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Viviane Reding

Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship

The Future of European Criminal Justice under the Lisbon Treaty

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

Speech at the European Law Academy

Trier, 12 March 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, and distinguished jurists from all around Europe,

Earlier this week, the European Commission took the first step to improving mutual trust between judicial authorities by establishing EU-wide standards for procedural rights. On 9 March, the Commission proposed a Directive that protects citizens' fair trial rights by obliging Member States to provide interpretation and translation to suspects. The Commission plans a series of measures to improve procedural rights in criminal cases. Let me tell you why we have done this. And what we are going to do next in the field of criminal justice.

We need to create a real single area of justice in the EU. Citizens should be confident that their rights will be protected no matter where they are in the 27 Member States – either a French, Swedish, Portuguese or Romanian court. There should be no differences in protection when citizens work, travel or live outside their home countries.

In recent years, progress in justice in Europe has been rather limited, and the focus has been more on security issues.

Of course, there is no freedom without security, and there is no security without justice. With the Lisbon Treaty now in force, we can finally rebalance our actions.

Four weeks ago a new mandate of the European Commission started. The President of the European Commission José Manuel 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 sign of the new Commission's determination to create a strong Europe of justice for our citizens. I am honoured and excited that President Barroso has asked me 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.

In the past and until now, the EU has tried to build the European criminal justice area with one hand tied behind its back. The EU was trying to build common rules with the "third pillar," an area where Parliaments and courts had little say, and where the unanimity rule by EU governments very often led to a lowest-common-denominator approach. As a result, we ended up with a house with only three walls.

In the past, we focused our energy on cross-border prosecution. But Lady Justice does not just hold a sword; she also holds scales. Now we are moving forward with policies that balance our cross-border responses to crime with rules that build trust between national justice systems. After all, we are not just building a penal area, but an area of justice for all.

That is why, with the start of the new mandate of the European Commission – the first Commission operating under the Lisbon Treaty and under the Charter of Fundamental Rights – we have begun a new journey in European integration: 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 our cornerstone principle: the mutual recognition between EU Member States of each other's judicial decisions. What does this mean in practice? Mutual trust means that judiciaries can trust each other's standards of fairness and justice. It also means that citizens can have confidence in the fairness of proceedings and a 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 can not be made by decree. Mutual trust can only be earned and it requires very hard work:

  • hard work setting common minimum standards so that a suspect understands a police interrogation in a foreign country and his other fair trial rights are fully respected;

  • hard work so that no country's prisons are below par;

  • and hard work so that victims of crime are taken care of properly regardless of where they are in the EU.

Making sure the rights of victims, suspects and prisoners are protected in the EU, even if they cross borders, means real citizenship and the right to a fair trial no matter where you are in the Union. In short, it means justice across borders.

Why we need justice across borders: The fight against cross-border crime

Nowadays more and more people travel, work, study and live abroad. Criminals are also keeping pace. Crime has become more sophisticated and more international. Our objective is simple: to make sure that justice is always served; and that those who are sought by the law are brought to the right jurisdiction.

However, turning that idea into practice is more complicated: we need cross-border solutions so that people can be brought to justice from anywhere in the EU. But we need cross-border solutions to make sure justice is brought to people. The problems of ensuring justice across a Union of 27 countries with 27 national justice systems – or even 28 systems, if you think about Scotland – long historical traditions and different methods cannot be solved any other way.

However, national and local authorities, from police officers to judges and other legal professions, will never be able to get the most out of national legal systems if they do not trust their colleagues on the other side of the border.

Those who only want to rely on the old system point to the tools such as the Council of Europe Conventions and the often archaic traditional mutual legal assistance systems that we already have. I say that this is not enough. We must improve these tools.

Without minimum common standards to ensure fair proceedings, set out in EU law that is enforced, EU measures to fight crime – such as the European Arrest Warrant – will not be fully applied. Because judicial authorities will always be reluctant to send someone to face trial in another country without knowing that some minimum procedural safeguards will be respected.

I therefore intend to propose changes to the European Evidence Warrant to make it work better. It was created four years ago to remove barriers to evidence found by one judicial authority being used in another's criminal investigation. The most hardened critic of EU cooperation could not fault the goal. But any practitioner on the ground will tell us that problems still dog the transfer of evidence to other jurisdictions.

Today, there has been detailed discussion here in Trier about Eurojust. As EU Justice Commissioner, I have great hope for the future of Eurojust. I want Eurojust to become a central player in the European judicial area. To do this Eurojust needs to be properly equipped. Its rules went through a first change last year. Its national members have now some reinforced powers. We have to work hard to get these new rules in place by June next year. The Commission will help to make sure it happens properly. The important thing is making sure that criminal investigators can do their job properly.

We will consider further new rules giving Eurojust new powers to directly initiate investigations as well as new rules to regulate its internal structure. This future proposal will also charge the European Parliament and national parliaments with the evaluation of Eurojust's activities.

These steps will lay the foundation for the creation of the European Public Prosecutor Office, as foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty. We will lay the groundwork carefully but solidly, building it upon strong mutual trust and fully involving all potential stakeholders. I firmly intend to make a proposal for establishing the European Public Prosecutor in the course of my mandate.

Let me address a further important issue: Prisons. The conditions of our national justice systems are already strained under the burden of problems like prison overcrowding, especially in pre-trial detention centres. 14 Member States have a prison occupancy rate of more than 100 %, and in four Member States this figure exceeds 120%.

This is no small problem. And it is part of a bigger one. You know what the Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights say here. If people are detained in conditions bad enough to be considered degrading punishment, what judicial authority would authorise the transfer of a detainee to a place where he or she would face a substantial risk of being ill-treated? What does this mean for EU rules on prisoner transfers, due to be implemented by the end of 2011? These are supposed to allow Member States to repatriate foreign detainees even without their consent.

For me it is therefore of crucial importance to improve prison conditions in Europe. Spreading alternatives to imprisonment and better prison management is one step that we can take in the near future. Of course prison conditions are first of all the responsibility of our 27 Member States, however, I will put pressure on all of them to live up to their responsibilities and I will publish a policy paper on prison conditions in Europe within the next 18 months.

Judicial cooperation cannot work when there is a risk that standards of human rights protection, such as poor detention or prison conditions, have slipped below the level that is now clearly set out by the Charter. In future, we should all be aware that there is no excuse or justification for failing to respect human rights in criminal proceedings. The rules do not allow it, the Courts in Luxembourg and Strasbourg would not uphold it, and our citizens would not accept it.

Who we need justice for: helping the victims of crime

As we work to ensure the rights of the suspected and the accused are fully enforced, we must equally look to the needs of those who fall victims of crime.

Across the EU we share the same fundamental values – the right to liberty, to security, to be free from harm. We all aim to ensure that any person, wherever they may fall a victim to a crime, is treated in a dignified, respectful and fair way. We must not forget that the right to a fair trial applies as much to the victim as to the defendant.

Since 2001, the EU started developing minimum rights for victims and improved access to compensation. We have recognised the needs of specific groups of victims, the needs of the most vulnerable subjects, such as children, women suffering gender-based violence, terrorist victims and those who have been trafficked.

In this context, I asked my Justice department to carry out a thorough examination of the problems faced by victims including the effectiveness of existing legislation and the implementation of that legislation.

In early 2011, I will propose solutions, including new legislation, the primary goal of which will be to translate the law into reality for the millions of citizens who, every year, fall victim of crime.

How we will build a Europe of Justice: strong procedural rights

We will only have mutual trust in Europe, once each and every Member State has earned that trust, by showing its neighbours it has a criminal justice system that guarantees fair trials.

At the start of this week we took the first steps on this journey when the European Commission made a proposal for improving suspects' minimum rights during procedures such as investigation 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 – could not be clearer: improve citizens' faith that their rights are protected across Europe, and make sure judicial authorities can also be sure of that.

Recently a self-employed carpenter, who was accused of smuggling drugs when he came back to his country after holidays elsewhere in Europe, found himself in a difficult situation. One of the many miscarriages of justice concerning this case was that he was only allowed to speak five minutes with a lawyer who did not speak his language. Nor was he able to refute any statements made against him. Why? They were not translated into a language he could speak.

The Charter and the Convention are, once again, very clear on what should happen in these cases: all persons deprived of their liberty by a public authority shall be treated with respect for their human rights.

His case may well find its way to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, where it would join around one hundred thousand cases waiting to be heard. Of these, about one quarter are related to the right to a fair trial.

In the future, I foresee better EU rules protecting the right to a fair trial that can consequently have an impact on the back-log of cases in Strasbourg.

Of these about 25000 cases are related to the right of fair trial. This is why this week I took the first step towards a full set of procedural rights in criminal proceedings. Over the next four years I hope that we will give citizens rights that will accompany them throughout the EU:

  • The next step will be presented in the summer this year, and consists of the right to information about rights;

  • This will be followed by a proposal on ensuring legal advice in 2011;

  • After that, we will look at the right to communicate with family members, consulates or employers;

  • The last step will be the protection of vulnerable suspects.

When we take this last step it will be 2013, and we will be moving into a better future for criminal justice. I do not exclude that we will by then have identified further necessary improvements for procedural rights, and we will then work further to complete the existing set of rights.

These procedural standards, even if they may not be popular in some quarters at first, will not just guarantee some vital human rights; they are also a crucial building block of the mutual trust upon which the new house of European criminal justice will be constructed. And this time it will have four walls.

How we will build justice in Europe: a coherent approach to criminal sanctions

I think we in Europe should be ambitious when we plan for the future. It is a very European trait.

But so is caution! And we will exercise the caution that is needed when it comes to the substance of criminal law. Criminal law is an area where decisions need to be made about what is a crime, and how we punish it. These are decisions which go to the heart of national sovereignty. These are decisions where Parliaments rightly want to be involved. Criminal law is a young area of European law, and now it is certainly not the time to rush into EU criminal law legislation and to make one criminal law proposal per month. We need to give some time for identifying the right methods and the right approach to how and when to make use of the new legal bases available under the Lisbon Treaty, in a close dialogue with the European Parliament and with national Parliaments. And we need to choose the right areas where cross-border crime is really in need of a strong European response. For the moment, I see human trafficking as such an area, and I intend to work together with my colleague, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström who has announced initiatives in this area during her hearing in the European Parliament.

We always need to take into account that substantive criminal law is an area where our diversity is vast – for cultural, historical and societal reasons. The penalties that exist for some crimes, and the acts which are penalised as crimes, vary greatly across our 27 countries. For the future, we will therefore have to develop, step by step, a system of reliable definitions and proportionate sanctions within which there is coherence and certainty about how different criminal justice systems can work together.

I am strongly convinced that Europe needs a balanced and coherent concept of criminal policy based on a number of fundamental principles. These principles should be recognised as a basis for every single legal instrument which deals with or which could influence criminal law, as they represent a fundamental element of any criminal law system based on the rule of law.

Most important is the "nulla poena" principle: No crime can be committed, nor punishment imposed, without a pre-existing, clearly defined criminal law. This means that we should ensure that an individual shall be able to predict actions that would make him criminally liable. This common sense rule implies not only that provisions must define offences in an unambiguous way, but also that they must not apply retroactively.

Also of key importance are the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity in criminal legislation. It should be clear that the EU legislator may take action only on the condition that the goal pursued cannot be reached more effectively by measures taken at national level and due to its nature or scope can be better achieved at European level. After all, it is the responsibility of the European legislative bodies to justify their use of criminal sanctions as the last resort of social control.

And if you look at the EU Framework Decisions drafted by Member States in the last years, you often find a lack of horizontal coherence. Sometimes they establish the same sentence for conduct that is not equally detrimental to society. For example trafficking in human beings requires a minimum-maximum penalty of eight years if a victim's life was deliberately endangered. The same penalty is set for fraudulent making or altering of the single currency.

As a result, we now have a patchwork of not-well defined laws which are not fully implemented as they risk interfering with the national penalty systems. In the future, we should strive to avoid such incoherence in EU legislation.

There is a strong guarantee for better regulation in the Lisbon Treaty. As of now the Commission will propose criminal law legislation that goes then into co-decision between the European Parliament and the Council. Under the Lisbon Treaty national Parliaments have also a right to be particularly closely involved in criminal law making. Having been a national parliamentary myself for 10 years I strongly welcome this innovation of the new treaty.

This summer, the European Commission will start out the process by publishing a policy document to begin a debate on the principles we should use to create consistency in the field of European criminal justice aiming at more consistent definitions and sanctions.

Let me state this very clearly: Criminal law legislation in the EU cannot and must not be about making all systems the same. Au contraire, it is precisely because there will always be diverse national systems in this field, that we must not take for granted that decisions are always taken with the same degree of fairness, independence and protection of rights throughout the EU, though, it is our duty to strive to guarantee inner coherence to criminal law systems.

Instead, it is about using them consistently; so that criminals cannot take advantage of free movement to go to another EU country for lenient sentencing; so that victims can go anywhere and expect the same level of protection.

I am sure that practitioners everywhere, and experts like you, have at times longed for more precision in the criteria we use to define crimes. But for you I am sure it is an exciting challenge, for the citizen who does not know – it is a potential nightmare.

How we will learn about Justice: the tools

We will only have more consistency and trust if legal professionals can learn and understand about other jurisdictions. European judicial training is obviously an important tool to develop mutual understanding and mutual trust.

European Justice will experience rapid growth in the number of legal instruments and initiatives at our disposal. Training measures must keep track of all these new legal cooperation instruments. EU governments have agreed that the Commission should see to it that half of the judges, prosecutors and judicial staff involved in judicial cooperation participate in one way or another in a European judicial training.

I will prepare a plan of action for judicial training. This is one of my priorities for the coming months. I will work with Member States and the European Parliament as well as with representatives of all legal professions to propose actions which are both realistic and ambitious.

In doing so I hope that I can count on your support and ideas to instil a European spirit in the training and exchanges of all legal professionals.

Some of you will probably have heard about the Erasmus student exchange programme, if you did not do it yourself. Why shouldn't we have an "Erasmus" –style exchange programme open to all new legal professionals? This does not need to be limited to judges and prosecutors. It could also include court staff, lawyers and bailiffs.

It will be a challenge, as we cannot transform courts and lawyers' offices into universities. That is why organisations like the European Law Academy here in Trier or national training academies and other networks will be instrumental in ensuring we have the tools to build a European system where different judiciaries understand each other so that they can trust each other, and thus work together. Maybe we will even find it necessary to set up a European Law Institute, a place where legal professionals, civil and criminal lawyers, can discuss these problems and find common solutions.


I have set out an ambitious programme for criminal justice today. I already hear critics who say that we should not be too ambitious. I believe that they are wrong. It is high time for ambition in the field of criminal justice.

If we judged the state of European criminal justice today by the way criminal suspects in the EU are often treated: what would we say? More importantly, what would those citizens who have suffered because of the gaps that occur when they face criminal proceedings say? What would the British men who found themselves in a high security prison abroad before their trial say? What would the 48-year old carpenter accused of drug-smuggling in a language he did not understand say?

The answer is in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The answer is that we need ambition and a high level of fundamental rights protections in criminal proceedings.

Any other answer would be wrong.

Ladies and Gentlemen I thank you for your attention.

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