The European Area of Justice
The Justice portfolio is new – it was only created with the start of this European Commission, under the leadership of President José Manuel Barroso, in 2010. I am thus the first EU Justice Commissioner who is also responsible for citizenship and fundamental rights. My department, the Directorate General for Justice, deals with a wide range of areas such as civil and commercial law, consumer protection legislation, data protection, criminal law, free movement of citizens and equality legislation.
In a border free Europe, more and more people live, work and do business in other EU countries. The European Commission wants to make life easier for you by building an EU-wide area of Justice. The aim is to offer practical solutions to cross-border problems, so that citizens feel confident when moving around the EU and businesses can make full use of the Single Market. I want citizens to feel at ease, no matter where they are in the European Union.
Until the Lisbon Treaty came into force, policy in the area of justice was very often decided between the governments of the Member States behind closed doors. Now the European Parliament is always involved, it decides with the Member States, and the process has become democratic and transparent. The past few years have been very interesting and crucial for policy change in the area of justice. With over 50 initiatives (from 2010 until today) in this area we have laid the building blocks for a true European area of Freedom, Justice and Security at the service of our citizens – one of the Union's key objectives as stated in the Treaty of Lisbon. Justice has emerged as a new field of activity at European level, comparable to the high level of activity in the Internal Market in the 1990s. Similarly, in the Justice area the Commission's Action Plan on the Stockholm programme (from 2010) has been guiding us in the construction of this European area of Freedom, Justice and Security.
Our initiatives can be best explained along three main pillars: Justice for Rights, Justice for Growth and Justice for Security and Stability.
The Commission is setting new and better standards for citizens' rights. For instance, we now have minimum procedural rights across Europe. This is important: EU citizens can be tried in the courts of other countries. So we need certain common European standards, like the right to interpretation or translation, and the right to have access to a lawyer. However, I realised that while we try to improve the rights of criminal suspects we often tend to forget the (vulnerable) victims who also have a role to play in criminal proceedings. That is why the Commission enacted legislation to guarantee minimum rights for victims and help protect victims of violence from any further harm by their attacker through the mutual recognition of civil law protection measures.
I am also responsible for improving the rights of consumers. Whether you are shopping online or travelling, you should know that you can count on European protection. For package travellers within the EU, we have proposed to improve protection to ensure that you are not ripped off by random and unjustified price increases, so that you can get home even if the tour operator goes bankrupt and that you may cancel your trip in advance – free of charge – in case something goes wrong at your holiday destination. And, if you are travelling outside the EU, as an EU citizen you are automatically entitled to consular assistance – even if your country has no diplomatic mission in a place you are travelling to. You can go to any other EU Member State's consulate or embassy to ask for help, if for example you are arrested, have a serious accident or lose important documents. For travel advice and consular representations of EU countries around the Union, check the Commission's consular protection website.
My team and I have also been working to improve consumer rights, particularly when shopping online. The Consumer Rights’ Directive has to be in place in all EU countries by 2014. The new rules include the elimination of hidden charges and costs for internet purchases, price transparency, banning pre-ticked boxes on websites, and extending the period in which consumers can revoke a contract to 14 days – Europe-wide.
It is my firm conviction that during these economically challenging times, justice policies must serve the economy, by helping companies and investors and supporting growth and stability.
Efficient justice systems in all EU Member States and a regulatory environment strongly anchored in the rule of law can make a significant contribution to creating an investor-friendly climate and legal certainty for businesses and consumers. We are for example working on European insolvency rules that will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of cross-border insolvency proceedings. I am convinced that now more than ever we need to establish an EU "rescue and recovery culture" to help companies and individuals in financial difficulties;
Actions at EU and at national level aimed at strengthening a sound legal environment and efficient justice systems are, therefore, a central feature of the structural reforms currently under way in all EU Member States. The EU's Justice Scoreboard is a new tool that this Commission has developed to give an annual picture of EU countries' efforts to maintain an effective justice system. It highlights the strengths and weaknesses of justice systems allowing the Commission to identify judicial reforms that could contribute to economic recovery in each EU country.
Another guiding principle for me as Justice Commissioner has been to consistently cut red tape. The Commission acted to get rid of unnecessary bureaucratic requirements (such as stamps and certified translations) at national level for accepting people’s public documents as authentic in another Member State. If citizens move freely, their documents should too. And we have abolished the time-consuming and costly 'exequatur' procedure in civil and commercial cases which required companies or consumers to go through a lengthy and costly procedure in order to get a judgement issued in one Member State recognised in another. In a European Justice area court judgements should face no borders.
We have also been making progress on other important justice initiatives that help to promote growth – like our proposal to reform the EU's data protection rules. The reform is a real market opener because it does away with the current legal patchwork of 28 national and often conflicting data protection rules. In future there will be one rule – a Regulation – for our European continent, saving companies an estimated 2.3 billion EUR per year. At the same time it will guarantee a high level of data protection for our citizens making sure EU rules apply no matter where a company is based or what technology is used as long as services target consumers on the European market. Data protection is a fundamental right in Europe and the data protection reform translates this right into practice.
Another good example of the power of justice policies to make life simpler for companies is the creation of an optional European Sales Law which businesses could choose to offer their services across the entire European Union. It's innovative too because instead of harmonising national legislation it proposes to create an optional instrument based on the freedom of choice. This is a first in EU law-making!
Criminal law is a relatively novel area of EU action. The Treaty of Lisbon sets out a clear legal framework to cover particularly serious crime with a cross-border dimension. It is one of the areas at the heart of national sovereignty. Therefore, when venturing into this new policy field, we first had to elaborate a plan on how to develop a coherent EU criminal policy which fully respects the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. EU criminal law must be developed with fundamental rights always in mind, notably fair trial rights, in agreement with the European Parliament, national parliaments and with respect to the different legal systems and traditions across the EU.
Nevertheless, applying criminal sanctions can make some European policies more effective – from preventing financial market manipulation, including insider trading and interest rate rigging, protecting the EU budget against fraud to protecting the environment. It is crucial to put in place criminal law rules of the highest standard and to deter criminal activity in order to protect our taxpayers' money and punish criminal behaviour.
That is what the Commission has done when proposing new rules to protect the euro from counterfeiting; rules to protect the EU budget against fraudsters; or though the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor's Office which will investigate, prosecute and, bring to judgement – in the Member States' courts – crimes affecting the EU budget. When it comes to taxpayers' money, every euro counts. Criminals who exploit legal loopholes to pocket taxpayers' money should not go free because we do not have the right tools to bring them to justice. If we, the EU, do not protect our federal budget, nobody will do it for us.
We have come a long way in the construction of a European area of Justice. I am grateful for the exciting task I have been given: to fill a blank page, a new policy area, with life. I have very much seen my role as one of "building bridges" between the different national justice systems so that these systems can function together – in the interest of citizens and companies alike. You can count on me for continuing the building work in this area. And if YOU want to contribute to this work, join the debate on citizens' rights and the future of Europe: Europe counts on you!