Czechs struggling with debts: Are their economic rights in a trap?

NEWS31 Jan 2019

When we talk about human rights in the Central European context, we tend to mention mostly freedom of speech, assembly and religion or freedom from torture. During the communist regime these rights were systemically abused, and without them being guaranteed, no one can imagine a democratic country. Nevertheless, the last years seem to have shown that there are other, less easily comprehensible and enforceable rights, whose omission might lead to a more disguised disintegration of democracy – social and economic.

Amnesty International Ireland, for example, defines them as ‘rights to health, housing and to an adequate standard of living’. They were adopted in the multilateral treaty International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by the United Nations, and later ratified by most members. Unsurprisingly, we encounter a problem how to define an ‘adequate standard of living’, and it is inevitable that this will – to a certain extent – depend on the economy of each state. However, it is crucial for the state to define these standards and start protecting the citizens who – for many different reasons – live below them.

For example, even though the Czech Republic is considered to be the richest of the EU’s post-communist countries, many citizens still deal with ‘debt traps’ whose graveness is not necessarily the result of poor financial awareness, but also ‘years of loose regulation of lenders, costly repossessions and tough laws on bankruptcy,’ writes Robert Muller in his report for Reuters. At the end of 2017, almost 10 percent of the adult population in the country faced at least one seizure order (meaning that the income which is above a legal minimum can be redirected to cover debts and fees).

Even though the system has slightly improved in favour of the debtors recently, the country still has one of the harshest insolvency laws in Europe. Along with the quickly increasing housing costs and property prices, this started to pose a bigger problem for the Czech democracy and showed that dismissing economic and social rights by most of the politicians, both right-wing and left-wing, has recently backfired.

Those living in poor regions, whose situation regarding the seizures is the worst, started to support extremist parties. In 2017, the far-right party Freedom and Direct Democracy gained more than 10 percent in the parliamentary elections, the highest number any party of this political orientation has gained in the Czech history. Paradoxically, some of the party’s members in fact participate in the whole ‘business with poverty’, but – unlike most other parties who are sometimes complicit as well – Freedom and Direct Democracy speak about this issue, awakening the impression that they would change this system.

This bad economic situation truly fuels the support for extremist parties – in the aforementioned article, this is confirmed by Daniel Prokop, one of the leading Czech sociologists, who specialises in circumstances and preconditions resulting in poverty. Daniel Prokop will be one of the panellists at Central European Conference, which takes place on 3 March 2019 at the London School of Economics and Political Science, the topic of his lecture being economic and social inequality in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Thanks to experts like Daniel Prokop, the topic of social and economic rights has finally started to resonate in the public and political discourse of Central Europe.

Written by Karolina Kasparova

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