European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship
The European Charter of Fundamental Rights is a compass, not a stick.
The European Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out rights – such as freedom of expression and religion, as well as economic and social rights – that reflect Europe's common values and its constitutional heritage.
But how should we enforce these rights? And what do they mean for citizens?
Today's publication of the 2010 annual report on the application of the charter, the first report of its kind by the Commission, seeks to answer these questions. But the general purpose of the charter needs to be understood by ordinary citizens and policymakers, not just lawyers.
These are questions that Commission officials address every day. In 2010, the Commission received 4,000 letters related to fundamental rights. Three in every four were beyond the remit of EU law. That correlates closely to a recent survey by the European ombudsman, which found that 72% of Europeans do not feel well informed about the charter.
Many of those letter-writers assume that the charter gives the Commission a right to intervene whenever it suspects that fundamental rights have been infringed anywhere in the EU. It does not. The Commission is not Europe's ‘fundamental rights super-cop'. Each EU country protects rights through its own national constitution and courts. The charter does not replace these.
Rather, the primary role of the charter, which became legally binding in December 2009 with the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, is to guarantee that the EU institutions respect fundamental rights in preparing new European laws. To achieve that, we need a ‘fundamental-rights culture' in which policymakers automatically and systematically take account of rights considerations. That is why I have developed and introduced a practical checklist to make sure fundamental rights are respected in each proposal, programme and law that the EU institutions prepare.
The charter does not replace national systems; it complements them, by guaranteeing that laws made at the EU level also respect citizens' fundamental rights.
The charter is, in short, a compass for all EU legislation and policies. It is not a general stick that the Commission can use to go after potential breaches of fundamental rights that have no link to EU law.
There are, though, instances where the Commission does have a right to intervene.
Last summer, I took a public stand when France took measures specifically targeted at the Roma. We have EU legislation on free movement. This was the link to EU law. The charter could therefore be applied. Under threat of sanctions, France changed its law, making sure Roma people were no longer specifically targeted and granting them substantive safeguards in case of expulsion.
The limits of the Commission's power were seen in another recent controversy, over Hungary's media law. Politicians and journalists called on the Commission to act, arguing that the fundamental right of media freedom was threatened. But the EU has no general oversight over national media legislation. EU law comes into play only exceptionally for certain cross-border issues. One such exception is the audiovisual media services directive, which deals with aspects of cross-border TV and video on-demand services. Neelie Kroes, who, as the digital agenda commissioner, is in charge of this directive, carried out a legal analysis of Hungary's transposition and application of that directive. In response, Hungary amended its law this month.
As a milestone in reinforcing a Europe of rights and values, the charter is something to be proud of. People need, though, to understand better where the charter is applicable. Invoking the charter on issues over which the Commission has no influence will confuse people and undermine its credibility.