope of their application, an area of social policy seemingly outside of the commission’s remit, seemingly best left to individual members.
And members are indeed moving quickly with plans for digital passes to be enrolled across civil society, with Denmark launching its own ‘corona pass’ last month for use in non-essential businesses, along with the WHO’s partnership with Estonia, in developing their “domestic smart yellow card”
With plans for bloc wide infrastructure to be functional as early as June, an Oxford University study has proposed that their rapid introduction could equate to “opening Pandora’s box of discrimination and stigmatization”, despite of EU assertions that the inclusion of testing paperwork as a valid supplement circumvents this.
Medical analyses on both sides of the Atlantic have also suggested such a scheme lacks any scientific basis, essentially bypassing fundamental epidemiological questions, despite von de Leyen’s assertion they are a “medical requirement.”
While talk and trials on the domestic use of such digital passes has caused some stirring across EU member states and backbench grumbling in the UK, their application in the sphere of international travel has gone alarmingly uncontested in the political domain.
At the level of European civil society, a new Eurofound survey has found that 27 % of EU nationals would be very unlikely or rather unlikely to be vaccinated against covid, with figures as high as 50% in France, and 67% in Bulgaria. Under increasing discussion and trials on the wider domestic use of digital covid certificates, the EU Commission’s model represents the first major step in the codification of vaccination status, that when introduced to policy on employment and housing, stands to exclude large swathes of the European populous, and in direct contravention to articles on the right to liberty and security, and free movement.
In a UK since divorced from the EU, vaccination passports have been operational since the 17th May, despite months of denial and assurance form a range of ministers this would not be the case, most notably from ‘Vaccines Minister’, Nadim Zahwari.
Freedom of movement was a rallying point of the remain campaign throughout the Brexit process, with proponents such as Tony Blair, who also once described European social and welfare policies as not fit for purpose, now declaring vaccination and digital certificates as “your route to liberty”.
Likewise, the liberal forecourt press that painted a deceptively simplified picture of a Brexit process driven solely by a perilous nationalism, now proudly herald the great scientific advances ‘made in Oxford’ and by British tax-payers money. Consistent with their unconditional support for lockdowns and restrictions throughout the last year, outlets including the Guardian, The Times and Telegraph, now take turns in pontificating the ethical merits of vaccine passports, which are curiously only considered unethical, until a time when everyone has been ‘offered a jab’.
It should come as little surprise that the political, intellectual and moral fashionistas have turned coats on last week principles, a tragic comedy in which hypocrisy and complicity become further conflated with nobility. In a European wide or domestic system of vaccination certification, visions of a Social Europe begin distorting to ruin, while projections and strategies made in its name, stand to coopt its ideals in increasingly radical ways.
Protection Vs Coercion
A statement made by the Council of Europe’s ‘European Committee of Social Rights’ in April, has made some acknowledgement of the “very significant impact” covid restrictions have had upon rights laid out in the European Social Charter.
Primarily referring to strategies on employment and labour rights and social security over reestablishing fundamental freedoms, is a trend has also articulated through the EU Commission’s European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) initiative.
European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan published in March, has laid out a roadmap for the delivery of the initiative’s principles into action by 2030, with particular attention to quotas on employment and training and reducing poverty and social exclusion.
One method discussed in achieving these aims has been minimum incomes, which whilst already existing in various forms as part of the welfare systems of all member states, according to the report “would deserve to be modernised”.
A 2019 review from ERC funded observatory group ‘EU Visions’, has also argued, that in the quest for a European Social Union, a bloc wide “European compact on minimum incomes is not only possible and, desirable, but actually necessary”.
Given the financial and social pressures from lockdowns this idea perhaps seems more pertinent than ever. Whilst differing from universal basic income (UBI) by its conditional nature, a modernised bloc wide compact or standardised system, would be a necessary prerequisite for any bloc wide system of UBI.
The recent push for UBI has perhaps gained greater traction within globalist circles. In April last year, UN Assistant Secretary general Kanni Wignaraja, writing for the World Economic Forum, heralded UBI as “the answer to the inequalities exposed by Covid-19”, and “part of the package that will help us to get out of this yawning pit.”
Similar ideas are being voiced within European intellectual circles, with digital publisher ‘Social Europe’ quite specifically proposing at the advent of European lockdowns last year, an unconditional basic monthly income of 350 euros for all adults over 18 in the eurozone.
A 2019 study in the ‘Journal Of European Social Policy’ recorded support for UBI to be “rather overwhelming”, with support higher than 45% among 20 out of 23 member states. An intensification of social pressure through lockdowns has also been matched in support for UBI in Europe, with a 2020 Oxford University survey weighing in 71% of Europeans as in support of UBI in light of the crisis.
Whilst the ideals of UBI come dressed in the veils of social equality, its implications depend heavily on the social and economic context of its application. In a society of employment opportunities and individual liberty, UBI can help citizens realise the potential of their agency beyond the pressure and confines of their economic structure, and provide a freedom of choice in determining one’s lifestyle. However, in a society of lockdowns, forced recession, automisation and denied opportunity, UBI becomes an absolute necessity in the rationing of bare existence, creating an altogether different relationship between citizens and the state.
Writer Shai Shapira provides some interesting insight on the dynamics to consider, pointing out that “political rights are strongly correlated with economic participation”. States today in which a minute fraction of the population are needed to maintain immense revenues from natural resources, such as Gulf Sheikdoms for instance, are most often those that “tend to develop autocratic regimes with little concern for the welfare of their citizens”, he notes.
The unfortunate and crude reality underlying the illusion that social rights arise as “the result of enlightenment and struggle” he adds, is that “we get our rights because the government needs us”. Hence “the real danger of a universal basic income – it makes the citizens unnecessary to the government”.
Furthermore, in a ‘new normal’ society in which an ever-decreasing minority is employed and subject to the taxation that supports UBI, the question remains whether greater wealth alone would be sufficient compensation. Shapira points out that such a stratum of society will likely “also need a privileged political status”, which paints a reality of widening economic and political fault lines, that would invalidate Wignaraja’s assertion of UBI as a tool that inevitably “rebalances deep inequalities”.
Yet the greatest glaring danger of UBI in a time of economic crisis and increasingly authoritarian state tendencies across Europe, is the state’s potential to revoke such rations for those considered undesirables. Such a consideration is critical in the current climate, given Wignaraja’s chilling and telling admission, that in administering UBI “good arguments can be made for having very selective conditions – for instance, some that relate to public goods, like vaccinating all children and ensuring they attend school.”
If access to employment opportunities, and UBI as a means of survival are both to be tied to conditions such as vaccination status, then it immediately fails as a universal’ tool of social equality. Conditional qualifications undisputedly considered ‘public goods’, that is, the surrendering of your bodily autonomy and individual sovereignty, should certainly sit ill with articles on the right to life and right to integrity of person. As a tool with great emancipatory potential, UBI also holds great potential in a maniacal state’s arsenal of coercion and subjugation, standing to compound a society of medical apartheid, quite contrary to its declared aims.
Chasing a Mirage
Misguided notions of a social Europe have provided the last cohesive resistance to a disintegrating union, upholding a facade of liberalism in front of a ‘Global Europe’, in which the power of European capital trumps all social considerations. Preemptive EU initiatives for a bloc wide system of vaccination certification, stand to provide it greater leverage in the global hegemonic order, and provide an upper hand in the digital security sphere, amidst ongoing power plays against Russia.
The marketing of EU covid certificates as a ‘digital green pass’, should also provide a clue as to the imperatives upon which they might be further shoehorned into our daily lives. Furthermore, serious questions also remain on their potential role in digital currency systems, already being discussed by central banks.
EU commission diktats in tow of WEF initiatives, provide a civil foundation of barren sand for the construction and realisaition of a genuinely social Europe. It’s inferior image on the horizon, glimmers an alluring oasis of European sociability, promising to quench a thirst for continental social equality. But the sheer temperature of emotions, high financial pressures, and political hot air of the past 14 months, does play trickery with the mind, to the extent something as draconian as EU covid passes, evokes apparitions of palm trees and paradise. “A journey towards a mirage never ends”, says the poet Ehsan Sehgal, and indeed if our journey is to begin with revoking liberties under unjust pretenses, before selling them back to us in scraps as rights for which we should be grateful, then traversing the next decade may be a perilous and wearisome journey indeed.