Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Next steps for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship in the EU
European Policy Centre Briefing
Brussels, 18 March 2010, Brussels
Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a privilege to be back at the European Policy Centre and share with you the priorities I have set for my new term as Commissioner. It is a double privilege to have been so warmly welcomed by my friend António – my friend and my colleague in the European Parliament as well as in the European Commission. I remember with affection our pioneering work in the LIBE Committee back in the mid-nineties at a time when Europe was not equipped to act decisively in the areas we will be talking about. I also remember well the energy and dedication António put into Justice files as a Commissioner where he began to take matters forward by pushing through the first ever Commission proposals in these areas. He was also a member of the Convention drafting the Charter of Fundamental Rights and of the Convention drafting the Constitutional Treaty.
It is now my privilege to carry the torch and keep pushing for more and better European integration in these areas.
Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship are policy areas where citizens expect the most from policy-makers. But these are areas where Europe has also often disappointed the expectations of our citizens in the past. This was not for lack of will but for lack of proper means. For a long time, Europe was not equipped to act in the interests of citizens in these important areas. Decisions were taken by the Justice and Home Affairs Ministers behind closed doors, there was no Parliamentary oversight in the so-called "third pillar" and judicial control by the Luxembourg Court was simply excluded.
Since 1 December, we – finally! – have the new Lisbon Treaty. This means a true revolution for the whole field of Justice and Home Affairs. The co-decision procedure with the Parliament and qualified majority in Council are now the rule for new legislation. Judicial review is fully available both at the Court of Justice and in the national courts. And – most importantly in my view – our EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is legally binding, and on an equal footing with the Treaties. It has been a long journey to arrive here. The time to discuss institutional issues is over. It is now time to act. It is now time to transform this institutional input into policy results.
Five weeks ago a new mandate of the European Commission started. President Barroso started this new mandate by creating a new portfolio in the Commission that is explicitly dedicated to Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.
This is a strong symbol of the new Commission's determination to create a strong Europe of justice for our citizens. I am honoured and excited to take on this new responsibility.
As EU Justice Commissioner, my role is to ensure that the Charter of Fundamental Rights – which is now part of our Treaties – is fully respected and an integral part of all of our policies. Citizens should now enjoy the results of this new emphasis on justice and rights.
My portfolio is the clearest signal possible of the central importance this Commission attaches to our values and principles as European citizens.
This is the now the right moment to re-orient our policies. I believe that during the last few years Europe's policies have too often focused on security, and neglected justice. Lisbon gives us the opportunity to bring a new balance into our policies to strengthen the rights and freedoms of our policies.
This morning I want to briefly present some of the elements of my mandate to make that a reality.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights
For me, personally, the legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights represents one of the most important innovations of the Lisbon Treaty. It is a major step forward in terms of political commitment to fundamental rights, to legibility and legal certainty. It is a strong reflection of Europe’s unity in diversity reflecting our common and often painful history. At the same time it offers a powerful promise of a better Europe united by law and by its values. It represents a modern codification of fundamental rights and it is the clearest expression of the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty to put Justice and the citizen at the heart of EU politics. As Commissioner my key objective is to give full effect to the Charter in all fields of my work: I will have four priorities:
First, the Charter should become the compass for all EU politics. I am therefore proposing to add a very clear fundamental rights chapter to all impact assessments of the Commission. For me, respect for the Charter must be an integral part of the daily work of all Commissioners. It was in this context that I have proposed to President Barroso to include a reference to the Charter in the solemn oath that all 27 Commissioners will be taking at the Court of Justice in Luxembourg on 3 May.
Second, I will use all the tools available under the Treaty to ensure compliance by our Member States with the rights of the Charter and I will apply a "Zero Tolerance Policy" as regards violations of the Charter.
Third, I will publish an Annual Report on the application of the Charter by the EU and its Member States. This report will of course be submitted to a debate in Parliament, in Council as well to ignite a broader public debate.
Fourth, I will also set in motion the process to formally reconcile the coexistence of Europe's two supreme documents on fundamental rights – the Strasbourg Convention and the EU Charter. We started this historical process yesterday when the Commission proposed negotiation directives for the Union's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This will not be a quick process but the accession to the ECHR has political, legal and symbolic importance. Ultimately it will provide a coherent system of fundamental rights protection throughout the continent. It will complete the level of protection introduced by the Lisbon Treaty through the legally binding Charter.
A truly functioning Charter sets a solid foundation for all of our actions in these fields. I want to single out three priority areas where we need to show strongly that Europe's policy is changing with the Treaty of Lisbon:
First, we need to protect the privacy of our citizens in the context of all EU policies. This includes when it comes to law enforcement and crime prevention. And this also applies when it comes to our international relations.
Second, we must strengthen the right of citizens to move freely in the EU. Free movement is after all a core right of EU citizens and it must be more than an abstract idea. It needs to be tangible and bring a positive impact to the lives of our citizens.
Third, we need to ensure that we develop strong procedural rights guarantees in the EU. This is essential to reinforce mutual trust between our legal systems and ensure an effective and fair application of our cornerstone principle of mutual recognition. An "Erasmus"–style exchange programme open to legal professionals, including lawyers and judges, could improve the mutual knowledge of and trust in the different judicial systems that we have in Europe.
In the coming weeks the Commission will set out, in an Action Plan, the actions it intends to take in order to implement the guidelines provided by the Stockholm programme. I will present this together with my colleague responsible for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, and the Action Plan will cover in detail the areas I just outlined, as well as other areas.
But we do not need an Action Plan to start taking action. That is exactly what we started to do immediately upon taking office.
On privacy and data protection I have initiated the process leading up to the reform and modernisation of the 1995 Directive. In line with the legal prerequisite introduced by Lisbon we have now a specific provision (Article 16) to develop a comprehensive and coherent framework for the protection of personal data. The new legal framework should address new challenges of the information age, such as globalisation, development of information technologies, the internet, online social networking, e-commerce, cloud computing, video surveillance, behavioural advertising, data security breaches, etc.
The Commission is currently analysing the over 160 responses to the public consultation. I will present a legislative proposal reforming the Directive before the end of the year and I will consider establishing the principle of "privacy by design."
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the novelties I intend to propose, but one thing is clear: reinforcing the confidence of both citizens and businesses in data systems will lead to better protection for individuals, as well as to trust and confidence in new services and products. This will in turn have a positive impact on the economy.
Citizenship and Civil Law
The same goes for citizenship and in particular the contribution that the EU makes to tackle the barriers that prevent people from taking full advantage of their rights – and especially their right to free movement. While citizens should feel at home when they are exercising their right to free movement, the reality is that there are still far too many cross-borders problems that prevent citizens and businesses from benefiting from a truly European area of freedom, security and justice. A good number of these problems were highlighted for the first time, in 2008, in a landmark report by Alain Lamassoure called "Le Citoyen et l'Application du Droit Communautaire". In summary, Lamassoure drew attention to the numerous obstacles faced by EU citizens when they try to source goods and services across national borders. EU citizens should be able to make use of their rights in the same way as they use their rights in their country of residence. Before the end of the year, the Commission will map out the existing obstacles for citizens and propose how they can be removed.
I will propose sound legislation aimed at removing bureaucratic obstacles that currently hinder citizens' lives and that in addition simply provide extra costs and legal uncertainty to our businesses. I am currently preparing three practical solutions to remove such barriers:
First, getting a court judgement recognised without unnecessary legal fees (in other words abolishing the old practice of the exequatur).
Second, making the recovery of cross-border debts as easy as recovering debts domestically. Currently around 60% of cross-border debts cannot be recovered. To improve businesses' trust in our single market, the European Commission plans to make a proposal that will allow a creditor to block funds in a bank account.
Third, boosting online commerce and smoothing differences in contract law in Europe by developing a European Contract Law. The general terms and conditions for business-to-consumer relations are a huge burden for small companies. The EU needs to do better. A possible solution is to have a 28th regime for contracts. Such a European Contract Law would exist in parallel to the national contract laws and provide standard terms and conditions.
But first and foremost in citizens' minds is their family life. To that end, next week I am putting to the College a proposal to make fast and concrete progress on the so-called Rome III proposal. The end is clear: to provide comfort and improve legal certainty for all those international marriages that end in divorce – and there are around 170,000 of these every year in Europe.
Divorce proceedings are a time when people feel very alone, being in a foreign country and not having a clear idea of the applicable rules. I do not want people in the EU to be left to manage complicated international divorces alone. I want them to have clear rules so that they always know where they stand. Thanks to unanimity the current text has been blocked in the Council since 2006. Having exhausted all possibilities of compromise in the Council, we are now left without any possibility other than proposing enhanced cooperation. This is exactly what I will put to the College. I firmly believe that all EU Member States should participate in all EU policies. But in this situation I am convinced that we must act to give people comfort and stability. Thousands of couples find themselves in difficult personal situations because the EU has so far failed to provide clear laws for their cases. When this happens, we need to try alternative ways to move policies forward to help people.
In summary, civil law and citizenship should not be dry areas reserved for lawyers and officials from the justice ministries. Civil justice and citizenship should put the citizens first and serve them in settling disputes and legal issues that arise between private parties in all our lifetimes. Getting married, having children, getting divorced, dealing with bereavement, resolving contractual disputes, dealing with the consequences of an accident, these are all basic life experiences.
In our European Union, these basic life experiences increasingly have a cross-border dimension. Citizens confronted with such basic concerns need to see the tangible differences arising from all our separate systems of civil justice.
My main aim is therefore to ensure that differences between national judicial systems no longer constitute barriers to citizens' access to justice; and that mutual recognition and mutual trust are enhanced across the 27 Member States and combined with appropriate harmonisation measures.
Procedural Rights and Criminal Justice
Similarly I intend to bring down barriers to judicial cooperation in criminal matters. Our objective is to develop a common European judicial area where national law enforcers and judiciaries can trust and rely on each other. To develop a common area where judicial decisions taken in one jurisdiction can be effectively enforced in other jurisdictions as easily as they are nationally.
Our starting point is the respect for a cornerstone principle: the mutual recognition between EU Member States of each other's judicial decisions. This requires mutual trust between our judiciaries so that they trust each other's standards of fairness and justice. It also means that citizens can have confidence in the fairness of proceedings and the sound protection of their rights when they are in a court in another country. As we move forward, we can no longer assume that this mutual trust already exists, or that it comes naturally. Mutual trust cannot be made by decree.
Mutual trust can only bee earned and it requires very hard work: that is precisely why last week the European Commission made a proposal for improving suspects' minimum rights during procedures such as investigations and trial. The European Commission believes that there should be high EU standards obliging all 27 Member States to ensure effective right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings. You cannot have a fair trial if the accused does not understand the language of the proceedings. EU citizens should never feel that their rights are weakened because they left home. Nonetheless, this is what can happen when people are sent abroad to stand trial.
The question now is whether the public concern aroused by such cases will make it harder for judicial authorities to execute arrest warrants requests in future. We will have to rebuild citizens' trust in European justice. The role of law-makers – my role and the role of Parliamentarians and Ministers – could not be clearer: to improve citizens' faith that their rights are protected across Europe, and make sure judicial authorities can also be sure of that. Also in this area we are in the beginning of a long journey. I am confident that with the effective cooperation of the European Parliament and the Council we will be able, over the next four years, to give citizens rights that will accompany them throughout the EU.
There are many more items on my list of priorities. Many more actions are needed to translate the Stockholm Programme into concrete results so that we can demonstrate the new focus of EU policies on the rights of citizens. The Commission will present its Action Plan at the end of April.
This morning you get nevertheless an idea, a flavour of the priorities that will be guiding my action. I look forward to continue debating them with the European Policy Centre (EPC) in the future.
Thank your for your attention!