The Background Behind the Story

The rights of EU citizens have been emphasized for a long time, but the documentation of these rights had been scattered over a series of sources, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other international conventions from the Council of Europe and the United Nations. For example, The Charter of Fundamental Rights’ Article 6, the right to security and liberty, originated from the ECHR’s Article 5.

Since the rights of EU citizens had never been clearly laid out in one single document, some feared that the European Union was not protecting these rights.

How can the European Union convince a member state to respect rights established by the European Convention on Human Rights when that member state has not signed the convention?

How can the EU enforce certain rights efficiently when authorities have to refer to many different documents that may have originated from other sources?

The Big Change

In June 1999, EU leaders met in Cologne, Germany. They agreed that the EU needed a new statement of rights so that these rights would be more evident to the citizens of the EU.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights was the outcome of the discussions at Cologne. Finally, the Charter was proclaimed in December 2000 at the European Council in Nice. It became legally binding on December 1, 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty came into force.

What it all Means

The Charter’s most important aim is to highlight, in a clear and concise manner, the EU’s commitment to the principles of democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.

The creation of the Charter means that fundamental rights will be better protected within the EU. Authorities need not sift through endless documentation. All they have to do is refer to the Charter. The Charter is valuable in the sense that it establishes “a common European language on fundamental rights” [1] FR as new countries join the Union. The Charter also has an impact on the wider world by providing an example to other countries and showing that the EU is serious about respecting fundamental rights.

The Charter also recognizes that fundamental human rights are indivisible: human rights are human rights, no matter how one chooses to categorize these rights. The Charter, unlike other international documents on human rights, does not make the distinction between civil-political rights and socioeconomic rights.

Some Concerns about the Charter

No charter on human rights is flawless. We can see that in Canada where politicians can choose to use the “not-withstanding clause” to exclude certain important issues from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Likewise, the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights is not perfect. The Charter of Fundamental Rights, as a relatively new concept, is at risk of being confused with the responsibilities of the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights and the EU’s European Court of Justice, neither of which can legally enforce the articles of the Charter. Here are some other concerns about the Charter:

  • It is limited in its application, in that it is not clear whether its clauses should apply at the EU level or at the member state level
  • Many of the articles of the Charter are ambiguous and are open to a wide range of interpretations
  • Much of the language of the Charter is still set out in terms unfamiliar to most people without a background in law.

The following links provide you with an idea of some of the criticisms that the Charter has received:

“Some thoughts about the Charter of Fundamental Rights” from Federal Union

“Why a fudge won’t work” from Open Europe

Scottish Parliament’s briefing on the Lisbon Treaty, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights

In spite of these flaws, critics agree that the Charter is needed, at least in the sense that it puts human rights on the political agenda of the European Union.

Click here to read about the Charter and its History on its official website.