Sunday

25th Sep 2022

EU fundamental rights agency launched despite doubts

The EU's fundamental rights agency will see top European Commission VIPs at its launch in Vienna today, but critics doubt the relevance of the new body due to its watered down scope and the unclear fate of Europe's constitution, which was originally associated with the agency.

Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and justice commissioner Franco Frattini are attending the official opening of the agency on Thursday (1 March), two months later than formerly planned.

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Still, some see just such a short delay due to technicalities as impressive given the political wrangling caused by the new institution between January 2005 when it was first announced and its launch today.

"We couldn't take for granted the establishment of the agency and we got it," Mr Frattini, as the main initiator of the idea, commented after the proposal was finally agreed by member states last December.

The main concerns which for some remain unanswered regard the potential duplication of its activities with other human rights organisations, as well as its limited scope and weak powers to suggest improvements on the side of EU member states.

Another toothless EU body?

The agency's task is to collect "objective, reliable and comparable" data on the fundamental rights situation across the bloc, provide the data to EU bodies and member states and also formulate opinions on what should be changed if asked by countries or institutions.

During the discussions, both national governments and some NGOs argued that the agency risked duplicating the activities of the Council of Europe (CoE), a 46-strong human rights watchdog founded in 1955.

"With all the best will in the world, I can't understand what it is going to do," the CoE's secretary-general Terry Davies commented earlier.

Its political relevance has also somewhat weakened since the EU constitution was put on hold following the 'no' votes in France and the Netherlands as the list of fundamental rights it is supposed to monitor is based on the charter inscribed in the treaty.

It is unclear whether the fundamental rights list will remain part of the revised treaty which could come out of the fast-track intergovernmental conference during the Portuguese EU presidency - the likely scenario to be suggested by the current German chair Angela Merkel.

While the bloc of 18 countries that have ratified the constitution regard the fundamental rights charter as a must in the new text, the member states who want to avoid a referendum on it - such as the UK or the Netherlands - prefer just a package of the most essential institutional reforms without constitution-like additions.

No powers on legal and police issues

The final stage of discussions on the fundamental rights agency was dominated by opposition from several countries, including Germany, the UK and some new member states, to extend its scope beyond European community law - such as discrimination or domestic violence.

As a result of the pressure, the new body will not be able to tackle issues involving police and legal co-operation in criminal matters, as there was no legal basis for it to have such powers, according to opponents.

But human rights groups have strongly criticised the decision, arguing that it was precisely the problems such as European governments' reported awareness of CIA flights where terrorist suspects were allegedly tortured that the agency could help with in future.

"Such was the desire not to offend anyone that at times it felt as if the agency was being created to protect member states instead of holding them to account," said Dick Oosting from Amnesty International, who regards the agency as a "missed opportunity."

The new EU agency will extend the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in Vienna which has provided the bloc with information and data on racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism since 1998.

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