To some – Tony Blair’s UK government, at least – the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, originally drafted and endorsed by the EU institutions in 2000, was so controversial that it had to be relegated to an annex to the EU treaties as part of the changes between the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty.
So it is perhaps surprising that relatively few Europeans are aware that the Charter even exists, ten years after it became legally binding.
According to polling by Eurobarometer released in June, only one in ten Europeans have a good idea of what the Charter is.
“The Charter is being quoted by courts and applied by the EU through its recent initiatives to protect citizens’ rights,” EU Justice Commissioner, Věra Jourová, said at the launch of a report by the EU executive marking the tenth anniversary of the Charter’s entry into force.
References to the Charter by the European Court of Justice have increased substantially, up from 27 references in 2010 to 356 times in 2018. The right to an effective remedy and to a fair trial have consistently been the most frequently cited Articles in court cases.
The Charter may well have helped develop a ‘fundamental rights culture at EU level and a European Court of Justice (ECJ) that has moved towards becoming a fundamental rights court. But it is the scope of application – the Charter is binding on member states only when they are implementing EU law – that is the main cause for confusion among citizens.
“Only one in 10 Europeans know what the Charter is, which makes it difficult for people to use its full potential. That’s why I call upon national governments and all civil society and rights defenders to raise awareness and make the Charter a reality for all citizens,” added Commissioner Jourova.
In February, MEPs on the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs committee called on the European Commission to “to ensure that Union law is adapted to take account of the legal and jurisprudential developments of international human rights law”.
But their resolution largely shied away from discussing whether the Charter, as drafted, is still fit for purpose in an age dominated by the Internet, and can cope with technological innovation such as AI.
“The EU should go back and strengthen its foundational vision of human dignity and ethics,” said Laetitia Pouliquen, director of NBIC ETHICS, about how to resolve questions related to human rights in the context of technological advances.
Meanwhile, the overlapping jurisdictions between the non-EU European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the ECJ in Luxembourg has prompted legal academics to talk of ‘a tale of two cities’ when it comes to European human rights law and the application of the law on cases related to surrogacy and the right to privacy and family life, and to religious freedom and the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace.
“The EU Charter was a significant achievement. We need to reconsider what it means to respect human dignity in the new political and social conditions,” Alojz Peterle, an MEP and former prime minister of Slovenia, told an event on the Charter’s future hosted by EURACTIV in June.
Peterle had been a member of the Praesidium of the European Convention on the Future of Europe which drew up the Charter.
“We cannot have one strong Union if we have different understandings of fundamental rights,” he added.
“Some of these rights have been neglected over the years such as the right to freedom of expression or religion,” Robert Clarke, director of European advocacy for ADF International, said at the event.
“Human rights are inalienable and applicable to all. The EU has the potential to be a global leader in promoting and protecting everyone’s fundamental freedoms without exception,” he added.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]