Bringing Human Rights through the Back Door at the European Union

by David Blázquez on October 9, 2013

European ParliamentBorn as an instrument to protect individuals against the excesses of ideology, human rights have become a handy tool for some politicians without decision-making power to give voice to their opinions in the foreign policy arena. The recent nomination of Edward Snowden for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and Freedom stands as the latest evidence of that trend. The prize will most likely end up being awarded to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen shot by the Taliban for championing girls’ education. Notwithstanding, Snowden’s nomination—put forth by far left and green parties claiming Snowden risked his freedom by revealing U.S. surveillance of European Union officials—exemplifies the Parliament’s frustration with the current EU foreign policy framework. By advancing such a controversial nomination, the Parliament is flouting institutional checks and balances through the use of human rights as a back door into the discussion of European foreign policy.

When the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in 2009, the Parliament was restricted to an advisory role in European foreign policy while executive powers were consolidated in the European Council and, to a lesser extent, the European Commission. Article 36 of the consolidated Treaty on European Union allowed the Parliament to control the budget and advise the High Representative but did not grant direct decision-making power. Some months before Lisbon, in the foreword of the 2009 Report on Activities correspondent to the 2004-2009 legislature, then-Vice President of the European Parliament Jacek Saryus-Wolsky claimed more powers for the Parliament so that it would become “an equal partner of the Council and the Commission more than ever before” and “make the European Parliament a more influential global presence.”

Despite these restrictions, Parliament has continued attempting to expand its foreign policy role by inserting human rights into the conversation. A 2012 draft report of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee noted that the Parliament is the only directly elected EU institution and expressed a desire to reshape the policy framework. According to a recent document published by the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Human Rights, their cause “should be enshrined in the wider political dialogue at the highest level and regarded as a form of leverage in the context of bilateral relations.” The discussion of human rights has thus become one of the European Parliament’s top priorities as it seeks new ways to influence European diplomacy.

At times, the Parliament’s human rights agenda is aligned with that of the Commission, as it was last year when the Sakharov Prize was awarded to Iranian dissidents Nasrin Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi. In addition to recognizing the courage of both human rights activists, the prize also served as a political signal at a critical moment for European relations with Iran. A week before the Parliament announced their decision, the Commission had terminated European satellite access to nearly two dozen Iranian state television and radio channels. Following the July 2012 European embargo of Iranian oil imports, the 2012 Sakharov Prize was clearly part of a strategic decision to put pressure on Iran at a moment in which the EU was employing a two-track policy to raise the stick and hide the carrot.

However, the Parliament and the Commission are not always on the same page. In 2008, the Parliament invited the Dalai Lama to attend a parliamentary session before the Beijing Olympic Games. When announcing the invitation in December 2008, then-President of the Parliament Hans-Gert Pöettering called on politicians to “ask themselves whether they can attend the opening ceremony.” At that time, both the then-Slovenian rotating Presidency and the Commission thoroughly opposed Pöettering’s declarations. Slovenian Secretary of State for European Affairs Janez Lenarcic told the European Parliament, “The Presidency believes that a boycott of the Olympics in the year of intercultural dialogue would not be the right response to open political issues [and] it might also mean a loss of an opportunity to promote human rights.” After then-rotating EU President Nicolas Sarkozy followed the Parliament’s invitation by announcing he would meet with the Dalai Lama, China called off a major summit in Brussels, declaring the Tibet issue “an internal affair” and opposing any contact between the Dalai Lama and foreign leaders.

Snowden’s nomination for the Sakharov prize may not necessarily aggravate existing tensions in U.S.-European relations to such a severe degree. Nonetheless, the nomination clearly demonstrates the desire of the “powerless” European Parliament to play a more vocal role in European foreign policy even though the EU legal framework clearly restricts its activities. By advancing such controversial positions and seeking to score political points, the Parliament may deprive human rights of their meaning and power, making them “an empty vessel” in the words of Samuel Moyn. And if the Parliament continues using human rights to enter the European foreign policy discussion through the back door, in the long run it could become much harder to put the cause of human rights out front where it belongs.

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