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Vice-President of the European Commission,
EU Justice Commissioner
A European Union grounded in justice and fundamental rights
Fundamental Rights Conference 2012 / Brussels
6 December 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be with you for this year's Fundamental Rights Conference, hosted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. I can quite understand why the Agency has chosen the topic of access to justice for its annual conference. Ensuring access to justice is a matter of both fundamental rights and Union law! It goes to the heart of our common European construction. It gives practical effect to the foundation stone of the rule of law on which the Union is built. So it is only natural that the Agency addresses this issue.
Article 47 of the Charter – the right to an effective remedy
Access to justice is directly related the right to an effective remedy before a tribunal enshrined in Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. According to this provision, everyone, whose rights under Union law are violated, must have access to a court in order to protect them.
Without a doubt this is one of the most frequently used and far reaching rights in the Charter. For example, the last Annual Report on the Application of the Charter reveals that in 2011 this right was the most quoted Charter right in the decisions of the Court of Justice.
'Every citizen's dream'
However, access to justice is not only an interesting legal question. It is also essential for the daily lives of citizens and enterprises. It signifies the difference between a promising legal text and its effectiveness on the ground! When realising the potential of this right, someone even called it "every citizen's dream".
This right guarantees a legal solution decided by an independent tribunal whenever a national authority has used Union law in the wrong way. For example, it ensures that citizens can effectively uphold the rights granted in Union legislation on consumer protection. It is also crucial for safeguarding companies against arbitrariness and abusive use of powers of supervisory authorities, and ensuring for example, that the competition rules laid down in the Treaty can be upheld. Indeed, across the full range of Union-based rules, from the Single Market to rules on equality, the guarantee of access to justice has had a transformative effect. Union law would quite simply not be the same without it.
Citizens are concerned about access to justice
The Commission Annual Reports on the application of the Charter regularly show that citizens are concerned about their access to justice. For example, a 2012 Eurobarometer survey revealed a real appetite amongst citizens for having more information about where to turn if their fundamental rights have been violated. The survey revealed that national courts are the first place respondents would turn to if their Charter rights were violated (21%) closely followed by Ombudsmen/independent bodies (20%), Union institutions (19%) and the local police (19%).
Guaranteeing effective justice along the entire 'justice chain'
As illustrated by the report released today by the Fundamental Rights Agency, the search for justice is sometimes a complicated task - one that has many stages, starting well before a citizen even reaches a court. First, citizens must be aware of their rights and know which institution or body to turn to if they encounter problems; citizens must have access to legal assistance and aid; then, when cases are examined, citizens expect the court to be functioning efficiently, fairly and independently; finally, once a court has ruled, citizens need an effective enforcement of the decision.
If we want to ensure an effective justice, we need to address obstacles people may face throughout the different parts of this ‘justice chain’. This is precisely the aim of the justice policy that the Commission is developing.
The EU has a role to play
The main responsibility for national justice systems remains with the Member States. However, it is also a matter for the Union since the smooth functioning of national justice systems is crucial both for strengthening the mutual recognition in the European justice area and for ensuring that Union legislation is effectively enforced.
Role of the Agency for Fundamental Rights
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to say a few words about the key role the Fundamental Rights Agency plays in our work. It has a unique and invaluable role in gathering EU wide comparative data throughout the justice chain. It helps us to fill what could otherwise be a 'data gap'. As shown by the report released to today on access to justice in cases of discrimination but also by other works such as on child friendly justice, the Agency already works on a number of justice-related issues.
Unfortunately, this good work by the Agency is being jeopardised as it now seems clear that the Council will not be in a position to adopt the Multiannual Framework for the Agency by 31 December 2012, as is required by Union law.
This is serious. We all knew about this deadline, which explains why the EU institutions made intense efforts in order to enable an agreement on time among the Member States in the Council. That explains the concession to the Council, that the Agency will not be able to initiate work on police and judicial cooperation on criminal matters on its own initiative under the new Multiannual Framework. Instead, it can only work in this field if there is a request from the European Parliament, the Council or the Commission. Due to the unanimity rule, there was no other option than to make this concession. I highly regret this solution but recognise that it was the only way to get a Multiannual Framework adopted by 31 December 2012.
But despite all of this, one Member State - the United Kingdom – has failed to take the necessary steps that would have ensured that the Multiannual Framework gets adopted in time. As a result, the Agency and its staff will be in 'caretaker mode' as of January. Again we have an example of how the requirement of unanimity is frustrating the Union's work.
But, I also detect a wider issue concerning the United Kingdom. I regret that the UK government seems to have adopted an "empty chair policy" when it comes to justice and fundamental rights issues. This matters. When you look at the figures, I see that it makes sense that the United Kingdom should really be at the heart of our European area of justice. Each year, 19.3 million Britons travel to France, and over 12 million to Spain. Over a million Britons live abroad in the EU, and in turn more than a million nationals from other EU states are resident in the UK.
These figures help explain why in the past, it was quite different: we had become used to the United Kingdom contributing actively to the protection of fundamental rights across Europe and to the development of a wider European area of justice. But recently, I see that the UK also decided not to take part in realising the important goals we have set for the new Justice programme, which seeks to promote judicial cooperation in civil and criminal matters, to facilitate access to justice and to prevent and reduce drug supply and demand.
I also observe that in the negotiations on the Union's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Kingdom's position cannot always be seen as helpful. Indeed, there seems to be some "dragging of feet" going on. The EU's accession to the European Convention is after all an obligation that each Member State has already signed up to. So now is the time to deliver on this commitment.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I find the UK's recent position on fundamental rights, as reflected in the British decision not to let the Fundamental Rights Agency do its work, more than unfortunate. The European Union is not a free trade area and not only an internal market. It is a Community of values in which respect for fundamental rights is the pre-condition for accession to the Union. It is, in my view, the foundation for EU membership for all 27 EU Member States. If this respect is no longer there – what remains?
I urge the UK to make up its mind about fundamental rights in the EU context. Our Union is a Union of justice and fundamental rights. And being part of the Union means also working for justice and fundamental rights. And not against them. I still have not given up that the UK will continue to be part of this Union.
I sincerely hope that in the coming months, the UK government will make every effort to change its position as regards these matters.
Today's conference serves to underline that the protection of fundamental rights is the basis of the Union's identity, in each and every one of the Union's activities and at the very heart of the 500 million citizens. I believe that the great majority of British citizens also believe that rights of the individuals are the basis of their personal existence.
I thus am fully convinced that we need our UK friends to take up their place at the table and actively engage with its EU partners on justice and fundamental rights matters.
Thank you for your attention.