In March of this year the European Parliament passed a resolution which called for abortion to be made readily available as a woman’s right in all countries of the European Community (EC). The move caused a tremor of concern in pro-life groups in each of the 12 European countries which make up the Community, and brought renewed international interest in its Parliament.
The EC has its origins in two treaties – the Treaty of Paris (1851_ and the Treaty of Rome (1951) – which were devised to bring down the economic barriers between European nations.
The EC has four major institutions: the Council of Ministers, the Parliament, the European Court of Justice and the European Commission.
The council of Ministers is the true government of the Community. It consists of one representative in each of state of the EC, who may be any one of the ministers in the national government according to the topic under discussion by the council. The council has the final word in all matters relating to the Community.
The Commission is the civil service of the Community; it carries out Community policy and makes proposals for Community law.
The Parliament is the only organ of the Community which is democratically elected. Ironically, it is also the least powerful of its four major institutions. It does not elect the government. It can neither propose nor enact laws. It does not determine the composition of the civil service (the Commission) or the Court of Justice.
In fact, it can do very little on its own initiative. Its major powers consist of adopting or rejecting the annual Community budget; expressing opinions on proposed Community laws; questioning the Council of Ministers and the Commission; and giving or withholding its consent for the admission of new countries into the Community. It is also able to dissolve the entire Commission, but may not dismiss individual Commissioners.
In addition, the Parliament may discuss anything it wishes, including topics not mentioned in the Community treaties. It is this option which allows it to generate publicity on any issue on which its members hold strong views. The right is the one which was used when it discussed abortion last March.
The discussion was totally fruitless from the legal point of view because the resolution which resulted from it has no legal significance in any member state of the Community. However, the public relations value of the discussion was quite high. About the same time, member state Belgium was debating a proposal to replace a pro-life law (unenforced) with a pro-abortion one.
The behavior of the European Parliament generated considerable publicity and undoubtedly gave comfort to abortion promoters in Belgium. It may have helped to secure the passage of the pro-abortion law there. The situation now is that only one member state of the EC protects the right to life of the unborn – Ireland.
Council of Europe
As a general rule, human rights, including the right to life, do not fall within the competence of the EC. At a European level they are dealt with by another institution – the Council of Europe.
The council of Europe is an entirely different and separate institution from the EC. Founded in 1948, and now consisting of 23 European countries (Hungary is expected to become a member in November 1990, bringing the number of members to 24), the Council of Europe includes the 12 member states of the EC. Its major achievement has been the development and promotion of legally binding conventions among its members on a vast array of topics.
Among these is the European Convention on Human Rights. Whenever the national courts appear unable or unwilling to uphold human rights, this document provides for the establishment of a European Court of Human Rights. Anyone living in Europe can seek vindication of his or her rights under the Convention.
The organs of the EC have, nevertheless, expressed an interest in human rights on a number of occasions. In 1986, a new treaty to expand the role and power of the Community, the single European Act, referred to the European Convention on Human Rights, but only in its preamble.
In 1977, the EC institutions signed a declaration requiring them to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Court of Justice has also referred to fundamental rights in many of its judgments.
However, these gestures, hopeful though they be, must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the European Community is founded on economic consideration – not human rights – and it is not bound by the European convention on Human Rights.
Defective by design
In fact, this defect in the design of the Community is not the result of an oversight on the part of the Community’s government – the Council of Ministers. A statement on human rights issued by the EC Commission last year contained the following revealing remark:
“In 1979 the commission proposed to the council (of Ministers) that the European community as such should formally accede to the (European) Convention (on Human Rights), to show the Community’s attachment to fundamental rights and its willingness to accept the Convention’s control procedures. However, ministers of the Twelve have been unable to agree on this accession.”
In effect, the EC remains completely independent of any external constraints upon its behavior in the field of human rights.
The future struggle to promote effective pro-life initiatives at Community level will involve several approaches. Political campaigns will have a role to play, certainly, but with vast portions of the European Community no longer Christian in any meaningful sense of the word, the value of such campaigns is limited. Educational campaigns are urgently needed, but information alone will not be sufficient to overcome the indifference to moral issues which marks many of the countries within the Community.
The task of protecting fundamental human rights will probably come down in the final analysis to the moral information of individual men and women. It is only in this way that ordinary Europeans will be able to resist the relentless harassment of immoral laws and practices around them, and prepare their children to resist them too.
It is only in this way that politicians with high ethical values will be elected to posts at national and Community levels, and be capable of promoting the political initiatives necessary for the conversion of the EC from an economic concern into a truly human Community where fundamental human rights will be backed by the rule of law and respected by all.