EU charter creating 'confusion' on human rights
Two years after the European Charter of Fundamental Rights became part of the EU treaty, its confusing application has created problems for press freedom, minority and asylum seekers' rights, human rights czar Thomas Hammarberg told this website.
The EU charter covers much of the same rights enshrined in an older European Convention on Human Rights, which applies to all 48 members of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe and its European Court of Human Rights - an appeal body of last resort for people who feel they were treated unjustly by national authorities.
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Hammarberg, the Council's human rights commissioner, said the EU in some cases accepts competence on technical issues but not political issues, hampering his work.
"The most striking example was the media law in Hungary. We were outmanoeuvred by the European Commission, who accepted a few changes to the law and then Budapest proclaimed that the issue had been settled. But there are still freedom-of-the-press problems with that law," he told this website following a hearing in the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday (10 November).
The media-gag dispute erupted earlier this year shortly after Budapest took over the rotating EU presidency.
An outcry by MEPs and some EU capitals pushed the commission to take action. A commission warning letter saw Hungary make some minor amendments to the bill. Brussels and Budapest quickly made peace and the EU's seal of approval gave Budapest an excuse to ignore the Council of Europe's concerns.
"Because of that, they [Hungary] lost any interest in a dialogue with the Council of Europe. I'm not saying they would have listened, but at least we could have expressed our disagreement," Hammarberg explained.
He flagged up a similar case in 2010 on French expulsions of Roma.
The EU intially said the policy was based on ethnic profiling, which violates the EU charter. But it later backed down saying there was no legal basis to take France to the European Court of Justice.
And with 2,000 refugees from Africa having drowned in the Mediterranean this year trying to reach Europe's shores, EU's human rights record is severely tarnished, he said.
Hammarberg noted that the terminology in EU documents - "human rights" and "fundamental rights" - also causes mix-ups.
"One wonders what 'fundamental' is - only the most important of the human rights? When I discuss it now with EU experts, they say it's still all human rights, but this is a bit confusing," he said.
He urged EU institutions to join the other 48 national members of the Strasbourg court: "This step is important also symbolically, so as to have the notion of one human rights legal system. Because now, there is a risk people see it as two distinct systems."
Negotiations on move - which would put all EU institutions and lawmaking process under the scrutiny of the human rights court - began in 2010 but are expected to last at least five years.
EUobserver understands that France and Britain are currently stalling the process because they disagree on the structure of voting rights in the Strsbourg-based Council. The UK - currently the six-month rotating chairman of the Council - has opted to focus on refroming its cout rather than pressing ahead with EU accession talks.