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Brussels, 31 March 2011
Annual report on the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – frequently asked questions
What are fundamental rights?
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out a series of individual rights and freedoms. It entrenches the rights developed in the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU, found in the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as other rights and principles resulting from the constitutional traditions of EU Member States and other international instruments.
Drawn up by government representatives and parliamentarians from all EU countries, the Charter sets out fundamental rights – such as freedom of expression or religion, as well as economic and social rights – reflecting Europe's common values and constitutional heritage. There are also newer, so-called "third generation" rights, such as the right to data protection and the right to good administration.
On 1 December 2009, with the entry into force of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, the Charter became legally binding on the EU institutions and on national governments, just like the EU Treaties themselves – the legal bedrock on which the EU's actions are founded.
How are fundamental rights granted by the Charter implemented?
The European Commission adopted a strategy in October 2010 for implementing the rights found in the Charter in practice (IP/10/1348). It aims to guarantee that the EU is beyond reproach in upholding fundamental rights.
The Commission therefore developed a "fundamental rights check list" to verify that all EU laws are in compliance with the Charter at each stage of the legislative process – from the early preparatory work in the Commission to the adoption of draft laws by the European Parliament and the Council, and then in their application by EU Member States.
The Commission systematically assesses the impact on rights of any new proposal, works with the European Parliament and the Council to make sure laws adopted are in line with the Charter, and uses all tools necessary to make sure EU countries respect the Charter when implementing European law.
What is the Annual Report on the application of the Charter?
To make sure fundamental rights and freedoms in the Charter are properly implemented, the Commission is publishing this year – for the first time – an Annual Report on the Application of the Charter. The report monitors progress in the areas where the EU has powers to act: showing how the Charter has been taken into account in concrete cases, notably when new EU legislation is proposed. The report highlights how the fundamental rights enshrined in the Charter are relevant across a range of policies for which the EU is responsible and must always be taken into careful consideration when designing and implementing EU actions: from access to justice and transport policy to border management.
The report will also provide an opportunity for an annual exchange of views with the European Parliament and the Council. It should help citizens determine where they need to turn when they believe that their fundamental rights have been violated by an EU institution or by a national authority which implements EU law.
Where should people turn in case their rights are violated?
In the EU, protection of fundamental rights is guaranteed both at national level by Member States' constitutional systems – which pre-date the Charter and have more developed case law – and at EU level by the Charter, EU legislation and the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU.
The Charter protects individuals and legal entities against actions by the EU institutions that are not in conformity with fundamental rights. If this happens, the Court of Justice has the power to review the legality of the act, and the Commission has the power to start respective proceedings.
If a national authority violates the Charter when implementing EU law, national judges, under the guidance of the Court of Justice of the EU, have the power to ensure that the Charter is respected. In addition, the Commission has the power to start infringement proceedings against the Member State. This power does not exist when Member States are acting on the basis of national law only.
Moreover, all EU Member States have made commitments under the European Convention of Human Rights, independently of their obligations under EU law. Therefore, as a last resort, and after exhausting all remedies available at national level, individuals may bring an action at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for violation of a fundamental right guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
What if the case falls outside the scope of EU law?
The public authorities of the Member States – legislative, executive and judicial – are only bound to comply with the Charter when implementing EU law, for example when applying EU regulations or decisions or implementing EU directives. Article 51 of the Charter states that "The provisions of this Charter are addressed to the institutions, bodies and organs of the Union with due regard for the principle of subsidiarity and to the Member States only when they are implementing Union law." When Member States act outside the implementation of EU law, their national constitutions protect fundamental rights and contain rules for their protection. In these cases, individuals need to address their complaint to the relevant national authority, be it the government, national courts or specialised human rights bodies.
The Charter thus complements, but does not replace national constitutional systems or the system of fundamental rights protection guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. Are people aware of these rights?
A survey by the European Ombudsman recently found that 72% of people in the EU do not feel well informed about the Charter of Fundamental Rights (EO/11/6). In 2010, the Commission received more than 4,000 letters from the general public regarding fundamental rights. Approximately three quarters of these concerned cases outside the remit of EU law. This reflects a frequent misunderstanding about the purpose of the Charter and the situations where the Charter applies or does not apply.
How will the Commission improve people's awareness?
Individuals who consider that their fundamental rights have been breached need to have access to practical information on the legal remedies available in the Member States.
The Commission therefore intends to improve the existing tools for informing people where to address their complaints, including via the e-Justice portal (https://e-justice.europa.eu). It will also bring together the European Parliament's Committee on Petitions, national human rights institutions and other national authorities such as Ministries of Justice and equality bodies to examine other ways of making sure queries on fundamental rights are handled in the most effective and efficient way possible.
What are the biggest issues in fundamental rights?
The report identifies personal data protection, access to justice, integration of the Roma and equality as the top concerns raised by the public and others in the past year.
Protection of personal data is a fundamental right. Among the privacy issues raised in 2010 were fingerprinting of school children, Google Street View, video surveillance systems at the workplace, social networking websites, publishing of personal tax information, the independence of data protection authorities, and the funding of research into new technologies in the field of security. In October 2010, the Commission announced it would modernise the existing legal framework for data protection at EU level (IP/10/1462). It will come forward with specific proposals later this year.
Access to justice
The Commission received diverse requests in 2010 from people who experienced problems relating to accessing justice. Many related to judicial procedures, legal support and other issues which are national responsibilities. At the same time, a Eurobarometer survey published in October 2010 showed that 73% of Europeans want action to help them resolve legal disputes and assert their rights in other EU Member States (IP/10/1372). To help ensure fair trials for people accused or suspected of a crime in another EU country, the EU adopted common standards guaranteeing access to translation and interpretation (IP/10/1305), and proposed new rules to inform suspects of their basic rights in a language they understand (IP/10/1652).
Integration of the Roma
All EU citizens have the right to move and settle down in another EU country and the right not to face discrimination. To ensure these rights, the Commission took immediate action following events in the summer of 2010 involving the expulsion of EU citizens of Roma origin from France (SPEECH/10/428 and MEMO/10/502). Following the Commission's action, France and other Member States are now changing their rules to bring them fully in line with EU rules on free movement.
The Commission will continue to ensure that Roma people benefit from their rights as EU citizens without discrimination. In April, the Commission will adopt an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies. The EU Framework will help guide national Roma policies and mobilise funds that are available at EU level to support inclusion efforts.
Fundamental rights include the rights to non-discrimination, to gender equality and to integration of people with disabilities. In 2010, the Commission put forward comprehensive new strategies for improving equality between women and men (IP/10/1149) and for creating a barrier-free Europe for the disabled (IP/10/1505). These strategies will guide the Commission's approach on both fronts for the coming years, with a series of specific actions.
How did the Charter become part of the EU Treaties?
The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was initially solemnly proclaimed by the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission at the Nice European Council on 7 December 2000. At that time, it did not have binding legal effect. Article 6(1) of the Treaty on European Union, as modified by the Lisbon Treaty, provides that the Charter is legally binding and has the same legal value as the Treaties; this means in particular that EU legislation that is in violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Charter could be annulled by the Court of Justice of the EU.
With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009, the Charter became legally binding. It entrenches all the rights found in the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU, the European Convention on Human Rights as well as other rights and principles resulting from the common constitutional traditions of the EU Member States and other international instruments. The Charter is a very modern codification and includes "third generation" fundamental rights, such as data protection, guarantees on bioethics and transparent administration. For the first time, members of the College of Commissioners swore a solemn declaration to uphold the Charter as well as the Treaties in May 2010 (see IP/10/487).