Human Rights in the EU and UK elections: where do we stand?

The year 2024 marks a significant turning point in the political landscape. Citizens in the EU and UK will head to the polling station to vote in their respective elections for the first time since the pandemic, Brexit, the rise in nationalism, the war in Ukraine, and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, which have deeply polarised Europe.

Let’s zoom into the European elections

Between the 6-9th June, European voters across the 27 EU member states elected the 720 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who will work alongside the EU institutions to enact legislation impacting policies and relations in the EU and the world over the next five years.

For the past five years, we have experienced a centrist coalition led by Ursula von Der Leyen. The previous mandate sought to promote peace, stability, and multilateralism in the EU and abroad, as stated in the European Union priorities 2019-2024. Additionally, the EU presented the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, proposing various policies to condemn human rights abusers, protect and empower human rights defenders, and safeguard supply chains from human rights violations.

While the previous mandate sought to improve human rights in the EU and worldwide, the willingness of European policymakers to materialise those commitments too often fell short. Maintaining relations with abusive governments frequently remained the easy option and implementing policies that truly reduced discrimination and intolerance in the EU seemed ‘too challenging’ to achieve.

The rise of the far-right in the recent European election raises fears that the EU may lose its balance on the centrist fence and fall into a more nationalist approach, putting human rights policies on the backseat. Given that far-right parties like Rassemblement National (RN), Alternative for Germany (AfD), Brothers of Italy, and the Freedom Party of Austria, gained seats in the Parliament, there are concerns that their ideas may affect EU policy on human rights. For instance, in the past, the far-right’s position on immigration has led to the yielding of a series of agreements with neighbouring EU countries to prevent immigrants from entering its borders – regardless of the poor human rights records of some of these countries, such as Libya and Tunisia.

What remains to be seen is the far-rights ability to exert real influence in the Parliament given their usual inability to unite on key issues. This has been exemplified time and again through Meloni and Le Pen’s contentious relationship and political disagreements, especially over the war in Ukraine. Moreover, far-right MEPs’ level of engagement has also been low in the past, with far-right MEPs regularly failing to show up for votes.

Let’s zoom into the UK’s general election

On 4th July, the UK General Election takes place where UK citizens have the opportunity to elect new members of parliament (MPs). Significantly, this election will likely result in Conservatives losing their 14 years of power and being replaced by Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. So, how can we expect this significant shift to impact human rights?

On the one hand, the Conservative Party Manifesto makes several commitments to securing the rights and protection of the British people and their homeland. Similar to the far-right in the EU, Conservatives favour implementing policies at a national level over those dictated by a supranational entity. In the field of human rights policies, the 2010, 2015 and 2019 Conservative Party manifestos pledged to replace or repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw their membership to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In addition, the 2024 manifesto concludes that if push comes to shove between the UK Government and the jurisdiction of a foreign court – including the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) – “we will always choose our security”. This shows that while the Conservative commitment to protecting human rights at home does not falter, less can be said about the Government’s commitment to human rights abroad. Let’s not forget the Government Rwanda deportation scheme, which continues to be part of the Conservatives manifesto. This includes the commitment to a “regular rhythm of flights every month…until the boats are stopped.” In the unlikely scenario that the Conservatives remain in power, human rights abroad may face further setbacks as the focus shifts increasingly towards stringent national policies over international human rights obligations.

On the other hand, the Labour Party’s manifesto includes several references to strengthening human rights in the UK and abroad. For instance, Labour is committed to “address the humanitarian crises”, “deepen ties with our European friends, neighbours and allies”, a “commitment to NATO”, and most importantly, pledging that “Britain will unequivocally remain a member of the European Convention on Human Rights”. Indeed, the Labour Party’s commitments signal a break from the past and a transition to a more multilateral approach to policymaking. The theme of ‘change’ is also a prominent feature in Labour’s manifesto and has become the buzzword for Keir Starmer’s election campaign. In contrast to developments at the EU level, the Labour leader has vowed to address the rise in populism and nationalism. Despite the likely Labour victory, Starmer must remain cautious of the internal battle he may face on human rights policies. Indeed, the continued rise of the Reform Party may continue to drag UK politics rightwards on topics related to immigration and membership to the ECtHR.  If the UK is set to champion human rights again, the incoming government must make tangible policy decisions and find allies at the European stage to safeguard people’s freedoms on a global scale.

While it can be easy to overlook the link between the EU and UK elections and believe that human rights are only about issues taking place abroad, the 2024 elections in both jurisdictions hold notable importance in the field of human rights. The U.K.’s likely move towards a centre-left government comes at a time when the EU is heading in a more protectionist direction, focused on nationalistic views and policies.  It begs the question, can the incoming Labour Government remind the EU of its human rights priorities from the previous mandate and perhaps, forge a more united alliance?