The European Court of Human Rights and austerity measures in the Eurozone: an ally against human rights violations or merely a bystander?

AuthorIfigeneia Intzipeoglou
PositionPolicy Intern at the EU Delegation to the United Nations in Geneva and member of the Athens Bar Association
Pages1-26
2019 LSE LAW REVIEW 1
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The European Court of Human Rights and austerity
measures in the Eurozone: an ally against human rights
violations or merely a bystander?
Ifigeneia Intzipeoglou*
ABSTRACT
The 2008 financial crisis created a domino effect that affected national economies around the
globe, forcing many to adopt severe austerity measures. This paper, using four Eurozone countries
(Greece, Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands) as examples, will attempt to eva luate the mediocre
response of ECtH R to violations of the right to property and due process caused by austerity,
and subsequently try to explain the ECtHR’s stance on the matter by analysing the doctrines of
margin of appreciation, subsidiarity and legitimacy. A brief comparison of the responses of the
other regional institutions in similar cases, especially the European Committee of Social Rights
(ECSR) and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will follow before exploring
possible implications for the future based on the attitude of the Court towards other crises and
the development of its jurisprudence regarding socio-economic rights.
INTRODUCTION
Approximately ten years ago, the international community was shaken
by a key event: the global financial crisis, kicked off by the American sub-prime
mortgage collapse. It was promptly followed by an economic crisis which went
beyond the financial system alone and affected the so-called ‘real economy’. This
included recessions brought about by housing bubble collapses, retrenchment in
banks as well as sovereign debt crises1. Although in the beginning the European
* LLB (Thessaloniki) ‘15, LLM (LSE) ‘18. Policy Intern at the EU Delegation to the United Nations
in Geneva and member of the Athens Bar Association.
1 Aoife Nolan, ‘Not fit for purpose? Human rights in times of financial and economic crisis’ (2015) 4
EHRLR 360.
2 The ECtHR and Austerity Measures in the Eurozone Vol 4
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Union (EU) and the Eurozone seemed immune, it was soon evident that its
monetary and financial architecture was not prepared to cope with such massive
setbacks. In 2010, a financial assistance mechanism was put in place by the
Council of the EU to support the economically weakest Eurozone countries, but
even the countries with more robust economies implemented austerity measures.2
Those measures included inter alia tax increases, public spending cuts, reduction
of pensions and freezing of salaries, and had a devastating effect on the exercise
of human rights in Europe. Social and economic rights were particularly affected,
but civil and political rights did not escape unscathed. At the same time, regional
judicial bodies have been criticized for their hesitation to challenge state fiscal
policies that have been detrimental to human rights, prompting some scholars to
countenance the ‘endtimes of human rights’.3
Based on these developments, this paper will attempt to examine the
response of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to the measures
adopted in the wake of the global financial and economic crisis in the Eurozone.
Using Greece, Portugal, Ireland and the Netherlands as examples, it will first
present how the ECtHR handled cases concerning alleged violations of the right
to property in Art. 1 Prot. 1 and due process in Art. 6 in relating to the austerity
measures. An analysis of the trends observed in this case-law will follow
focusing on the Court’s apathy towards the measures with specific references to
the margin of appreciation, subsidiarity and legitimacy issues. Subsequently, the
responses of the ECtHR will be compared with those of other regional
institutions in similar cases, especially the European C ommittee of Social Rights
(ECSR) and the Court of Justice of the European Unio n (CJEU) in order to
identify if the Court was the right place to address those questions. The essay
will conclude by suggesting what the ECtHR could do differently in the future,
drawing from its own experience in dealing with terrorism and socio-economic
rights.
2 Margot Salomon, ‘Of Austerity, Human Rights and International Institutions’ (2015) 21(4) ILJ 521.
3 Conor Gearty, ‘Is the human rights era drawing to a close?’ (2017) 5 EHRLR 425.

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