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The German Right to an Existenzminimum, Human Dignity, and the Possibility of Minimum Core Socioeconomic Rights Protection

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2019

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Due to the financial crisis, European states are struggling to make both ends meet and comply with budgetary requirements, This results in cutting pensions and the public wage bill, as well as in phasing out subsidies and other forms of assistance, Although welfare state arrangements have become more limited in the past several decades, especially now, in these times of austerity, it is worth asking how far states can go in limiting social welfare programs, On the one hand, it can be said that there need to be fundamental rights-based limits to the legitimate phasing out or cutting down of existing arrangements to ensure that a minimum level of social arrangements is at all times guaranteed. On the other hand, it is hard to curtail the legislature's freedom by setting such limits, as the political sensitivity, technical aspects, and budgetary implications of social measures seemingly do not allow for too much fundamental rights rhetoric.

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Copyright © 2015 by German Law Journal GbR 

References

1 Instead of enabling individuals to bring a claim to certain socioeconomic guarantees before a (constitutional) court, they often guide government behavior—but may be overshadowed, at least in times of austerity, by other state concerns. See, on social rights in European constitutions generally, for example, Justiciability of Economic and Social Rights: Experiences from Domestic Systems (Fons Coomans ed., 2006); Social Rights Jurisprudence: Emerging Trends in International and Comparative Law (Malcolm Langford ed., 2009). Interesting are also Avi Ben-Bassat & Momi Dahan, Social Rights in the Constitution and in Practice, 36 J. Comp. Econ. 103 (2008) (on the effects of constitutional commitments to social rights on policy) and Monica Brito Vieira & Filipe Carreira da Silva, Getting Rights Right: Explaining Social Rights Constitutionalization in Portugal, 11 Int'l J. Const. Law (ICON) 898 (2013).Google Scholar

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27 On social rights in the jurisprudence of the ECtHR see also, for example, Eva Brems, Indirect Protection of Social Rights by the European Court of Human Rights, in Exploring Social Rights: Between Theory and Practice 135 (Daphne Barak-Erez & Aeyel M. Gross eds., 2007); Clements, Luke & Simmons, Allen, European Court of Human Rights: Sympathetic Unease, in Social Rights Jurisprudence: Emerging Trends in International and Comparative Law, 409 (Malcolm Langford ed., 2008); O'Cinneide, Calm, A Modest Proposal: Destitution, State Responsibility and the European Convention on Human Rights, 5 European Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 583 (2008); Palmer, Ellie, Protecting Socioeconomic Rights Through the European Convention on Human Rights: Trends and Developments in the European Court of Human Rights, 2 Erasmus L. Rev. 397 (2009); Ida Elisabeth Koch, Human Rights as Indivisible Rights: The Protection of Socioeconomic Demands under the European Convention on Human Rights (2009).Google Scholar

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31 Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG – Federal Constitutional Court], Case No. 1 BvL, 1/09, 125 BVerfGE 175 (Feb. 9 2010) [hereinafter Hartz IV] (English translation available at www.bverfg.de/entscheidungen/ls20100209_1bvl000109en.html); Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG – Federal Constitutional Court], Case No. 1 BvL 10/10, 132 BVerfGE 134 (July 18, 2012) [hereinafter Asylum Seekers Benefits], See, on the Hartz IV judgment, the special section on “The Hartz IV Case and the German Sozialstaat,” 12 German L.J. 1879 (2011), and in particular Bittner, supra note 29, and Stefanie Egidy, Casenote, The Fundamental Right to the Guarantee of a Subsistence Minimum in the Hartz IV Decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court, 12 German L.J. 1961 (2011). See, on the Asylum Seekers Benefits case in particular, Inga Winkler & Claudia Mahler, Interpreting the Right to a Dignified Minimum Existence: A New Era in German Socioeconomic Rights Jurisprudence, 13 Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 388 (2013).Google Scholar

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33 Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland [Grundgesetz] [GG] [Basic Law], May 23, 1949, BGBl. I, art. 20 (“Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland ist ein demokratischer und sozialer Bundesstaat.”).Google Scholar

34 E.g., Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG – Federal Constitutional Court], Case No. V C 78.54 1 BVerfGE 159, 161 (Jun. 24, 1954).Google Scholar

35 Article 1 (1) of the German Basic Law reads: “Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar. Sie zu achten und zu schützen ist Verpflichtung aller staatlichen Gewalt.” (“Human dignity is inviolable. It is the duty of all public authorities to respect and protect it.”)Google Scholar

36 E.g., Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG – Federal Constitutional Court], Case No. 1 BvL 20/84, 1 BvL 26/84, 1 BvL 4/86, 82 BVerfGE 60 (May 29, 1990). In order for parents to provide for their children, moreover, aliments to be paid have to be tax free.Google Scholar

37 See Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG – Federal Constitutional Court], Case No. 1 BvR 569/05, 5 BVerfGE 237 (May 12, 2005).Google Scholar

38 See supra note 30. See, on this development also, for example, Christian Seiler, Das Grundrecht auf ein menschenwürdiges Existenzminimum: Zum Urteil des Bundesverfassungsgerichts vom 9.2.2010, Juristenzeitung 500 (2010); Kingreen, Thorsten, Schätzungen „ins Blaue hinein“: Zu den Auswirkungen des Hartz IV-Urteils des Bundesverfassungsgerichts auf das Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz, Neue Zeitschrift für Verwaltungsrecht 558 (2010); Schnath, Matthias, Auswirkungen des neuen Grundrechts auf Gewährleistung des Existenzminimums auf die besonderen Hilfen nach dem Zwölften Sozialgesetzbuches (SGB XII), Sozialrecht aktuell 173 (2010); Jens-Hendrik Hörmann, Rechtsprobleme des Grundrechts auf Gewährleistung eines menschenwürdigen Existenzminimums. Zu den Auswirkungen des “Regelleistungsurteils” auf die “Hartz IV”-Gesetzgebung und andere Sozialgesetze (2012).Google Scholar

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40 Bittner, supra note 29, at 1944.Google Scholar

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42 Id. at para. 135. Indeed, there is a right to both the physical and socio-cultural aspects thereof. Cf. Bittner, supra note 28, at 1952-53 (“The Court explicitly denied a division of this guarantee into an absolute part (for example food, housing and clothing) and additional parts covering the participation in social and political life.”). See, for a different view, Egidy, supra note 30, at 1976.Google Scholar

43 Either from the state or from third persons. See Hartz IV at para. 136 (referring to earlier cases). Cf. also Asylum Seekers Benefits at para. 91.Google Scholar

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45 Id. para. 141 (“Since the Basic Law itself does not permit any precise figure to be put on the claim, the material review as regards the result is restricted to whether the benefits are evidently insufficient.” (referring to Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG – Federal Constitutional Court], Case No. 1 BvL 20/84, 82 BVerfGE 60, 91-92 (May 29, 1990))).Google Scholar

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49 See id. at para. 171. There it holds that:Google Scholar

'[R]andom’ estimates … run counter to a procedure of realistic investigation, and hence violate Article 1.1 of the Basic Law in conjunction with the principle of the social welfare state contained in Article 20.1 of the Basic Law. To make it possible to examine whether the valuations and decisions taken by the legislature correspond to the constitutional guarantee of a subsistence minimum that is in line with human dignity, the legislature handing down the provision is subject to the obligation to reason them in a comprehensible manner; this is to be demanded above all if the legislature deviates from a method which it has selected itself.

See for a more detailed overview of the (very detailed) review of the FCC, Bittner, supra note 29, at 1949-50.

50 See Hartz IV at paras. 144, 210.Google Scholar

51 id. at para. 216. In 2011, a new law was enacted (Regelbedarfs-Ermittlungsgesetz, Mar. 24, 2011, BGBl. I § 435 (Ger.)), see, e.g., Winkler, & Mahler, , supra note 31, at 401.Google Scholar

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54 In fact, already for some time, and especially after the Hartz IV judgment, doubts had been voiced as regards the constitutionality of the Act. See, e.g., Kingreen, supra note 38; Hörmann, supra note 38, at 208; Haedrich, Martina, Das Asylbewerberleistungsgesetz, das Existenzminimum und die Standards der EU-Aufnahmerichtlinie, 30 Zeitschrift für Ausländerrecht und Ausländerpolitik 227 (2010); Görsch, Christoph, Asylbewerberleistungsrechtliches Existenzminimum und gesetzgeberischer Gestaltungsspielraum, Neue Zeitschrift für Sozialrecht 646 (2011).Google Scholar

55 Asylum Seekers Benefits, at para. 63 (author's translation) (emphasis added).Google Scholar

56 See Council Directive 2003/9, 2003 O.J. (L 31/18) (EC).Google Scholar

57 See Convention on the Rights of the Child, arts. 22(1), 28, G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/RES/44/25 (Nov. 20, 1989). See also Asylum Seekers Benefits at para. 94.Google Scholar

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59 See id. at para. 100. See also Hartz IV at para. 138.Google Scholar

60 See Asylum Seekers Benefits at paras. 117, 122.Google Scholar

61 See id. at paras. 106-15.Google Scholar

62 See id. at paras. 108-11.Google Scholar

63 See id. at paras. 112-15.Google Scholar

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65 See Hartz IV at para. 138; Asylum Seekers Benefits at para. 93.Google Scholar

66 See, e.g., Gearty, supra note 17.Google Scholar

67 Article 2(1) of the ICESCR reads:Google Scholar

Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adaption of legislative measures.Google Scholar

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72 Comm. on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 19, para. 59, Rep. on its 39th Sess., U.N. Doc. E/C.12/GC/19 (Feb. 4, 2008) (“The Right to Social Security”).Google Scholar

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74 The right to an Existenzminimum “only covers those means which are vital to maintain an existence that is in line with human dignity. It guarantees the whole subsistence minimum by a uniform fundamental rights guarantee which encompasses both the physical existence of the individual, that is food, clothing, household goods, housing, heating, hygiene and health.” Hartz IV at para. 135. See also Asylum Seekers Benefits at para. 90. Different from the ICESCR example, however, in Germany there is no fundamental right to anything beyond this minimum, whereas fundamental economic and social rights ideally be guaranteed “in full,” at least when the available resources allow for this.Google Scholar

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76 Hartz IV at para. 140. See also Asylum Seekers Benefits at para. 98.Google Scholar

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79 It is considered impossible to come up with a workable standard all states can comply with. At the same time, even if there could be a state based minimum core, the actual provision of essential means might be too big a burden. This was recognized by the South African Constitutional Court in the TAC case. See Minister of Health & Others v. Treatment Action Campaign & Others 2002 (5) SA 721 (CC) at para. 35 (5. Afr.).Google Scholar

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84 Id. para. 41. E.g., Paul O'Connell, Vindicating Socioeconomic Rights: International Standards and Comparative Experiences 76-77 (2012).Google Scholar

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86 Although this “absoluteness” is of a distinct kind. Cf. id. at 155; Neumann, Volker, Menschenwürde und Existenzminimum, Neue Zeitschrift für Verwaltungsrecht, 426, 428 (1995); Bittner, , supra note 29, at 1953. Seiler, supra note 38, at 504 (holding that because the right has to be carved out by the legislature, “das Grundrecht auf materielle Existenzsicherung [ist] … seiner Natur nach relativ”).Google Scholar

87 “[The Existenzminimum] guarantees the whole subsistence minimum by a uniform fundamental rights guarantee which encompasses both the physical existence of the individual, that is food, clothing, household goods, housing, heating, hygiene and health …, and ensuring the possibility to maintain inter-human relationships and a minimum of participation in social, cultural and political life.” Hartz IV at para. 135. Cf. Egidy, supra note 31, at 1971.Google Scholar

88 It is important that actually “formulating” these guarantees, rather than implicitly recognizing them, increases the transparency of a court's practice while—in the case of “classic” norms—it duly recognizes the principle of indivisibility. See, infra Section D.Google Scholar

89 See Hartz IV at para. 143. These can be translated in the “rationale,” “transparency” and “consistency requirement.” See Bittner, supra note 29, at 1948.Google Scholar

90 See Bittner, supra note 29, at 1957. Speaking of the requirement of consistency, she holds that:Google Scholar

This is an enormous task—even if the competent ministry makes every effort to implement a consistent scheme of calculating the standard benefits—because this result may be diluted and distorted in the political process leading up to enactment. The goal of consistency is not what dominates the democratic legislative process in a pluralistic society. Egidy, supra note 31, at 1981.

91 So far, no agreement has been reached on legislative alterations, which is disappointing according to some. See Winkler & Mahler, supra note 31, at 400. Cf. Egidy, supra note 31, at 1982 (regarding the effects of the judgments more generally); Bittner, , supra note 29, at 1957.Google Scholar

92 Having held for a long time that the duty of providing for a subsistence minimum could be conferred on the state on the basis of the social state principle, which does not entail individually enforceable fundamental rights, the FCC goes one step further in the cases presented above. An actual and autonomous right to a subsistence minimum is inferred by combining the Sozialstaatsprinzip with Article 1, Section 1 of the Basic Law. See supra Section B.Google Scholar

93 Of course this does not go for every state. For a great number of states, the provision of such a minimum does not seem feasible at all. As Bittner notes: “It is the crux of the absolute right to guarantee a subsistence minimum, … that the state guaranteeing such a right may not be able to administer it when most urgently needed.” Bittner, supra note 29, at 1960.Google Scholar

94 Yet, as Bittner argued, one needs to be mindful of not stretching the concept of human dignity too far as “[t]he constant and inflationary invocation of human dignity can ultimately lead to a loss of meaning. The absolute right to human dignity is in danger of being trivialized by the public at large.” Bittner, supra note 29, at 1957.Google Scholar

95 See, e.g., Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, U.N. Doc. A/RES/217(III), pmbl., arts. 1, 22, 23 (Dec. 10, 1948); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, pmbl., art. 10, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171; International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, pmbl., art. 13, Dec. 16, 1966, 993 U.N.T.S. 3; Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union [CFR] title I, arts. 1, 23, 31, Mar. 30, 2010, 2010 O.J. (C 83) 2.Google Scholar

96 Except for in the Preamble to Protocol 13 to the ECHR, where it is stated “that everyone's right to life is a basic value in a democratic society and that the abolition of the death penalty is essential for the protection of this right and for the full recognition of the inherent dignity of all human beings.” Protocol No. 13 to the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, pmbl., Jan. 7, 2003, E.T.S. No. 187.Google Scholar

97 See, e.g., Pretty v. the United Kingdom, ECHR App. No. 2346/02, 35 Eur. Ct. H.R. 1, para. 65 (2002).Google Scholar

98 Cf. Airey v. Ireland, ECHR App. No. 6289/73, 32 Eur. Ct. H.R. (ser. A) para. 26 (1979); Stec and Others v. the United Kingdom, ECHR App. Nos. 65731/01, 65900/01, paras. 50-51 (Apr. 12, 2006), http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/ (stressing the provision of welfare benefits as rights).Google Scholar

99 Cf. Sandra Fredman, Human Rights Transtormed: Positive Rights and Positive Duties 10-14 (2008); Amartya, Sen, Development as Freedom 90-91 (1999); Nussbaum, Martha, Women and Human Development 12 (2002).Google Scholar

100 Unlike national courts, the ECtHR does not have the possibility to directly enter into a dialogue with the national legislature to find a compromise between the majority's will and the minority's concerns.Google Scholar

101 Of course, the possibilities for courts to deal with social issues vary from state to state. In some states—for example, due to the fact that economic and social rights are enumerated in the Constitution—the role for courts in this respect is a relatively large one. In other states, the emphasis is on negative fundamental rights protection.Google Scholar

102 See supra note 25.Google Scholar

103 While for a “social state” it might be worth aiming for more than the provision of an absolute minimum. Cf. Görsch, supra note 54, at 649. The ECtHR should arguably not move beyond any minimum provision of social guarantees.Google Scholar

104 Cf. Koch, supra note 27 (in relation to the ECHR).Google Scholar

105 See Hartz IV at para. 142.Google Scholar

106 Indeed, even in the German context the requirements are arguably too detailed. See Bittner, supra note 90, at 1954.Google Scholar

107 For example, in the so-called “pilot judgments” the legislature is indirectly called upon to alter the legal regime in place. See, e.g., Broniowski v. Poland, ECHR App. No. 31443/96 (June 22, 2004), http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/.Google Scholar

108 This could imply that in the case of the provision of social benefits, one has a right to have his personal situation considered by the responsible authorities. Cf. the Roma housing case law of the Court, where it has formulated demands as to the proportionality analysis that has to take place at the national level. See, e.g., Winterstein and Others v. France, ECHR App. No. 27013/07 (Oct. 17, 2013), http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/.Google Scholar

109 Indeed, an equal treatment approach can have a significant “socializing” effect. See, e.g., Oddný Mjöll Arnardóttir, Discrimination as a Magnifying Lens: Scope and Ambit under Article 14 and Protocol No. 12, in Shaping Rights in the ECHR: The Role of the European Court of Human Rights in Determining the Scope of Human Rights 330 (Eva Brems & Janneke Gerards eds., 2014).Google Scholar