Values, European or Universal?

27 January 2019

Values, European or Universal?

Now that the knives are being sharpened for the European election campaigns, I'm struck by the way that the liberals, with people like Macron and Verhofstadt to the fore, are claiming that they want to defend 'European values', in particular from the populists. This is all a bit cheap and also dangerous. Cheap, because it's the (neo-)liberals who have left people to their fate with their striving for unbridled marketisation and budget fetishism which have led to the destruction of services in, for example, health care, education and the law. Dangerous too, because traditionally Europe has always sought universal values, human rights which are valid everywhere. Evidently the liberals have now withdrawn from this struggle in the belief that Europe knows better than the rest of the world, That is to misjudge decades of international negotiations in primarily the Council of Europe and the UN.

We've come a long way in the last seventy or so years. A whole series of international treaties have been adopted which lay down both classic and social human rights. Classic human rights concern the protection of people's immediate freedom from attack, for example from the state but also from others. Central to social human rights are the rights of people to be able to count on a decent standard of living, of health care and of education, and their right to paid employment. Countries ruled by dictatorships have always tried to relativise the values which these human rights embody on the grounds that they are too western. But the right to a dignified existence and the right not to be tortured are not western. They are important to everyone in the world.

Macron and Verhofstadt put the emphasis, as is usual for liberals, on classic human rights: you must be completely free to do and allow whatever you want to. That fits nicely with the awe in which they stand before the sacred market, which always leads us along the good path. Without social rights, however, there's no justice, and society degenerates into a war of all against all. Everyone becomes everyone else's competitor. When we say that it's time for justice, we mean not only that everyone's freedom must be guaranteed, but also and above all everyone's right to protection. Not all against all, but everyone coming together to build a better world. This doesn't stop at Europe's borders. In my view we should bury the term 'European values' and replace it with 'universal values', values which bring people together, here and everywhere else in the world.

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