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[Check Against Delivery]
Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Justice Commissioner
Presentation of the Fundamental Rights report and the progress report on Gender Equality
4th annual report on the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Press conference
Brussels, 14 April 2014
1. Strengthening the fundamental rights culture in the EU institutions
It was almost exactly four years ago, on 3 May 2010 in Luxembourg, when for the first time ever all Commissioners took an oath on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in front of the Court of Justice. This was more than a symbolic day. It was the first sign of a sea change: the Charter was to become the compass for all laws and policies.
And I can proudly say that the Fundamental Rights Charter has become our compass: Almost four years after the European Commission presented its strategy on the implementation of the EU Charter, we have succeeded in strengthening the fundamental rights culture in the EU institutions.
Our strategy? Very simple: We put fundamental rights at the forefront of policymaking, in the Justice area, and in any other policy area. How? Today, fresh Commission proposals undergo a detailed fundamental rights assessment before they see the light of day. In 2010, we put in place a 'fundamental rights checklist'. We screen every legislative proposal to ensure it is "fundamental-rights proof". In short: a fundamental rights culture is organic in the design of EU policy.
I personally believe, the Court of Justice would not have annulled the Data Retention Directive had it been proposed following the fundamental rights check-list. It's not by chance that the Charter was one of the main reference points in this judgement. The Charter would have been the medicine. The message of the Court is clear: any new proposal in this field will have to withstand the scrutiny of the Charter.
Let me continue with positive examples since I am here to present to you the account of our policies and action on fundamental rights as the Commission just adopted the fourth report on the application of the Fundamental Rights Charter, as well as our annual gender equality progress report.
2. Citizens care about fundamental rights and so do we
The main finding of this year's report is that the popularity and the importance of the EU Charter continue to grow.
In 2013, the Commission received almost 4000 letters from citizens, concerning fundamental rights issues. In addition, in 2013, the Europe Direct Contact Centre replied to 11974 enquiries from citizens a large majority of which related to fundamental rights – notably the right to free movement.
69% of the letters concerned situations where the Charter could apply. So, in a number of cases, the Commission requested information from the Member States concerned, or explained to the complainant the applicable EU rules. In other cases we helped re-directing the complaints to the competent bodies: national authorities (for example national data protection authorities) or the European Court of Human Rights.
There are essentially two ways in which the rights in the Charter can be brought to life:
First, the Commission can take concrete action, defending and promoting the rights of Europeans as set out in the Charter, by way of new legislation or through enforcement action, such as infringement proceedings.
Second, European and national courts in their judgements can apply the charter and thus make fundamental rights a reality on the ground for each and every citizen.
Let me just give you three examples of how the Charter is becoming a concrete reality in the EU.
First, data protection – which by the way was one of the most prominent topics in the letters sent to the Commission. Unlike many others, the Commission did not discover data protection with the Snowden revelations or the European elections campaign… The fundamental right to the protection of personal data of Europeans need to be seriously defended. That is why I started from day one in this mandate to prepare proposals in this field to give effect to Article 8 of the Charter: the right to the protection of personal data.
The data protection reform is a case in point of how fundamental rights and economic imperatives interact. The Regulation is a real market-opener for businesses but at the same time its objective is to empower citizens in the face of a technological revolution, which has blurred the lines between the individual's private sphere and the wider public domain. Explicit consent, the right to be forgotten, the right to data portability and the right to be informed of personal data breaches are key elements. They will help to close the growing rift between citizens and the companies with which they share their data, willingly or otherwise.
2013 was an important year for data protection. In light of the revelations about global surveillance programmes potentially monitoring all citizens’ communication, it was important that the EU institutions took action to move this file forward:
Second example – women on company boards. The European Union has been successfully promoting gender equality for over 50 years. However, there is one place where we have seen hardly any progress: company boardrooms. The Commission made proposals to correct this. Once again, our starting point was a fundamental right, the right to non-discrimination. But, ensuring equal opportunities for all is vital for the European Union’s economy. Using the best European brains makes economic sense.
• In the commission's proposal, qualification and merit remain the decisive criteria. The European Parliament wholeheartedly supported this approach last year.
• And companies move faster since the threat of regulatory action is hanging over them like a Damocles sword. I find it very telling that our annual gender equality report found a continuous increase in the number of women on boards ever since the Commission announced the possibility of legislative action in October 2010: from 11% to almost 18% in 2014; the rate of progress has been 4 times higher than between 2003 and 2010. Unfortunately I don't have time to go into more findings of the report but it will give you a good idea of how Union action has helped advancing the fundamental right to gender equality and where the challenges ahead lie – backed up by figures of course.
The third example I wanted to give you is the way that European and national Courts increasingly refer to the Charter in their decisions. The number of decisions of EU Courts quoting the Charter in their reasoning increased almost threefold from 2011 to 2013, from 43 to 114. Likewise, national courts have also increasingly referred to the Charter when addressing questions to the Court of Justice: in 2012, such references rose by 65% as compared to 2011, and have stabilised in 2013.
The increased prominence of the Charter is real and tangible. It has become the reference point for judges delivering justice, and a legal safety net for citizens.
How? There are many examples about which I could talk. You will find them here in our fundamental rights 'treasure'.
3. What's next? The Charter as Europe's own Bill of Rights?
The guidance that the Court of Justice gives us on the applicability of the Charter is still developing. Last year in the much debated Åkerberg Fransson judgment the Court clarified that it might be enough for a Member State to actually pursue an objective provided for in the EU Treaties or secondary law – rather than directly transposing European legislation – to trigger the application of the Charter at national level.
In 2012, Austria incorporated the EU Charter into the country's constitutional order so that citizens in Austria can invoke the Charter directly.
As this stands to benefit citizens, I could well imagine that one day citizens in all Member States will be able to rely directly on the Charter – without the need for a clear link to EU law. That would effectively mean abolishing Article 51 of our Charter of which currently restricts its applicability. This is a vision for the future.
But it is my vision: The Charter should be Europe's very own Bill of Rights.