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Viviane Reding

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

Strengthening Justice though Criminal Law

Video message: Maastricht University Conference on Substantive Criminal law of the European Union

Maastricht, 20 January 2011

Dear Professor Klip, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to speak to this distinguished audience on the occasion of the Maastricht University Conference on Substantive Criminal Law of the EU.

I am delighted to share with you a few ideas on criminal law which is a topic the Commission will be developing during the current mandate in order to bring consistency and coherence to what is today a fragmented policy area. Or as Professor Klip qualified in his recent seminal book – entitled European Criminal Law – a 'hybrid system dealing with a multilayered patchwork of legislation and case law in which both national and European courts and other authorities as bodies play a role'.

How EU criminal law evolved – and it all started in Maastricht

Thanks to the adventure initiated with the Treaty named after your host city, justice and home affairs and the definition of a European criminal law policy has now been part of EU policy making for almost two decades. Even so, it is still a young and largely unshaped policy field for the EU. Fortunately we have now left behind the rather fragile, intergovernmental approach of the so-called "third pillar" of Maastricht and Amsterdam under which EU decisions were taken unanimously by EU governments, in most cases behind closed doors and not subject to parliamentary control. This often led to outcomes at lowest-common denominator, and on which the parliaments and the courts had little say. The Lisbon Treaty has opened up new opportunities. It now allows for a stronger EU profile in developing a European criminal policy and the progressive development of a European criminal justice system, as part of a wider European area of justice. The Lisbon Treaty gives the Commission a central role in initiating legislation and streamlines decision making procedures in these areas. At the same time, it caters for a close involvement of parliaments, both European and national, which serve as a much needed form of democratic control. This leads to a qualitative improvement of our legislation, bringing it up to the highest standards, combined with judicial review by the courts. This is a new institutional dynamic which is going to benefit our work and the consolidation of the European area of freedom, security and justice.

Why EU criminal law is like no other policy

But allow me a word of caution on criminal law policies:

First and foremost, we are speaking of an intrusive set of rules, which can result in harsh measures, including deprivation of liberty and in certain cases for long periods of time. This is why the Charter of Fundamental Rights sets important limits for EU action in this field. The Charter, being the compass of all EU policies, is indeed now the binding core of rules protecting the citizens, and this is the yardstick by which I measure criminal law.

I call for prudence for an additional reason: Criminal law is an area where diversity within Europe is great, and these differences are bound to stay. This is because, like no other area of law, criminal law reflects the basic values, customs and choices of any given society. The Lisbon Treaty accepts and protects this diversity of legal traditions.

I draw the following conclusions from this: Criminal law, and notably sanctions, must always remain a measure of last resort. Moreover, I will insist that Commission proposals on criminal law apply very strict standards of subsidiarity and proportionality.

The future of EU criminal law

This will not prevent the Union from acting and proposing balanced criminal law that has added value for the citizens of Europe. With all the safeguards in place, a European contribution to criminal law can make a tremendous difference,

  • for victims of cross-border violent crime;

  • for taxpayers whose money is being misallocated by fraud against the EU;

  • for citizens who want to enjoy their right to move within the EU safely and securely.

How do I want to create added value? I am taking a threefold approach:

Firstly, by continuing to improve procedural rights in criminal cases. I am determined to make sure our citizens get the same level of protection of their fundamental rights when they are accused of a crime, wherever they are in the EU. This is essential to improve mutual trust amongst the different legal systems and much needed for an effective application of mutual recognition.

Secondly, by setting out a strategic approach to criminal policy. Together with my colleague Algirdas Šemeta, Algirdas Šemeta, the EU Commissioner for Taxation, Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud, I will start with a Communication on the protection of the financial interests of the EU later this year. We were shocked to learn that European taxpayers are losing over 1.1 billion euro every year through irregularities which impact the EU budget. This must be stopped, and Algirdas and I will propose to the Commission concrete suggestions on how to deal with the problem. By means of criminal law the Commission will be able to make use of all opportunities opened by the Lisbon Treaty to protect the financial interests of the EU and notably Articles 85, 86 and 325 of the Treaty.

Thirdly, by ensuring coherence and consistency of EU criminal sanctions. I want to avoid the piecemeal approach of the former "third pillar". I will thoroughly investigate the need for further minimum EU rules concerning important criminal offences with this approach in mind. Applying the necessity and proportionality tests to ensure that criminal law is the most effective remedy available.

It is a challenge to further develop EU criminal policy along the lines I just described: strengthening procedural rights in criminal law, a strategic approach to criminal law policy, and coherence and consistency of EU criminal sanctions.

However, my aim of taking forward a European criminal justice system can only become a reality with your help. As you know, I am a great proponent of European judicial training, because it is a central tool to boost knowledge of the each other's systems and laws. Judicial training is also crucial to ensure Member States' confidence and their mutual trust in judicial decisions, particularly in criminal law. As academics and practitioners of European criminal law, you are already participating in this effort.

Today, you are spearheading the creation of a common European legal culture in a field as traditional and sensitive as substantive criminal law. Works such as Professor Klip’s recent research or the Manifesto by the European Criminal Policy Initiative by a group of 14 criminal law professors from around Europe show how important it is for law-makers to get the best possible advice by academia and criminal lawyers.

I wish you every success with this Conference and I look forward to reading about its findings. The results of your research, not only at this conference, will make a very valuable contribution to my work in the field of substantive and procedural criminal law and in developing the tools to deal with crime and punishment in Europe. It is a case to say that Europe needs you!

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