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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Justice and Fundamental rights: the Key for Successful Accession to the EU
Conference "Consequences of EU membership for the judiciary“
Zagreb, 10 September 2010
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to be in Zagreb and to address the conference on "Consequences of EU membership for the judiciary". I am pleased to see so many distinguished participants and key stakeholders here today.
Justice and Fundamental Rights are key elements for a successful accession to the EU. Your work in modernising your judicial system is crucial for both your citizens and EU citizens. Europeans need to be sure that EU Member States have properly functioning judicial systems and all the necessary fundamental rights' safeguards. There should be no loopholes anywhere.
I am glad that Croatia has made steady progress in the field of justice and fundamental rights in recent months. As a result, Member States agreed in June to open negotiations with Croatia on Chapter 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights). I am not superstitious and do not believe in the "23 enigma", a belief that incidents are frequently connected to the number 23. On the contrary, 23 must be a lucky number for Croatia and the EU!
The EU Common Position outlines a considerable number of closing benchmarks that Croatia needs to meet. Obviously, I will be looking closely at the fulfilment of these benchmarks. Reform of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime, the investigation and prosecution of war crimes, as well as refugee and minority issues are key issues that need to be addressed.
Today I want to talk about judicial reform and the fight against corruption. These are cross-cutting issues. They are at the heart of our political criteria. There is a good reason for this. They are necessary to ensure that a new Member State has the institutions to preserve democratic governance and fundamental rights. A country needs to provide a secure legal environment for the social market economy and guarantee the enforcement of EU laws.
Judicial reform and the fight against corruption have always figured high on the Commission's agenda. Our experience has shown us the importance of addressing these issues firmly and early in the accession process.
Let me be clear. Neither the European Commission nor Member States will accept any half measures. We need to have a comprehensive and convincing overall picture of results achieved under this chapter. We can only go to the Council and report that you have met the conditions to close this chapter once we have been fully convinced.
The utmost priority is the fight against corruption and organised crime. I welcome Prime Minister Kosor’s decision to make fighting corruption a priority during her term. I can see that laws have been improved and measures taken to implement them. The office for the fight against corruption and organised crime (USKOK) is doing a good job. Still, the implementation of anti-corruption efforts needs to be strengthened.
Unless there is a clear environment, European policies can not be effective and European taxpayers’ money can not be used efficiently. Public procurement is particularly important because this is a sector in which opportunities for corruption flourish.
Croatia needs to strengthen the fight against corruption first and foremost because of its own national interest –the interests of its citizens. Corruption harms all parts of society. It hampers the most fundamental rights of citizens: access to health services, education or the right to a fair trial.
Reform of the judiciary and the successful fight against corruption are also important factors in further increasing the attractiveness of Croatia as a place to do business, both for home-grown entrepreneurs and foreign investors.
I am aware that many investigations are ongoing and being reported in the media. I hope that Croatia will prove that it can handle these cases properly and efficiently, from start to finish. There should be no hiding place for corruption.
Public trust must be restored. The greatest challenge is to convince the Croatian public that there will be zero tolerance of corrupt practices and that as soon as suspicions arise they are dealt with swiftly and effectively.
Fighting corruption is not only about repressive measures. Preventive measures are equally important. I know that a legislative package is now before your Parliament in this area. I encourage you to be ambitious and to pass strong laws on access to information, conflict of interests, financing political parties and election campaigns. I expect ambitious legislation as well as effective implementing structures.
Greater transparency in public administration – particularly in public spending – is crucial to prevent corruption. All levels of judiciary and public administration, must understand the concept of conflict of interests. The European Commission and the Member States need to be strongly convinced that Croatia is ready for the EU with an effective fight against and prevention of corruption.
Let me now say a few words about the judiciary where I believe substantial progress has been made in some areas.
Cutting by half the case backlog before the courts over the past few years – from 1.6 million in 2005 to below 800,000 cases – is a clear achievement. However, 800,000 remaining cases (including 100,000 cases which are more than 3 years old) is still quite a large number!
There is clearly still some way to go before citizens can be confident that cases will not become bogged down in the system.
Let me emphasize that justice delayed is justice denied. Public trust in the judiciary can best be improved by reducing the length and complexity of court proceedings.
Judges and prosecutors must be the cornerstones of judicial reform. It is down to them to ensure that the new laws will be properly enforced, that criminal activities will be prosecuted, and that access to justice is guaranteed.
The pressures on judges and prosecutors are high. They must demonstrate sound judgement. They also need to have the necessary professional training and skills to prosecute offences or render judgements efficiently in accordance with your laws and soon with EU law as well.
Many judges do good work. But not all. I encourage you to set up efficient internal control mechanisms. Those who cannot live up to the high standards of their profession should not work as a judges or prosecutors.
I strongly recommend objective and transparent criteria for the appointment of judges and also good self-regulatory mechanisms of the profession itself: a code of ethics and effective disciplinary proceedings, which should be efficient and transparent.
Similarly, the immunity of judges should not be used in absolute terms: judges must not have a special position that puts them above the law.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have already mentioned the excessive length of court proceedings and significant delays in executing cases. Additionally, problems with the enforcement of court rulings continue to hamper the efficient working of the judicial system. I encourage you to proceed without delay with your reform of the enforcement system.
The process of court rationalisation needs to be accelerated. Also, the process of improving court infrastructure needs to move forward faster, especially the introduction of IT and case management systems.
Another key requirement for EU membership concerns the independence and accountability of the judiciary.
The key issue is to improve the way judges are appointed to reduce the risks of political and other undue influence on the judiciary. I know that major reforms are underway, such as establishing a new school for judicial officials. This is a positive step forward, as it will make entry into the profession more transparent, fair and merit based.
What counts for the EU is that Croatia demonstrates that the criteria for appointing judges and prosecutors are objective, transparent and uniform. Appointments must be done on merit. Moreover, the evaluation of judges' work must change: it should be both quantitative and qualitative. This is necessary to raise the accountability of the judiciary.
I understand that it will take time before the school is fully operational and before it provides a new generation of judges and prosecutors. In the meantime, I expect you to ensure a fully transparent process of appointments and a sound management of judicial officials' careers.
The Constitutional amendments passed by your Parliament before the summer break, have strengthened the independence of the judiciary. Now it is important that the State Judicial Council and the State Prosecutorial Council prove their ability to carry out their key tasks professionally, impartially and with full accountability.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The area of freedom, security and justice is based on full mutual confidence.
I will continue to support Croatia in all possible ways to achieve concrete results on the path of reform before the accession. At the same time, I will be vigilant on Croatia's performance. Upon the day of accession, no weaknesses should remain in the areas of judicial reform, the fight against corruption and organised crime because such a situation could prevent an effective application of EU laws, policies and programmes. It could also prevent Croatians from enjoying their full rights as EU citizens.
You will lay the foundation for long-lasting stability if you take decisive action to tackle these problems. This foundation can only be built on values.
Fundamental rights are at the heart of the EU's area of freedom, security and justice. I therefore invite you to continue your work on improving the situation as regards non-discrimination, rights of persons belonging to minorities and measures against racism and xenophobia.
I welcome that the Government adopted operational measures for the Implementation of the National Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. I also welcome the June amendments to the Constitution which broadened the mention of particular national minorities.
They also strengthened the institution of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman has an important role in protecting fundamental rights and putting in practice anti-discrimination legislation. The Ombudsman should be given adequate resources to carry out his tasks and his recommendations should be followed up.
I am also pleased that minorities are well integrated in the political system. However, they still face many problems. Croatia needs to continue to foster a spirit of tolerance, among others towards persons belonging to the Serb minority. In particular, minorities are still underrepresented in the employment sector.
In addition, there should be concrete measures to improve the climate for the reintegration of returnees. We will closely monitor whether return is effective or not.
The environment of tolerance has also to reach the local level. I think here about persons belonging to the Roma minority, which still face difficult living conditions. Many challenges remain in the areas of education, social protection, health care and employment.
Finally, let me mention the issue of access to justice. Access to justice must be fully guaranteed. This means continuing with the reform of administrative justice and improving the functioning of the legal aid system. This is particularly important for the most vulnerable groups in society. They must be able to seek redress when their rights are not respected.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Croatia is an important part of Europe for historical, cultural and political reasons. You have your place in the EU, in our common Union of values.
You have reached many positive achievements. But I need to be clear: with negotiations nearing their end, Croatia now needs to speed up reforms. Not only on paper. I want to see concrete results in practice.
This is why I will carefully examine Croatia’s track record before the negotiations on Chapter 23 are closed. In particular, I will closely watch the appointments of judges and state prosecutors to see if they are based on merit and free from political interference. There should be efficient and transparent disciplinary procedures, and effective implementation of judicial reform. In addition, I will give my utmost attention to the effective investigation, prosecution and court rulings in organised crime and corruption cases, as well as strengthened preventive measures in fighting corruption and conflict of interest.
Let’s make the number 23 lucky for you and for us!
Thank you for your attention.