Soft carpets, a superior subsidised canteen, friendly civil servants appointed to look after us,the representatives of civil society, “grands debats” on noble subjects uncontroversial in their breadth… these are my main memories of the Council of Europe of the early 1990s, the Strasbourg home of the European Convention and its Court of Human Rights. As the antechamber of a European Community evolving into a European Union, it was in the process of admitting Hungary to membership, followed by Poland and “Czechoslovakia.” We marvelled at its capacity to afford equal access to members as diverse in size and culture as Andorra and Turkey and to give an equal platform to Itzak Rabbin and Yasser Arafat, amidst the constant flow of international leaders.
A quarter of a century later, as I operate in the altogether harsher climate surrounding me as a British immigration adviser, it is Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention (and Fundamental Freedoms) that are the Council of Europe’s chief gifts to me and, no doubt, to the entire community of advisers and lawyers serving asylum seekers and migrants all over Europe. Article 3, the prohibition on sending people to a situation of danger is the basis for the Humanitarian Protection under which, for instance, the majority of Syria’s refugees are sheltering. Article 8, right to a family and a private life is often the last bastion between a mass of rejected asylum seekers and their mass deportation. Article 14 is the key to our access to articles 3 and 8; it states that there is to be no discrimination between nationals and non-nationals in the application of any of the articles of the European Convention.
But, “autre temps, autres moeurs,” the old humanitarian consensus is a thing of the past under the twin priorities of security and austerity. British judges have now redefined family and private life as a thing you can do by Skype if you are a non-national. Families containing foreigners can therefore safely be split up. People whose presence in the country has been “precarious” – and this includes those with refugee status – are liable to removal from the country to continue their virtual private life. A barrage of national rules commissioned by the last Home Secretary and Prime Minister-to-be, has been placed in front of access to an Article 8 decision outside these rules. So Article 14, the non-discrimination clause has been side-stepped.
More, Britain, one of the principal progenitors of the Council of Europe now talks about a second “BREXIT” from the Human Rights Europe of 47 member states. Human Rights are to be decided nationally for the benefit of national citizens. The Brighton Declaration of 2012 has shown Britain’s potential for mobilising other member states behind its agenda of reducing the power of the European Court of Human Rights. But there is a much more radical agenda of disruption under preparation by Britain’s increasingly presidential Prime Minister. Busy with BREXIT, she is ready to unleash BREXIT-2 after 2020. If we want a civilised society, now is the time to be conferring with those friendly and accessible Council of Europe civil servants.
David Forbes is a former Quaker Council for European Affairs Representative in Brussels and an immigration adviser in Birmingham, UK, where he also sits on the committee for Birmingham City of Santuary.