Fundamental rights increasingly prominent in EU law-making, but misconceptions persist.
The EU charter of fundamental rights – in force and legally binding for over 2 years – sets out entitlements that are protected within the EU. These include the rights to freedom of expression, dignity, equality and justice.
Anyone who thinks their rights have been infringed through the implementation of EU law may take the matter to a national court or ombudsman. If not satisfied with the response, they may take their complaint to the European Commission.
The European Commission is responsible for ensuring that EU countries respect fundamental rights when implementing EU laws, and that its own proposals for new laws are compatible with the charter.
Each year the Commission publishes a report detailing the extent to which the charter is being respected around the EU. The 2011 report notes that EU proposals have increased protection of some rights – for example, travellers will in future be able to opt out of security scanning in EU airports, and instead request an alternative security check.
The charter is also having a growing influence on of court decisions. In 2011 it was quoted in a landmark ruling on the right of asylum seekers to protection from inhuman or degrading treatment, while another ruling found different insurance premiums for men and women discriminatory.
Despite the charter’s clear success in legal terms, EU citizens often remain confused about the charter’s purpose and scope. More than half the letters sent to the Commission in 2011 were on topics beyond the remit of EU law.
At the same time, citizens are more aware of the charter than they were in 2007 (64% compared to 48%, according to a Flash Eurobarometer). But 65% of Europeans say they would like to learn more about where to turn if their charter rights are violated.
The Commission cannot intervene when it suspects that fundamental rights have been infringed anywhere in Europe – it may only act when this occurs during the implementation of EU law by the national authorities.