New EU justice chief vows to protect citizens’ privacy

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Reinforcing citizens’ rights will be a top priority in the coming years, said Viviane Reding, the EU’s commissioner-designate for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, at a parliamentary hearing yesterday (12 January), voicing her opposition to body scanners at airports.

Reding, who is vying for a third term as EU commissioner and will be promoted to vice-president if approved, gave a relaxed and assured performance before MEPs from the European Parliament’s legal affairs, justice and home affairs and gender equality committees. 

The new justice portfolio is the first of its kind in EU history and was created at the behest of European liberals to reflect the increased emphasis on citizens’ rights in the 27-member bloc under the Lisbon Treaty. 

Indeed, Reding, who is well regarded in Brussels after a dynamic spell as the EU’s telecommunications commissioner, told MEPs she would waste no time in making her mark in the new job, vowing to “strengthen the privacy” and rights of EU citizens. 

‘No’ to airport body scanners

Notably, the Luxembourg commissioner-designate said she was opposed to the compulsory introduction of body scanners at EU airports, a controversial idea that surfaced in the wake of the failed December 2009 terrorist attack in the US (EURACTIV 06/01/10). 

“Our need for security cannot justify every invasion of privacy,” Reding said, adding that citizens are human beings, not objects. It should be optional for airports to install such measures, she argued, adding: “We should never be driven by fear.” 

The commissioner-designate, responding to questions from centre-left MEPs, also claimed she would enhance privacy measures in any future agreement on data protection with the United States.

European home affairs ministers last year made a controversial interim agreement with the USA allowing American investigators broad access to EU banking data (EURACTIV 01/12/09). 

“You can be sure that fundamental rights, including data protection, will be top of my list,” she said. 

In fact, Reding went one step further, claiming there would be a “zero tolerance policy” on any violations of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which entered into law with the Lisbon Treaty.

The Luxembourg native indicated that she would not hesitate to play hardball and, if necessary, begin infringement procedures against EU member states, even big ones. “I’m not afraid of saying ‘no’,” she said. 

To ensure that all legislation is in line with the EU rights, she said she would be prepared to present an annual report to the Parliament assessing the implementation of the charter in EU countries. 

New cross-border divorce proposal in the pipelines 

In a further statement of intent, Reding said she would issue a green paper in early 2010 on the free movement of cross-border civil documents, the idea being to make it easier to get married or divorced across EU national boundaries. 

This has been a growing problem in the 27-member bloc. 20% of all EU divorces have a cross-border dimension, she argued, adding that related legal documents such as inheritance rights and authentic acts face similar problems. 

“We must work towards a system of EU civil justice,” she stressed.

The majority of European Commission portfolios have evolved in line with changes to the EU's competencies.

This has been particularly the case with the justice and home affairs portfolio, which will be now split into two new high-profile jobs: one for home affairs and one for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship.

The latter portfolio was awarded to Viviane Reding, the Luxembourg commissioner who held the information society portfolio in the Barroso I Commission (2004-2009).

Commission President José Manuel Barroso believes the new portfolio will go some way towards resolving problems within the EU executive's current justice and home affairs (JHA) directorate. It is also viewed by many as Barroso's gift to the European liberals, reflecting the growing debate on migration issues at EU level (EURACTIV 24/09/09). 

The new portfolio will encompass policy areas such as the free movement of citizens, family law, penal law, consumer rights, EU communication policy, gender equality and anti-discrimination legislation.

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