EU opts for fundamental rights agency with limited scope
Europe's ministers have made a deal on the creation of a new EU agency to overlook how member states' respect the fundamental rights of citizens but ruled against it having the power to look into prisoner treatment or extraordinary renditions.
The EU fundamental rights agency - to be formally adopted on Tuesday (5 December) after months of wrangling – will be up and running according to its original time plan in January 2007.
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It will be tasked 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.
"We couldn't take for granted the establishment of the agency and we got it," said EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini who proposed the project last January.
During the discussions, both national governments and some NGOs argued that the agency risked duplicating the activities of the Council of Europe, a 46-strong human rights watchdog founded in 1955.
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.
Moreover, as a result of opposition by six countries, including the UK, Ireland and some new member states, the agency's scope has been limited to areas covered by community law - such as discrimination or domestic violence.
But it will not be able to tackle issues involving police and legal co-operation in criminal matters, as the opponents of the agency insisted that there is no legal basis for the new body to have such powers.
This has been strongly criticised by human rights groups who argue that it was precisely the recent problems related to these areas - such as European governments' reported awareness of CIA flights and prisons where terrorist suspects were allegedly tortured - that should be monitored more closely in future.
Still, Mr Frattini pointed out that the agency rules allow the EU institutions and member states to use its expertise and "on a voluntary basis" receive relevant analyses and data.
He said that as a representative of the commission, he is ready to make use of this provision in future, adding "I can do that and I will do that."
Ministers decided they would get back to the issue by the end of 2009 and re-examine the possibility of extending the agency's scope to police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.
The new agency is supposed to extend the agenda and powers of the existing European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia based in Vienna, starting with a budget of €13 million which should be raised to €30 million by 2013.