For the European who believes in the importance of civil liberties, these are depressing times. Everywhere you look, there is some new threat to key personal freedoms on the horizon. They come from all directions: governments, regulators, vested interests, well-intentioned but misguided campaigners, and more. But all is not lost. There are ample opportunities for the EU to stand up as a beacon of common sense and freedom in policymaking. Whether it will choose to do so is another matter.
The need for a political force for freedom has never been greater. From sugar taxes to alcohol levies, citizens across Europe are seeing the costs of their everyday purchases artificially inflated by their governments, even during a painful cost of living crisis, as politicians draw from tired old policy playbooks whose policies favour virtue-signalling rather than results. The Nanny State Index, which tracks policies like these across the continent, finds that “things are getting steadily less liberal nearly everywhere.”
The European Union does not lack the capacity to push back against nanny statism. From technology to immigration, Brussels is putting its foot down and signifying on the world stage its intent to become an agenda-setter in countless hot-button policy areas. The only missing component to do the same on issues related to civil liberties is political will.
Opportunities to do so are frequent. In November, the World Health Organisation (WHO) will hold its COP10 conference in Panama City. The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) will use the conference to discuss ‘tobacco control’ with key stakeholders, including politicians, from around the world.
Historically, the WHO’s record on tobacco policies makes for dire reading. It lumps cigarettes in with other nicotine products, like vapes and snus, insisting governments should crack down on all of them. In reality, the science shows that those other products are much less harmful than cigarettes and achieve great success in helping smokers quit. More education and information on the accessibility of vaping, then, is good for public health.
Unfortunately, the WHO takes a puritanical approach to its tobacco policy discussions, insisting that vaping must be on the chopping block alongside smoking. Countries like the UK, whose National Health Service acknowledges the benefits of vaping to help smokers quit, are outliers (and even there, the government is lurching towards a vaping crackdown).
Meanwhile, the WHO, with its position of international leadership on health issues, chooses instead to reward an Indian politician for banning vaping. It is likely to use COP10 to once again encourage world leaders to take up the fight against reduced-harm nicotine products, flying in the face of scientific policymaking and disregarding civil liberties, personal responsibility and freedom of choice.
This is a golden opportunity for Europe to demonstrate its willingness to stand up for civil liberties on the world stage. In the run-up to COP10, Brussels could put its foot down in the same way it has on other issues and insist that policymaking on tobacco and vaping should be informed by the science and what is best for citizens, not anything else, helping safeguard civil liberties.
Brussels is in a unique position, because it can speak on behalf of the entire European continent. In a large global forum like a WHO conference, there will undoubtedly be voices standing up for freedom and common sense, but there will be so many paternalistic voices in the room they may be drowned out by the louder calls for big-state solutions to every perceived problem.
That is why it is so important for the EU to use its position as a spokesperson for Europe to positive effect. With its position of power comes a responsibility to stand up for the interests of European citizens at an international level and refuse to accept top-down diktats from the likes of the WHO, whose conferences are notorious for excluding dissenting voices and disregarding inconvenient scientific realities.
The European project is at a crossroads. Brussels must choose whether it wants the EU to be a force for freedom or statism. The EU has countless opportunities on its plate to bring together its community of nations to lessen the barriers imposed by the state on citizens’ freedom to live as they wish, from smoking and vaping to immigration, trade, tax and more.
Even beyond Europe, the EU has the potential to become a truly formidable player on the world stage. Its member states have a population of almost half a billion people and a collective economy with a GDP of nearly $17bn. When the EU speaks, the world listens. That includes the World Health Organisation, as well as other agenda-setting bodies like the UN and NATO. Brussels may already have more power than it realises to sway the political mood music. It should use that power to throw civil liberties a much-needed lifeline.
As the EU grows and its bureaucracy seems to exponentially increase in size, there is a danger that things go in the opposite direction, and the EU becomes a force for bigger government, more waste, harmful short-termist interventionist policies and further curbs to basic freedoms. Only time will tell which direction of travel Brussels will choose.
Picture: World Health Organisation headquarters, Geneva, north and west sides. (Copyright: By I, Yann, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2367501)