Defining ‘Western Europe’ is problematic. It has meant different things to different people at different times. Numerous definitions float around; those used by UNESCO, The U.N. and NATO all vary. The UNESCO definition compasses all countries west of Slovenia and the Czech Republic (United Nations). This is the definition that shall be used.
The Western European ‘way of life’ is also quite hard to characterise. Ways of life are often associated to culture, how people live their lives (1974). The major problem is that each country has an individual cultural style. The differences can be seen in the arts, work practices, leisure activities and the numerous languages. However for all the differences there are some similarities. Sporting activities such as Football, Tennis and Athletics are all popular in many European nations. The most significant similarity is that of the democratic and civil rights of the people. Every country in Western Europe is listed as a democratic state with free and fair elections (Freedom House, 2007).
There are numerous threats to this Western way of life. Gulf Stream shutdown, Demographic Changes, Mutually Assured Destruction, Global Recession, Climate Change, Peak Oil and Overpopulation all represent threats (Ravilious, 2005). However the largest threat could come from within our own governments.
Democracies of the West are keen to stress their strong history on civil rights and liberties. Europeans have a long history of fighting to secure freedoms for the masses. Notable events include the signing of the Magna Carta in England (1215), the rise of Renaissance Humanism in Italy (14th Century) and the French Revolution in 1789. The world has changed considerably over the past decade. The realities of terrorism and uncontrolled immigration could pose a threat as politicians seek to handle them.
Law of Rights
Is considered that the Magna Carta was where the pursuit of rights and freedoms in common law began. At the time there were disagreements amongst Pope Innocent III, King John and the English barons concerning the powers of the King. The result was the Magna Carta which required the King to renounce certain rights, respect certain legal procedures and accept the King’s power could be bound by the law. The most significant right still in force today is that of habeas corpus or the right to due process. ‘NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land’ (Ministry Of Justice, 1991). The right to trial is fundamental to the basis for common law. The Magna Carta also stated that only a Judge could dispense justice and that ‘crown officials’ could not. This freedom from the crown would in later years become important as police forces were granted powers to dispense ‘instant justice’.
In Continental Europe a pivotal historic process began in 1789 when the biggest upheaval in French history occurred. From 1789 to 1799 France transformed from an absolute monarchy to a republic. The change was brought about by numerous social and political factors. Resentment of royal absolutism, the desire for freedom of religion and growing aspirations of liberty and republicanism all contributed. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is seen as the most important document of the French Revolution. The document lays out the rights of the citizens of France. The right to ‘Liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression’ (Columbia Law School) is laid out in declaration. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. A key right laid out in the declaration is that ‘Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law’ (Columbia Law School). This particular right is of importance as it clearly states that the law is final but at the same time has limits. The laws are the ultimate rules by which every citizen must live by. This was an important principle for common law.
The most recent declaration of rights and freedoms came in the form of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). The convention was first adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950 to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. The convention consists of 18 articles in which the rights of the people are declared. They include: right to life, liberty and security, prohibition of slavery, torture and discrimination, freedom of expression and respect for a private life. Many of these rights have been afforded to citizens in Western and Northern European states prior to the signing of the convention and so the convention merely reaffirms them. The Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Representation of the People Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have all brought about the freedoms that people in Western Europe enjoy.
The liberty we enjoy is under threat, however. Under the guise of security, both domestic and international, the rights and freedoms of the people are being eroded. There are minimal concerns that the prohibition of slavery, torture and discrimination will soon be repealed in Western Europe. However the rights to liberty and security of the person are deemed more at threat. Namely from our own governments. Politicians are nominated in ‘free and fair’ elections in all West European states. The elected governments then seek to act in the interests of its people. The problem is that politicians see the removal of some freedoms in exchange for security as in the people’s best interest. Fears over terrorist activities have grown considerably since 2001. The September 11th attacks in New York highlighted the threats. In response legislation was brought in such as the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and Terrorism Act 2005. These acts have deemed to violate certain rights of the people under the Human Rights Act 1998.
The 2001 Act enabled foreigners to be detained as terrorist suspects indefinitely (The National Archives, 2001). The indefinite detention of suspects is in breach of Article 6 of the ECHR. The law was overturned in a ruling by the Law Lords in 2004 and amended in the 2005 Terrorism Act. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 further eroded this right by doubling the time a suspect could be held without charge to 14 days. This was amended to 28 days in the 2006 Terrorism Act; however the government had been seeking 90 days detention without charge (The Public Whip, 2005).
Article 8 of the ECHR declares a persons right to a private life. In 2006 the Identity Cards act was introduced in Britain. This enabled the creation of a National Identity Register and the introduction of Identity Cards both of which should be in place by 2009 (Home Office, 2008). The database will contain 50 pieces of personal information that will remain stored even after death (The National Archives, 2006). The scheme is said to have wide-ranging benefits:
- help protect identity fraud
- help to confirm your eligibility for public services and benefits
- help prevent organised crime and terrorism
- help combat illegal working and reduce illegal immigration to the UK
(Home Office, 2008)
These benefits though often come into question, as does the idea of ID cards as a whole. In November 2005, Dame Stella Rimington, the former MI5 chief, questioned the usefulness of ID cards: ‘ID cards may be helpful in all kinds of things but I don’t think they are necessarily going to make us any safer’ (BBC, 2005). The Joint Committee on Human Rights said ID cards raised serious questions about privacy and noted it was incompatible with Article 8 of the ECHR, ‘The information which the bill envisages will be held on the register allows for significant intrusion into private life’ (Travis, 2005).
If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear is a popular saying that many people use in defence of measures that limit certain freedoms and increases the remit of those in positions of power. The police, governments and teachers are examples. There is a problem with this line of thought though. It assumes that those who have access to your data are morally incorruptible and would always put your interests first. The reality is not as utopian. Governments change hands at elections. There is no logical reason to suggest that a party will not come to power that could abuse personally stored data or any other Human Rights law. Hitler was democratically elected upon a wave of national support. Under current legislation people can be detained for 28 days without charge or placed on control orders, limiting their movements and activities. If a corrupt government was elected they could use these laws to detain people who were critical of their regime and plotting against it. The case of Walter Wolfgang, in which he was forced from the 2005 Labour conference and then held under the terrorism act, highlights the abuse of legislation that can take place.
The reduction in civil liberties shows no signs of slowing down. The Association of Chief Police Officers is calling for the expansion of the National DNA Database (BBC, 2008). The idea being that DNA recovered from a crime scene could be matched and arrests made within a matter of hours. The government has signalled its plans to increase the number of day of terror detention from its current 28 days to 42 (Summers, et al., 2008). The British and EU governments are also looking to collect data on travelling between EU states. 19 pieces of information will be collected including credit card and mobile phone numbers (Traynor, 2008). It seems those in a position of power are willing to sacrifice some of our liberty in return for some security.
From as early as 1215, the rights and freedoms of the people of Western Europe have been seen to be of great importance. Their importance had led to them to be enshrined in law; the Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen are the key legal documents in European History. The process of outlining the principles of human rights and freedoms has and is continuing to this day with ratification of the ECNR by new European Union states.
Our freedoms are under threat though. Governments are seeking to act on organised crime and terrorism threats by reducing the freedoms of the many. By enacting methods of control they are violating the rights of the people whom they seek to protect. The problem is that people will always seek to commit crime and to engage in acts that harm others and governments will always seek to clamp down on them. Governments will continue to seek new powers to deal will certain individuals but at the same time erode the hard-fought for liberties won such as those from the French Revolution and that is why this is the biggest threat of them all.
The greatest threat is that government’s power over its citizens will increase until it is impossible to get those freedoms back. At that point all it would take is the election of a militant or authoritarian government and the people may never again enjoy the liberties and freedoms we have today.
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