Are Human Rights a European Value?

Europe’s commitments in the context of its migration policy are often framed in terms of promoting or protecting ‘European values’. Marie Göbel dissects the grammar of ‘European values’ – and argues that we should drop the value language if we are really committed to protecting migrants’ human rights.

Marie Göbel, University of Utrecht

The idea of European values has seen a revival recently in EU politics. It was mainstreamed when Ursula von der Leyen introduced a Vice Presidency for “Promoting our European Way of Life” after becoming European Commission president. Responding to criticism, von der Leyen was quick to point out that the idea behind this was simply to reaffirm Europe’s commitment to the basic values laid out in the EU’s founding treaties: freedom, equality, democracy, the rule of law, human dignity and human rights. But what do we mean when we speak of human rights, for example, as a European value? And what practical difference does this make?

Us and Them: The Grammar of Values

Maybe the most obvious implication of the phrase ‘European values’ is that it functions as an identity marker. European values are often understood as the values that ‘we Europeans’ (allegedly) share, that define our common identity as Europeans, our European ‘value community’. It is thus unsurprising that the phrase is often used interchangeably with the phrase ‘European way of life’ in political discourse. (It is an interesting question whether there are in fact any values that at least a significant number of Europeans share. However, it is secondary here. In order for the phrase ‘European values’ to function as an identity marker, the mere belief in widely shared European values suffices, even if on closer look this belief turned out to be ungrounded.)

There is not necessarily anything wrong with the idea of a European value community, especially if it is based upon ‘values’ such as human dignity, human rights, democracy or freedom. However, it is common knowledge that any construction of a ‘we’ involves the construction of some ‘other’ – some ‘not-us’ or ‘not-like-us’. The crucial question is then who or what these others are. If they refer to dictatorial regimes that violate human rights, this may seem unproblematic. However, especially in immigration debates one often encounters a different line of argument: Non-Europeans or, more precisely, particular groups of non-Europeans – such as Muslims – allegedly embrace a different canon of values than ‘we Europeans’. Consequently, they pose a potential threat to the ‘European value order’. Therefore – so this line of argument continues – they should be kept out of Europe. In this way, references to European values frequently ground anti-immigration arguments.

Now one might object that this is neither always nor necessarily so, which is certainly right. However, at the same time it is important to see that it is part of the inherent logic of value language, especially when paired with a contextual label like ‘European’, that it facilitates such ‘exclusive’ arguments. As in the example just given, the common denominator of such arguments is that they rely on an us-and-them logic as well as the alleged need to protect values against their perceived enemies. This is one reason why references to European values are so problematic in political discourse. To see this more clearly, consider the example of human rights.

The Case of Human Rights

Respect of human rights is arguably one of Europe’s core normative commitments (whether EU policies reflect this commitment is another story). Human rights have by definition two central features, among others:

  • Being human rights, they are universal in the sense that all human beings have them, simply in virtue of being human. Obviously, this does not mean that they are never violated. Rather, it means that all human beings are morally entitled to these rights – e.g. to asylum or a decent standard of living. Human rights are unconditional in the sense that no special performance, character traits or the like are necessary in order to have them. One does not have to earn human rights – being human suffices.
  • Being human rights, they are not mere wishes that one may or may not fulfill as one may seem fit. Rather, the very idea of a right is that it entitles the right-holder to certain actions or goods (where this can be a moral or legal entitlement), and that others have a correlative duty to respect and protect that right, i.e. for instance to provide access to the relevant good. Typically states rather than individuals are considered the primary duty-bearers when it comes to an effective protection of human rights.  

So human rights express a universal normative standard. One might think of this standard as being also ‘European’ in the following basic sense: The EU commits itself to the respect and protection of human rights. However, it is important to see what this does not mean: It does not mean that the EU invented these norms. Nor does it mean that they are exclusivelyEuropean in any other sense. Nor, finally, does it mean that it is entirely up to the EU to decide what kinds of actions, policies and institutions its human rights commitment requires. Rather, the ‘logic’ behind central EU documents like the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is that the EU acknowledges the universally binding character of human rights, and recognizes that they impose requirements on its policies. The central question is, then, what the EU has to do in order to meet its human rights commitment.

Inverting the Burden of Justification: Human Rights as European Values

Now consider what happens in statements like ‘Human rights are a European value’. One can broadly distinguish two directions in which this statement might be taken:  

  • NGOs in particular frequently refer to human rights as a European value when they want to call to mind a normative standard that the EU is declaredly committed to, and the duties that go along with it. This is a way of pointing out (potential) human rights violations as something that is not only morally wrong but also at odds with the EU’s own self-understanding. In this case we would not speak of a reinterpretation of human rights as a value because the very idea of human rights as rights (rather than a value) remains untouched by this. It is a different question, incidentally, whether this point might also be expressed without a reference to values.
  • Something quite different is it to reinterpret human rights as a European value. We encounter this shift in the context of immigration and immigrant integration debates, for instance. The immediate consequence of this is that both the universal character and the rights-character of human rights are being subverted. Rather than being universal, they now appear as something specifically European. And rather than being rights that ought to be respected by everyone, including the EU, they now appear as a (European) value that needs to be protected against potential (non-European) enemies. For instance, consider the following kind of argument:

“Here in Europe we value the human right to non-discrimination on grounds of gender, or, in short, gender equality. Many Muslims are homophobic and think of women as inferior to men. Therefore, they threaten our European value order. If they want to live in Europe, they need to respect and live our values, including gender equality.”  

What happens here is this: The question what it takes for the EU to meet human rights standards is replaced by a different question, namely, what human rights standards do potential immigrants have to meet in order to be allowed to come to Europe? So, the question what respect of human rights requires of the EU is replaced by the question what is needed to protect the European value order. As a direct consequence of this, the main justificatory burden with regard to the (non-)admission of aspiring immigrants is shifted: It is no longer the EU that has to show that keeping certain groups of people out does not violate human rights standards. Rather, it is the immigrants who have to prove that they endorse the ‘value’ of human rights and are thus worthy of admission to the EU.

In current political debates, some version of the argument just presented is all too present. This does not change the fact that it is deeply at odds with any plausible interpretation of the human rights idea:

  • The argument subverts the unconditionality of human rights. If people suffer human rights violations, then the EU is under a duty to help, irrespective of people’s personal conduct and what values they endorse. (Whether that duty to help amounts to a duty to admission in a concrete case is a different question.)
  • Human rights are a moral, legal and political norm. To turn this norm into a kind of ‘value-check’ for potential immigrants means to make a mockery of the human rights idea.
  • It is one question how, if at all, Europe should and may protect its ‘cultural identity’, and what it may reasonably ask from newcomers in this regard; it is a different question what human rights protection requires concretely from Europe with regard to non-Europeans. These questions are not entirely unrelated, but they must not be mixed up.   

Human rights are a universal normative standard that the EU morally ought to respect. If it is serious about its human rights commitment, it should focus on the question what it can and should do to live up to it – rather than to point at the allegedly misguided values of those it wants to keep out for other than human rights-related reasons. To address this question by reference to European values is unhelpful and eventually misleading.[1]


[1] See further on the topic of this entry: Marie Göbel, Toward a Cosmopolitan Europe: Normative Requirements for EU Refugee Policy in the Light of Empirical Possibilities and Constraints, NoVaMigra Policy Research Alert No. 8, September 2020, available at https://novamigra.eu/index.php?id=12.

Dr. Marie Göbel is a post-doc researcher at the University of Utrecht’s Ethics Institute. She can be contacted at m.c.gobel[at]uu.nl.

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