(Berlin) – Influential leaders in European Union states used migration to stoke fear, justify abusive policies, and block meaningful reform in 2018, even as arrivals at borders decreased, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. But during 2018, EU institutions, with backing from some EU states, demonstrated a greater commitment to address attacks on democratic institutions and the rule of law in Hungary and Poland.
In its European Union chapter, Human Rights Watch highlights developments in 10 EU member states and union-wide developments on migration and asylum, discrimination and intolerance, rule of law, terrorism and counterterrorism, and EU foreign policy.
“We saw populist leaders in EU states stoking fear and jettisoning rights during 2018 with little regard for the consequences,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Thankfully, we have some EU institutions and states willing to stand up to the populists’ dangerous disregard for Europe’s core values.”
In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.
The EU decided in September to initiate a political sanctions process on Hungary and pursued the process launched against Poland in December 2017. Those actions and the ongoing legal enforcement action against both states showed the determination of EU institutions – including its Parliament, Commission, and Court of Justice – to defend democratic institutions, rule of law, and human rights inside the EU’s borders. EU bodies also raised concerns about the rule of law in Romania.
Populist extremist parties espousing nativist policy agendas gained ground in elections in several countries while exerting an outsize influence over European politics generally. Despite manageable numbers of migrants arriving at EU borders, anti-immigrant governments in Italy, Austria, and Hungary pushed an opportunistic hard-line approach and helped block agreements on reforms of EU asylum laws and fair distribution of responsibility for arriving migrants and asylum seekers. The focus remained on closing EU external borders, including through blocking humanitarian rescue at sea, closer cooperation with abusive Libyan coast guard forces, and problematic proposals for offshore processing.
While xenophobic political discourse often targeted migrants and asylum seekers, EU countries grappled with entrenched discrimination against minorities, including Roma, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attacks. There were significant advances, like the referendum that overturned Ireland’s near-total abortion ban and the EU Court of Justice recognition that same-sex couples should have freedom of movement even in countries where same-sex marriage is not recognized. But there was also continuing widespread discrimination on the grounds of gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
The EU and its member states reaffirmed their strong support for a rules-based international order and the United Nations’ human rights bodies and mechanisms, and stressed their principled support of the International Criminal Court. The EU remained a leading actor in promoting human rights globally, taking tough principled positions on human rights abuses in countries like Russia, Myanmar, and Venezuela, as well as pushing for accountability for atrocity crimes in Syria and Myanmar. However, the bloc’s ill-conceived migration policy led to very weak positions on human rights violations in countries like Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Turkey.
Country-specific developments in the EU highlighted by Human Rights Watch include Italy’s decision to close its ports to humanitarian sea rescue organizations; Hungary’s smear campaign against the philanthropist George Soros and rights groups receiving international funding; Poland’s moves to undermine judicial independence; and the human rights implications of the United Kingdom’s negotiations with the EU on Brexit.
Migrants and asylum seekers, including hundreds of unaccompanied children denied protection and living on the streets, faced squalid conditions in France. Thousands of asylum seekers on the Greek islands suffered similar conditions under a containment policy that prevented them from moving to the mainland.