"Almost four years after the European Commission presented its strategy on the implementation of the EU Charter, we have succeeded in strengthening the fundamental rights culture in the EU institutions. All Commissioners take an oath on the Fundamental Rights Charter, we check every European legislative proposal to ensure it is up to standard with the Charter and European and national courts have progressively made the Charter a reference point in their judgements,” said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. “I am glad to see the Charter is now fully alive serving as a real safety net for our citizens and as a compass for EU institutions, Member States and courts alike. I could imagine that one day citizens in the Member States will be able to rely directly on the Charter – without the need for a clear link to EU law. The Charter should be Europe's very own Bill of Rights."
The report issued today provides a comprehensive overview of how fundamental rights have been successfully implemented in the EU over the past year. It highlights, for example, guidance given by the European Court of Justice to national judges on the applicability of the Charter when implementing EU law at national level (the much debated Åkerberg Fransson judgment in 2013). It also shows how the rights enshrined in the Charter are taken into careful consideration by the EU institutions when proposing and adopting EU legislation, while Member States are only bound by the Charter when they implement EU policies and law at national level. Finally, the report gives examples of where fundamental rights enshrined in the EU Charter played a role in infringement proceedings launched by the Commission against Member States.
The report also reveals that there is a high interest among citizens in fundamental rights issues: in 2013 the issues most frequently raised by citizens in their correspondence with Europe Direct Contact Centres were free movement and residence (48% of the total number of enquiries), consumer rights issues (12%), judicial cooperation (11%), questions related to citizenship (10%), anti-discrimination and social rights (5%) and data protection (4%) (see Annex 1).
Two ways of making the Charter a reality
1. Commission action to promote the Charter
Where the EU has competence to act, the Commission can propose EU legislation that defends the rights and principles of the Charter.
Examples of Commission proposals in 2013 include:
Five legal measures to boost safeguards for EU citizens in criminal proceedings (IP/13/1157, MEMO/13/1046). These include measures to guarantee respect for the presumption of innocence of all citizens suspected or accused by police and judicial authorities, the right to be present at trial, making sure children have special safeguards when facing criminal proceedings and guaranteeing access to provisional legal aid at the early stages of proceedings and especially for people subject to a European Arrest Warrant.
There was a need to balance criminal law measures already in place (such as the European Arrest Warrant) with legal instruments that give strong defence rights for citizens in line with the Charter. Strong EU-wide standards for procedural rights and victims’ rights are central to strengthening mutual trust in the European Justice area. In this regard, the adoption of a Directive on the right of access to a lawyer in 2013 constitutes another milestone (IP/13/921).
Roma integration is another area where the EU continues to reinforce protection of equal rights and promote the adoption of positive measures. The Commission reviews progress of national Roma integration strategies and outlined first results in the 28 EU countries (IP/14/371). In addition, all Member States committed to improve the economic and social integration of Roma communities, through the unanimous adoption of a Council Recommendation that the Commission had put forward in June 2013 (IP/13/1226, IP/13/607).
Examples of enforcement action (infringements) in 2013 include:
Following legal action, the Commission ensured that Austria's data protection authority is no longer part of the Federal Chancellery but has its own budget and staff and is thus independent; while Hungary took measures, in March 2013, to comply with the Court's judgement on the forced early retirement of 274 judges (MEMO/12/832).
2. Courts relying on the Charter
The European Union Courts have increasingly referred to the Charter in their decisions and have further clarified its applicability. The number of decisions of EU Courts (Court of Justice, general Court and Civil service Tribunal) quoting the Charter in their reasoning went from 43 in 2011 to 87 in 2012. In 2013, 114 decisions quoted the EU Charter, which is almost three times the number of cases of 2011 (see Annex 2).
Likewise, national courts have also increasingly referred to the Charter when addressing questions to the Court of Justice (preliminary rulings): in 2012, such references rose by 65% as compared to 2011, from 27 to 41. In 2013 the number of referrals remained at 41, the same as in 2012.
Increasing the reference to the Charter is an important step forward, to build a more coherent system for the protection of fundamental rights which guarantees equal levels of rights and protection in all Member States, whenever EU law is being implemented.
Increasing public references to the Charter have led to an improved awareness of the Charter: In 2013, the Commission received almost 4000 letters from the general public regarding fundamental rights issues. Of these, only 31% concerned situations which entirely fell outside EU competence (against 69% in 2010 and 42% in 2012). This shows that the Commission’s efforts to raise awareness of how and where the Charter applies are paying off. The Commission also received over 900 questions from the European Parliament and around 120 petitions.
Finally, the report also draws attention to the progress made on the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In April 2013, the draft agreement on the EU’s accession to the ECHR was finalised, which is a milestone in the accession process. As a next step, the Commission has asked the Court to give its opinion on the draft agreement.
The report issued today is accompanied by a progress report in implementing the European strategy for equality between women and men during 2013 (see IP/14/423).
With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union became legally binding. The Charter sets out fundamental rights – such as the freedom of expression and the protection of personal data – which reflect Europe’s common values and its constitutional heritage.
In October 2010, the Commission adopted a strategy to ensure that the Charter is effectively implemented. It developed a "Fundamental Rights Check List" (Annex 3) to reinforce the evaluation of impacts on fundamental rights of its legislative proposals. The Commission also committed to providing information to citizens on when it can intervene in fundamental rights issues and to publishing an Annual Report on the Charter’s application to monitor the progress achieved.
The Commission is working with the relevant authorities at national, regional and local, as well as at EU level to better inform people about their fundamental rights and where to go for help if they feel their rights have been infringed. The Commission now provides practical information on enforcing one's rights via the European e-Justice portal and has set up a dialogue on handling fundamental rights complaints with ombudsmen, equality bodies and human rights institutions.
The Charter is addressed, first and foremost, to the EU institutions. It complements national systems and does not replace them. Member States are subject to their own constitutional systems and to the fundamental rights set out in these. The concrete steps to implement the Charter have fostered a fundamental rights reflex when the Commission prepares new legislative and policy proposals. This approach is essential throughout the EU decision-making process, including when the European Parliament and Council, where Member States are represented, make amendments to proposals prepared by the Commission.
For more information
Press pack: Fundamental rights and gender equality reports:
European Commission – Fundamental rights:
Vice President Reding on Fundamental Rights: From words to actions:
Homepage of Vice-President Viviane Reding, EU Justice Commissioner: http://ec.europa.eu/reding
Follow the Vice-President on Twitter: @VivianeRedingEU