Progress on EU Charter of fundamental rights
Work on drawing up a Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union is continuing with a view to submitting a first draft to the European Council to be held in Santa Maria da Feira in June 2000. Meanwhile, the question of the status of the Charter has come to the fore, with the European Parliament overwhelmingly supporting a motion in favour of a legally-binding Charter written into the Treaty and non-governmental organisations launching a campaign to the same end.
Work on drafting a "Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union", the aim of which is to consolidate the basic rights of EU citizens into a single text, has been making steady progress over the past few months.
The current proposal to devise a Charter of fundamental rights in the European Union was initially aired at the Cologne European Council in June 1999 (EU9906180N) following the publication of a European Commission report in February 1999, entitled Affirming fundamental rights in the European Union. Time to act. This report recommended the incorporation into Community law of:
- Articles 2 to 13 of the Council of Europe's Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms (which, in the industrial relations area, includes matters such as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association); and
- basic rights in the areas of equality, discrimination and employment.
The Tampere European Council held in October 1999 (EU9910202F) then decided to establish an ad hoc body with responsibility for drawing up the Charter. This body, which is now formally known as the Convention, comprises 62 members – 15 representatives of the heads of state or government of Member States, one representative from the European Commission, 16 members of the European Parliament and 30 members of national parliaments.
The Convention first met in December 1999 and subsequent meetings took place in February, March and April 2000 to discuss progress. The Convention intends to meet regularly throughout May and June to finalise a draft Charter to present to the European Council to be held under the Portuguese Presidency in Santa Maria da Feira on 19-20 June. It will then continue to meet throughout the summer in order to revise the draft Charter, with a view to adopting a definitive text by the end of October 2000.
At the Convention's meetings so far there have been discussions on the nature of the draft Charter, its scope, whether it should be a political declaration or a legal text and how it should relate to other international instruments on human rights. At its meeting on 2 and 3 March 2000, for example, the Convention discussed the wording of Articles 4 to 12, which will comprise the chapter on civic and political rights. The discussion covered proposals in the following areas:
- respect for family and private life;
- family life;
- freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
- freedom of expression; and
- the right to education.
At the same meeting, the Convention heard submissions from a variety of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the Permanent Forum of Civil Society, the Platform of European Social NGOs and the Coordination of NGOs on Fundamental Rights. It was agreed that the representatives of the NGOs should present their contributions on the drafting of the Charter to the Convention at the end of April in the form of possible amendments to the articles of the future Charter.
The Union of Industrial and Employers' Confederations of Europe (UNICE), which represents private sector employers, has welcomed the drafting of a Charter as a means of making existing human rights and fundamental freedoms for Europeans citizens more visible. UNICE also stated: "A forward-looking Charter should not miss the opportunity to express Europe's readiness to meet the upcoming challenges of developing a well-functioning market economy throughout the European Union ... In focusing on the rights of European citizens, it is vital that the rights of European undertakings are also respected."
A question of status
Alongside the discussions on the form of the Charter, the question of its status has been gaining prominence. The original objective was for the Charter to form the basis of a solemn declaration which would not be legally binding on Member States. The possible integration of the Charter into the EU Treaty was due to be decided at a later date, only after the Charter had been approved. However, the European Parliament and the NGOs want to see the Charter enshrined in Community law when the Treaty is revised following the outcome of the current Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on institutional reform (EU0002229F) which will be discussed at the Nice European Council in December 2000. In this way, the Charter could be binding on all Member States from the outset.
At the plenary session of the European Parliament on 16 March 2000, MEPs welcomed the drafting of the Charter stating that it should be "seen as the central element of a process culminating in the European Union's adoption of a constitution". MEPs consequently voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution which called for the Charter to be legally binding and written into the EU Treaty. Among other points, the resolution recommends that the Treaty be amended to:
- add the Charter and relevant instruments adopted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations (UN) to the reference to the Council of Europe's Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms currently found in Article 6 of the EU Treaty; and
- enable EU adherence to the Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
During the debate, UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff stated: "We want to draft a Charter of such excellence that Member States would not be ashamed to adopt." French Socialist MEP Pervenche Beres added that the Charter should contribute to the political and social integration of the EU and argued that it should be incorporated into the Treaty and should recognise economic and social rights.
A variety of NGOs also believe that the Charter should be legally binding. To this end, ETUC and the Platform of European Social NGOs launched a joint campaign on 27 March 2000 to promote the inclusion of a future Charter in the EU treaties. According to ETUC, the aim of the campaign is to raise awareness amongst both the general public and decision-makers on the need to incorporate into the EU Treaties social, trade union, economic, political and cultural rights and to make them binding on Member States.
ETUC stated: "Fundamental rights cannot be separated from the European social model. Reducing the Charter on fundamental rights to a solemn declaration would be unacceptable and would be an inadequate response to the expectations of citizens and to the goals of European integration and enlargement."
Council Presidency and Commission reaction
In response to the concerns of the Parliament, the present Council Presidency and the European Commission have stated that they are in favour of a legally binding Charter being written into the Treaty.
Current Council President Francisco Seixas da Costa stated that "the Charter is an essential step towards the creation of a foundation of basic values making it possible to pursue construction of a political Europe," and added that the Charter would represent an "ethical pillar that will make the Union credible in the eyes of its citizens". The Portuguese Presidency maintained that it favours an ambitious approach which would result in the Charter embodying economic and social rights, in addition to new rights linked to the functioning of modern society. Mr Seixas da Costa concluded that the Charter should take the form of a legally-binding text which should be included in the programme of work undertaken by the IGC.
Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, Antonio Vitorino, stated that every possible effort should be made to allow the examination of the Charter by the IGC and the Nice European Council. He added that the Commission shared the views expressed by Parliament regarding the binding nature of the Charter, its inclusion in the revised Treaty and the broad range of rights that it should espouse. Mr Vitrino recommended that the Charter should update the rights provided in the Council of Europe Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and should embrace social rights and innovative rights and that, while the Charter should be rigorous, it should also be a clear text that can be easily read and understood by EU citizens. The Commissioner also clarified that the drafting of a Charter was not an attempt to replace national constitutions or the Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The debate surrounding the drafting of the Charter of fundamental rights of the European Union is certainly gathering momentum. While the Convention deliberates the important matters of the wording of the articles and the rights to be included in the proposed Charter, concern regarding the status of the Charter has come to the fore.
The question of whether or not the Charter will be accorded Treaty basis when the EU Treaty is revised remains to be resolved and will ultimately depend on the proposed content of the Charter. If it is deemed to be too radical, then the European Council may shy away from enshrining the Charter in the Treaty. However, with the Commission, the present Council Presidency, the Parliament and NGOs favouring a legally binding Charter, pressure will be mounting on the IGC to take such concerns into consideration when it is devising its proposals to revise the Treaty. As the proposed Charter will not essentially introduce any new provisions, it is arguably of lesser immediate consequence than the IGC's agenda of institutional reform. However, moves to incorporate the Charter into the Treaty might help stymie criticism that the EU is a political and economic project driven by an elite and demonstrate a desire by political leaders to increase the relevance of the EU to its citizens.
In the interim, given that a decision on the status of the Charter will not be taken perhaps until the end of 2000, the focus of the debate may now shift back to the contents of the Charter prior to its presentation to the European Council in June (Neil Bentley, IRS).