Towards a common European space for human rights?
The on-going controversy surrounding the new Hungarian constitution and accompanying laws has focused attention on a key question: who exactly is responsible for upholding human rights standards in Europe? The answer, as ever, is far from straightforward.
The Council of Europe – a 47-member intergovernmental organisation based in Strasbourg – is often referred to as Europe’s “human rights watchdog”. It oversees the European Convention on Human Rights, the court in Strasbourg and some 200 other legally-binding treaties in areas ranging from data protection to fighting cybercrime and violence against women. It has monitoring bodies which regularly produce country-specific reports on issues including prison conditions, racism and corruption.
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However - and in addition to previously existing structures, such as the very active Committee on Human Rights within the European Parliament - the Lisbon Treaty and the EU’s subsequent Stockholm Programme significantly expanded the scope for EU action in areas which traditionally fall within the remit of the Council of Europe. The treaty introduced the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, watched over by the court in Luxembourg, which obliges the EU and its member states to respect basic rights when determining and implementing EU law.
The Lisbon Treaty can therefore be seen as a turning point for human rights in Europe, and has itself raised a number of important issues. How could these two separate legal orders co-exist? Which should take precedence? Most importantly, would human rights protection in Europe be strengthened or weakened?
Crucially, the Lisbon Treaty introduced a legal obligation for the EU itself to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights.
This would subject the laws and actions of the EU to the same level of international human rights scrutiny as practically every country in Europe, including Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. The EU’s increased competences in areas with human rights implications, both directly and indirectly, would therefore be matched with increased accountability.
Signing up to the convention would also strengthen the relationship between the Luxembourg and Strasbourg courts, reducing the scope for discrepancies in decisions taken by the two bodies and ensuring the consistency of human rights case law in Europe. In short, EU accession to the convention would be a major step towards creating a “common European space” for human rights.
It would also represent a significant statement of intent on the part of the EU. No longer could the EU be accused of not living up to the very same standards it demanded of potential new members, for whom adherence to the European convention has long been a condition of membership. Furthermore, it would enhance the EU’s credibility in its human rights dialogues with countries around the world.
Both the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, made up of national parliamentarians from the 47 member states, have expressed their strong support for this process. Indeed, both parliamentary bodies consider that accession to the convention should be just the first step, to be followed by greater EU involvement in a whole range of different Council of Europe bodies and agreements, and possibly even full membership.
Formal negotiations on accession to the human rights convention were launched by EU Commissioner Reding and Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland in June 2010. Despite the significant technical and legal complexities involved, they were successfully completed – on time – a year later.
However, almost as soon the process moved from the technical to the political level it ground to a shuddering halt. It is understood – although this is hard to verify, given that the poor flow of information – that objections almost exclusively from one large EU member state (no prizes for guessing which one) have made it impossible for the EU to find a common position.
The European Convention on Human Rights is the most advanced human rights mechanism in the world, and is something that we Europeans can be proud of. We should use it as the foundation for building a comprehensive and coherent “common space” for human rights in Europe.
EU accession is an essential first step in that process – what is needed now is a clear political commitment from all 27 EU member states to make it work, and the sooner the better.
Barbara Lochbihler MEP is Chair of the European Parliament Sub-Committee on Human Rights. Kerstin Lundgren is former PACE rapporteur on the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on the Council of Europe