Fundamental Rights in the EU
Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights must be more than concepts. Fundamental rights are the foundation on which the European Union is built: they must be continuously respected and protected. This commitment is laid down in the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights – Europe's "Bill of Rights" and the most modern codification of fundamental rights recognised in national constitutions.
As the first Commissioner ever in charge of Fundamental Rights, I have made sure that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is the compass for all EU policies. The European Commission has to lead by example. To underline this firm intention, on 3 May 2010, for the first time in history, all EU Commissioners swore an oath before the European Court of Justice on both EU Treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
To ensure that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is respected at all times, I put in place a system for a Fundamental Rights screening of all Commission's proposals, included in the 2010 Strategy for the implementation of the Charter . This Strategy also foresees the publication of an Annual Report on the application of the EU Charter. The Commission also monitors texts at the end of the EU legislative process to make sure that changes made to the initial Commission proposal are still in line with the EU Charter. And, as Member States must respect the EU Charter when they are transposing EU law, I am determined to use all the tools available to ensure that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is more than a mere text: rather, it has to become a tangible reality for our more than 500 million EU citizens. The speech I delivered in Tallinn, gives a good overview of what we have achieved thanks to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights brings together in one single and coherent text all the rights that were conferred to EU citizens in several documents such as the founding Treaties of the European Union, national constitutions or constitutional traditions, the case law of the European Court of Justice and of the European Court of Human Rights.
Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty the Charter has become legally binding. All EU institutions and bodies must respect the rights enshrined in it. The same applies to all EU countries when they implement EU law.
The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is a fundamental document that has been signed and ratified by all members of the Council of Europe. One of the objectives of the Commission is to seek the European Union's accession to the Convention in its own right.
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) provides EU institutions implementing European Union law with expertise on fundamental rights.
Current events have reminded us of the importance of strong EU Data Protection rules. Data protection, as a fundamental right in the EU, is highly relevant for consumers and businesses regardless of borders. The Charter guarantees the protection of personal information, and we urgently need to adopt a strong set of rules for our digital world. Only robust rules will offer citizens the high level of data protection they expect.
To this end, I proposed in January 2012 a comprehensive reform of the EU’s data protection rules to safeguard online privacy rights and boost the digital economy in Europe. My proposals aim to update the existing rules, laid down in the 1995 Data Protection Directive, and adapt them to the current digital age by strengthening individuals’ right to data protection regardless of the EU country they live in, and by helping to reinforce consumer confidence in online services. Only when consumers and businesses trust that their data is safe will they be willing to fully exploit the digital world and its opportunities. We need strong rules that will allow this trust to flourish. This will push growth, job creation and innovation in Europe.
The new rules also ensure that companies offering products and services in the European market will have to play by EU Data Protection rules – whether they are based in the EU or outside of it. And national data protection authorities will be able to sanction those firms that violate the rules with fines of up to 2 per cent of annual worldwide turnover.
The European Commission has identified children's rights as one of its main priorities. I have been working continuously to implement the actions included in the EU Agenda for the rights of the child, adopted on 15 February 2011, for example by providing funding to ensure the proper set-up and functioning of 116-000 hotlines for missing children and child abduction alert mechanisms. At the end of 2012, 116 000 hotlines were operational in 20 Member States compared with 17 at the end of 2011.
Non-discrimination is a fundamental right. Ensuring equal opportunities for all is also vital for the European Union’s economic development.
Over the last 50 years, the European Union has built up a robust legal framework to ensure equal treatment between women and men covering a wide range of areas: employment and training; social security and pensions; access to goods and services; maternity leave and parental leave. The European Institute for Gender Equality has been set up to support the EU’s efforts to promote gender equality.
I have proposed a Directive on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges. This is not tokenism but a smart quota: If passed, the new rules will set an objective of a 40% presence of the under-represented sex among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges. Qualification and merit remain the decisive criteria. No woman will get a job merely because she is a woman. But no woman will be kept out of the selection process merely because she is a woman. The 40% - objective should be met by 2020, except in public undertakings – over which public authorities exercise a dominant influence – which will have two years less, until 2018. It is encouraging to see that my initiative, even if not yet passed, is already bearing fruit: We can see that the share of women on company boards has increased since I presented the proposal.
The EU has also adopted legislation protecting people against discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation.
Since the beginning of my mandate, I have been fighting for the integration of the 10 to 12 million Roma people living in the EU. Roma integration is of key importance in improving the respect of fundamental rights for a large number of EU citizens and bringing about greater social cohesion, whilst also holding out considerable economic benefits.
In April 2010 I put a Communication on the economic and social integration of the Roma in Europe on the table to address the issue. With no real progress being made by the Member States, I then issued in April 2011 a Communication on an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies by 2020, urging Member States to present concrete proposals and structures to tackle the issue of Roma integration in education, housing, health and employment. In 2012 the Commission evaluated these national Roma strategies. I also presented a proposal for a Council Recommendation in June 2013 so that Member States take on their responsibilities and use specific actions, including positive action if necessary to improve the situation of Roma people.
All these proposals have been accompanied by infringement procedures every time EU law was breached.
EU Disability Strategy
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights says that the “Union recognises and respects the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their independence, social and occupational integration and participation in the life of the community.”
On 15 November 2010, the European Commission adopted the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020 for a truly barrier-free Europe, so that that people with disabilities are able to play a full and active role in society.
In addition, the EU and all its 27 (then) Member States, have already committed to creating a barrier-free Europe by signing the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.