OPINION
Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Sawn-off democracies

The European Commission is bent on imposing one strict priority on the member states: that of controlling the public deficit

Armed with its new powers over economic policy, the European Commission (EC) is bent on imposing one strict priority on the member states: that of controlling the public deficit. Governments are obliged to make severe cutbacks in spending, lest they be hit with sanctions. The dominant ideology ignores the devastating effect this has on demand, employment and income. The EC, besides, keeps approving plans that involve cutbacks on democratic principles and fundamental rights, while doing little for saving. Faced with a choice between democracy and economic orthodoxy, the EC inclines to the latter.

One example is Hungary, which has been threatened with sanctions for an excessive deficit. Last week, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, announced new anti-deficit measures. One was a tax on advertising in the media, with negligible impact on the budget. The immediate effect of this tax, proportional to advertising income, is to render two TV channels, RTA-Club and TV2, commercially non-viable, despite the fact that they account for most of the private TV audience. The first announced that it would now broadcast from Luxembourg, as other channels already do; the second, which its present owners wish to sell, has ceased to be attractive to the Swedish investors who wanted it, and will probably end up in the hands of another pretender, Zsolt Nyerges, an oligarch with close ties to the government. Under the pretext of the deficit, Orbán thus has silenced critical voices. But the EC is only interested in numbers. Among Orbán's many other anti-democratic moves, the only one that the EC obliged him to withdraw was his attempt to limit the independence of his country's central bank.

Cutbacks hit the most vulnerable people, far more than what the pure logic of numbers would demand

Cutbacks are affecting something as fundamental as access to justice. In Spain, a sharp hike in court filing fees threatened to deprive thousands of access to justice. The hike's later 80-percent reduction was the result not of pressure from the EC, but of public protest. In the UK the Tory government's austerity measures have hit free legal assistance hard. Last week, hundreds of lawyers demonstrated in London against the decision to cut the budget for legal aid in criminal cases. This and similar measures threaten the principle of fair and universal access to justice in several European countries.

Cutbacks hit the most vulnerable people, far more than what the pure logic of numbers would demand. In many cases it is likely that today's cutbacks will swell tomorrow's costs. Refusing healthcare to illegal immigrants, as Spain and Greece have begun to do, saves a drop in the budget bucket, but causes unnecessary suffering, creates public health risks (the Senegalese Alpha Pam died untreated in Mallorca of tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease) and generates additional costs when people without follow-up care end up in emergency wards. The elimination, in the name of saving, of free syringes supplied to drug addicts in Romania and Greece, has produced an HIV-AIDS epidemic whose effects will persist for years. So, too, with the end of free universal child vaccination in Greece.

Not a month goes by without some EU government announcing a new package of cutbacks, evaporating what whole generations have come to regard as acquired social rights. Governments are exploiting the opportunity to eliminate checks and balances to their power, and to adopt measures that hit the weak and the voiceless. The European Commission, supposedly a watchdog of democracy in a European Union where fundamental rights are now being trampled on, sticks to the fiction of inexorable economic logic as its only criterion. While the economic commissioner Olli Rehn and his team tap away at their calculators, others are taking the chance to saw off the limbs of our democracies.

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