Address by Morten Kjaerum to the European Parliament's LIBE Committee

Address by Morten Kjaerum to the European Parliament's LIBE Committee, 4 September 2014

Thank you very much Madam Chair, Honourable Members,

Let me first of all congratulate you all on your election to the European Parliament, in particular to the Chair and the Vice-Chairs of the LIBE Committee. I must say that in the past we have had very good interaction and collaboration with the Committee, and we look forward to continued collaboration with this new Committee.

As we all know, human rights and the respect for respect for human rights are values which are very high on the European agenda. It is time and again confirmed in Eurobarometer surveys that it is something that Europeans are putting high and have very high expectations to the European institutions. It is therefore a great pleasure for me to present today our Annual Report of the developments in 2013. It’s also a great pleasure to be on a podium with the European Commission and, of course, the Council of Europe, with Françoise Le Bail and Philippe Boillat. I think it again underlines, as Françoise also said, the excellent collaboration and complementarity that is so important between the different institutions, and I think that has matured and developed very well in the past years.

Before I go onto the presentation of the annual summary of the findings, the Annual report, let me just say two words about the Fundamental Rights Agency, as I know there are a number of new members here. Just very briefly, what the Fundamental Rights Agency is doing is to provide evidence-based advice to EU institutions and Member States. What does that mean? That means that we actually turn to the Europeans and ask them to what extent their rights are actually being met in their everyday life.

So, we do these surveys. The most recent was a survey where we interviewed 40,000 women in face-to-face interviews about their experience of violence at home and at work, stalking, etc. 

So, are the rights to dignity; to privacy; to non-discrimination, are they being respected?  I will, of course, return to some of these surveys.

So the Agency is providing this insight, which hopefully, when provided to you, will give you a lot of possibility to see “This is where the issues are, this is where we should take initiative and legislation in other ways.”

FRA is also doing legal analysis, so it’s not only surveys, but also the legal analysis, like what is the legal regime? Here we are frequently asked by the European Parliament and other EU institutions to deliver legal analysis on legislative proposals, or formulate opinions on particular topics that are on your table.

Most recently, we received a request to carry out work which followed and built on Claude Moraes’ report concerning the impact of state surveillance programmes, what is the impact on these programmes, on fundamental rights, and in particular, of course, the right to privacy. You can see a list in the paper we have distributed to you today, you can see the list of Opinions that you at the Parliament have requested and the reports that we have submitted to you and we look forward to continue that interaction as well.

Each year, the Fundamental Rights Agency, is tabling, according to our founding regulation, an annual report which looks into the developments, the achievements, the challenges in the 28 Member States and, of course, also in the EU as such.

In our report, we acknowledge the fact that the EU has built a very unique area of freedom, security and justice for our citizens. We have come a long way, the framework is very solid. We nonetheless show how some of these achievements have, in recent years, come under a certain strain, of course, in particular, taking into consideration the economic crisis. And in particular, that trust has suffered: trust between people, trust between communities, but also trust in our democratic institutions.

I think that an issue we see going into a lot of the work that we are doing is about that level of trust that we need to regain, that we need to rebuild all these three parameters. I will not go through the entire report, it is big, it is detailed, but I would like to highlight in particular three issues that are really issues of particular concern, namely, the issue of data protection, hate crime and discrimination, and as you just discussed, the issue of migration.

1) So, let me begin with the issue of data protection.

The Snowden revelations of mass surveillance highlighted the fact that the protection of personal data is under threat. The protection of the right to privacy is far from sufficient when we look across Europe today. Following last year’s debates, we very much welcome the European Parliament’s request to the Fundamental Rights Agency to further investigate the fundamental rights and safeguards in place in the context of large-scale surveillance programmes. And of course you will be informed probably towards the end of this year about the findings of this particular request.

But it’s not only the big surveillance programmes. There are also misgivings about oversight mechanisms in the area of general data protection. When we give data to health authorities, to tax authorities, to other institutions, public or private. We see from the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency that the national oversight structures in the EU are currently too weak to fulfil their mission. Data protection authorities, which are established in all Member States have an important role to play in the enforcement of the overall data protection system, but the powers and resources of national data protection authorities urgently needs to be strengthened and also their independence needs to be guaranteed.

Finally, I would also highlight that those who are entrusted to store the data, whether it is private or public, that the institutions need to be accountable, at a much stronger level that we see today if the safeguards that they create are not sufficiently in place.

2)  I will now turn to the second issue, namely the area of discrimination and hate crime.

Let me begin with a quote from one of the surveys from last year on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT), surveying 93,000 LGBT people in Europe, the biggest ever survey. But just one quote from the survey: “I experience so much discrimination, harassment and violence that it has become my daily life.”

This is where the discrimination becomes a life condition, and that is the fact for very many people across Europe.

Just to give you one figure from our LGBT survey:

  • 26%, approximately a quarter of the LGBT people surveyed had been confronted with violence over the past five years. So a quarter of the respondents said they had been confronted with violence.

That figure is very high, and it is also mirrored in our other surveys. For example, last year we did a survey on the Jewish community and previously on Roma and ethnic minorities, and it is in that range, around a quarter who actually report that they have been confronted with violence just because of who they are.

Here it’s important to remind ourselves that bias-motivated crime is not just an issue of a physical attack, of a violation. Our work also demonstrates clearly that hate crime instils fear not only in the individual, him or herself, but in entire communities. Let me give you one example here from the survey on the Jewish community, the first ever survey of its kind in Europe, which was, again, from last year. In this report, we saw that:

  • One third of the respondents told us that they had seriously considered emigrating from the country where they lived because of the security situation.

That tells us something about the level of fear, and we also saw in our LGBT survey that two-thirds of the respondents said that they didn’t want to hold hands in the public arena. Again, this shows the level of fear being instilled into these communities.

Therefore, in March last year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that called for stronger measures to combat racism, hate crime and xenophobia. That was followed up at the Council Conclusions this December last year with a very strong set of recommendations, and the Council of the EU asked FRA to work together with Member States to facilitate the exchange of good practices in this field and we have just initiated a working group with more than 20 Member States, and the first meeting will be convened under the Italian Presidency in a few months from now, and hopefully that can step up the work across the 28 Member States in this very important area. We look forward to discussing it further with you in the time to come.

3) Finally, I come to the issue of migration.

I followed a bit of the discussion before of this panel, and I would like to echo the importance of having a very strong fundamental rights dimension when we talk about the protection of migrants arriving in Europe.

The Task Force Mediterranean, of which FRA took part, was and is an important initiative. Italy’s Mare Nostrum is another such initiative, and we see gradually that the fundamental rights dimension is entering into the work, and we hope that that momentum will be upheld and developed further in what is named now ‘Frontex Plus’ or other next steps.

But we have also pointed to other issues from the Fundamental Rights Agency in this regard. One of these is to increase – as we also heard from the Director-General – to increase the number of legal avenues, such as protected entry, that is just one other step to offer possibilities to people in need of protection.

Another is for all Member States to state explicitly that anyone who provides humanitarian assistance to migrants, be it rescuing them at sea or giving them food or shelter, will not be punished.

In recognition of the seriousness of the whole situation, as we have just heard, FRA and the Italian Presidency are devoting the Agency’s annual Fundamental Rights Conference to this very issue. To look into the different complexities in this regard, both the urgencies, but also the demographic changes that also play into the discussions. Of course, you are all invited to this conference, which will take place in November.

In conclusion, I would like to mention one particular section of our Annual Report, namely the focus section. I would actually recommend that you read the last three years’ focus sections, if you have time. It’s a nice illustration of the fundamental rights landscape in Europe, how it’s structured and what the challenges are.

This year, we again underlined that we have come a long way and foundations are in place, but we need to ensure that the respect and protection of our rights keeps pace with the EU’s evolution. The new EU Strategic Guidelines for the areas of freedom, security and justice, which the Council just approved a few months ago, make implementation and consolidation of current legal instruments and policy measures an overall priority. Indeed, the work of FRA shows that implementation of existing standards is a major challenge. What we suggest in this year’s focus section is that we propose to create a strategic framework for fundamental rights.

We have a fundamental rights strategy externally, is it now time to have a strategy internally? Linked to such a strategy, EU fundamental rights policy cycle could be created. A policy cycle, of course between the institutions, as we see represented here, but also increasingly involving national parliaments, and national human rights commissions, and civil society, of course. So getting that wider, broader input into the discussion and policy development.

So, these are some of the proposals, and I very much look forward to continuing the discussion, both this morning, and in the coming months with this Committee.

Thank you very much, Madame Chair.