Study: Austerity undermines fundamental rights across the EU

Anti-austerity demonstrators in Athens. [George Laoutaris/Flickr]

Austerity policies in the EU have eroded the poorest citizens’ access to education and healthcare. According to a European Parliament report, the situation is most dramatic in Greece. EURACTIV France reports.

The economic crisis and the austerity measures adopted by several EU governments to cut their public spending have had dire consequences for fundamental rights. A study recently published by the European Parliament highlights the deterioration of certain rights in seven countries: Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

Education systematically slashed

All seven of the countries studied had cut the number of teachers in their schools, while the number of pupils rose. Other services linked to schools were also hit: some schools in Greece are not heated, and hygiene standards are no longer respected in Italy. Cuts to the Spanish education budget have already affected results, with the lack of books and other equipment increasing inequality and greatly impacting students’ ability to study.

Some schools in Greece have been shut down or merged, making access to education more difficult for certain populations, particularly the Roma.

Health costs transferred from state to citizen

The report states that “in Greece, the bail-out agreement shifted the burden of healthcare from the State to the patient, with an increase in user fees and co-payments for certain medicines,” which has led to a series of damaging consequences for the population.

Apart from the 45% increase in suicides between 2007 and 2011, treated as an indirect consequence of health cuts, child health has also been drastically affected. According to the latest statistics, the number of babies born underweight rose by 19% from 2008 to 2010, while the number of children dying during birth jumped by 21%. The declining trend of infant mortality reversed between 2008 and 2010, to rise by +43%.

Among the problems of reduced access to healthcare is the explosion of waiting times. In 2012, 570,000 patients were on the surgical waiting list in Spain, and 480,000 in Ireland. In Cyprus there was a seven month waiting list for a hospital appointment.

This authors of an article in The Lancet also point out that “the predominant response [from the Greek government] has been denial that any serious difficulties exist, although this response is not unique to Greece; the Spanish Government has been equally reluctant to concede the harm caused by its policies”. The article gives the counter-example of Iceland, which decided to maintain its existing health policies even when confronted by the IMF after the 2008 financial crisis.

In a report published in February, Caritas charted rising inequality across Europe and confirmed that the poor were hit hardest by reductions in healthcare services.

>> Read: Child poverty on the rise, even in rich EU countries

Critical shrinking of employment, pensions and justice

The economic crisis cost the EU around 50 million jobs whilst increasing the number of job seekers by 80 million, resulting in mass unemployment in several member states.

Pension provisions have also suffered as a result: Belgium, Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal have all raised the pensionable age, and most countries have reduced the amount they pay out in pensions each month. In Greece, state pensions have been slashed by 20-40% depending on the age and status of the retiree.

Avoiding horizontal budget cuts

Spending cuts have also affected citizens’ access to justice services. Legal aid has been cut, and Belgium and Greece have introduced VAT on lawyers’ fees. The report also looks at freedom of expression and the right to protest, particularly against austerity measures. Amnesty has condemned the use of excessive force against protesters in Greece, where many demonstrations have been banned, especially when they were planned to coincide with visits from foreign dignitaries.

The report ends with a series of recommendations for the future. “It rarely appeared that the spending cuts introduced during the crisis were specifically targeted at the wasteful uses of public resources. Rather, it seems that many of the imposed measures were horizontal, indiscriminate cuts across the policy areas they targeted, in order to meet financial savings that were determined in advance,” the Parliament services wrote. The abolition of Greek public television is one such horizontal measure, which is seen today as inefficient and potentially dangerous.

The European Parliament has called for greater surveillance of austerity policies by the European institutions.

>> Read: Health cuts see new-born deaths jump 43% in Greece

The eurozone debt crisis has forced some governments to significantly reduce their health spending in order to bring down their budget deficits.

Greece has taken some of the most severe measures, but Spain and other countries like France and the Czech Republic have also taken similar action.

>> Read: Linksdossier: Austerity: Healthcare in hardship

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