Ensuring respect for fundamental rights in European Union Member States

Speech by FRA Director Morten Kjaerum at the International Conference 'What Europe stands for - Growth, jobs and rights: will the European Union rise to the occasion?', Italian Chamber of Deputies, Rome, 13-14 March 2014.

Distinguished Presidents,

Honourable Speakers of Parliaments,

Ladies and gentlemen,

In late 2012, the European Parliament commissioned a poll amongst European citizens on the values they wanted Parliament to defend. The protection of human rights came first, cited by every second citizen, followed by solidarity between EU Member States, and finally gender equality and freedom of speech.

We have the ambition to be a community of shared values, human rights and the rule of law. Yet, are we up to the task? Do we deliver this "good" to the citizens?

We have achieved much to be proud of in the Union on fundamental rights. Our citizens enjoy a degree of justice, freedom and security that is envied in many parts of the world. We have a legally binding Fundamental Rights Charter. Europe is the only region in the world where we have ground-breaking common EU rules to protect people against discrimination, to give EU citizens the right to move freely in the EU, to protect children against sexual exploitation, and to safeguard people's right to privacy through legislation which is currently being upgraded. And we have the tools to enforce the legislation. And the Commission and the Court of Justice have proven that they do not shy away from using these tools - when needed.

Yet the experiences and demands of our citizens tell us that the job is unfinished. Our Agency has been set up by the EU and the Member States to provide a reality check. Can our citizens - in their daily lives - enjoy the high level of fundamental rights that we take pride in?

The Fundamental Rights Agency has conducted large-scale surveys and research into fundamental rights, to provide evidence-based advice to the EU and its Member States. And we have diagnosed a certain sense of anxiety amongst people in our Union. 66 percent of respondents in our survey of Jews said that antisemitism was a problem in their country. Every third respondent had considered emigrating because of not feeling safe for being a Jew.

In another survey, more than 20 percent of LGBT persons said that they have been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation in the last 12 months.

Last week, I presented at the Council in Brussels the results of the first EU-wide survey on violence against women - for which we interviewed 42,000 women about their experiences. When presenting the results - I had to describe them as shocking. One in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15. 5 percent had experienced rape. This corresponds to 6 million women, which is more than a country like Austria has inhabitants.

A cross-cutting finding across all these surveys is the severe lack of confidence of victims to report such experiences to the police or other competent authorities. Between 70 and 80 percent of these incidents never get reported. Why? The majority of victims say that they do not believe that the police or others would do anything about it.

We should not be surprised if our citizens do not believe in our rhetoric of a Union of shared values where human rights are upheld at all times. Our work shows that fundamental rights are not working for many people who should feel safe and free in the Union. Also events, such as the tragic deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean sea, cast serious doubts on Europe's capacity to grant international protection to those in need - whether they be victims of trafficking, refugees fleeing prosecution, or unaccompanied minors.

We are in a period of transition of the European Union and its Member States, a transition from a period of political trust to one of political scepticism. This scepticism has many sources such as the economic crisis, a loss of faith in our democratic systems, a sense of growing inequality and injustice, and the negative experiences of many minority communities in the Member States of the EU.

We cannot ignore these developments. We need to be clearer and more confident about what sort of Europe we want and what values we stand for.

The time is now. The EU institutions and the Member States are in this very moment discussing the strategic priorities in the area of justice and home affairs for the next five years. You as national parliamentarians, national governments, the European institutions, EU agencies such as mine, civil society - we are all taking part in this reflection process.

In June, the Council will then adopt new strategic guidelines for the next European legislature. Let us use this as an opportunity for a new pact for fundamental rights. By that I mean a Rights agenda which embeds fundamental rights into core European Union policies - from the economic policies, which we discussed yesterday, to justice and home affairs which we are discussing today. In my view, this does not need more Europe but certainly a more effective cooperation among all of us.

Addressing the fundamental rights concerns of our citizens is one of the critical paths to restore trust in our democratic institutions - whether at European or national level. And it is about reconnecting the EU to its citizens. Let me highlight this with three core citizen concerns. They are intimately linked with the topics we discussed yesterday - better equipping Europe for economic recovery, globalisation and the digital world.

  1. Migration and mobility within the Union

    The right to free movement is the core benefit of the Union which EU citizens experience in their daily lives. All economic data tell us that - also in this crisis - intra-EU mobility is part of the solution to economic disparity, and not the problem. Freedom of movement has helped many young people access labour markets and realise study opportunities in other member states. 

    We now have 15 million EU citizens living in Member States other than their countries of origin. It is important that the fundamental right to freedom of movement is protected in order to develop the Union further. It allows companies to seek the best talents across the EU, for skill shortages to be met, and for young people to realise life chances. All this is important to develop the Union as a global competitor.

    Civil society organisations here in Italy yesterday told me that very robust economic studies had clearly demonstrated how much small businesses run by ethnic minorities have contributed to the Italian economy. Is that something that is regularly covered in the media or in political discourse? Instead, the debate - not only in Italy - is dominated by voices challenging migration and intra-EU mobility with strong xenophobic or racist undertones.

    At the end of last year, we heard about Romanians and Bulgarians ready to swamp Western Europe - to take advantage of better social benefits. Few listened to the voice of the European Commission and others which demonstrated - with hard data - the economic benefits that this intra-European mobility.

    Finally, in relation to migration from third countries and asylum, there are serious challenges requiring an EU solution in the coming years. We need to look at developing higher levels of solidarity between Member States, ensure that persons in need of protection have proper access to asylum procedures, put an end to severe labour exploitation of irregular migrants, and offer facilitate legal migration channels to close those labour market needs.

    Politicians in Europe should be wary that the upcoming European electoral campaign will not become the playground of those who fuel racist attitudes and stereotypes for quick electoral gains. We know that it is hard to restore the damage done after such a campaign. All of us who have easy access to microphones have a particular responsibility to challenge racist stereotypes.

    Let me move to a second human rights concern of our citizens.
     

  2. Data protection

    The revelations about mass electronic surveillance programmes have undermined EU citizens' trust in the protection of their fundamental rights in this area. They revealed a failure of democratic accountability and oversight. The European Parliament has made it one of its priorities to restore democratic accountability and oversight with an inquiry and a report on the activities of NSA and how it dealt with the data of European citizens. This being a cross-national issue, we need the next European Parliament to work with you national parliamentarians to regain citizen's trust that their personal data is protected.

    One way to regain this trust is to establish transparent and independent, and therefore credible, mechanisms that protect citizen’s rights and give them access to remedies. The current mechanisms, such as the Data Protection Authorities, need to be strengthened both in terms of the scope of their activities as well as their interaction with those who have complained. The Union requires a strong data protection framework to secure the rights of its citizens and, in particular, the right to privacy.

    Finally, we also need to address the private sector. The challenges ahead include finding ways of sensitising and committing the private sector to respect fundamental rights protection when dealing with personal data. A clear commitment to the protection of fundamental rights by the security industry, as well as by corporations holding masses of data will not only serve the rights holders, but also the corporations themselves.

    Given the growing interdependence between digital services and citizen participation in society, it is critical that people trust the way governments and corporations operate in this field.

    Finally, I come to a third concern which relates to the issue of trust in the Union's capacity to uphold basic principles and core values.


     
  3. Mutual trust between Member States and rule of law

    Recent events in a couple of Member States raised the question of what to do in cases where EU basic principles and core values have been breached.

    The Communication from the Commission on the rule of law as proposed this week, establishes a new framework to strengthen the EU’s response to potential breaches of the rule of law.

    This is a positive step forward to address systemic deficits in EU Member States which impact adversely on the integrity of national institutions and mechanisms established to secure the rule of law.

    There is a direct relationship between the EU's current crisis, fundamental rights, and the rule of law. We need stable democracies in Europe to ensure sufficient trust to be present between Member States. This trust in the democratic institutions is a precondition for so many of the actions and citizens should be able to take this for granted inside the EU. For example, the European arrest warrant - if you cannot trust the judiciary in one Member State then the entire basis for the arrest warrant is undermined.

    The challenge for the new European Parliament, the Council and Commission will be to find ways of addressing Member States which are sliding backwards - and doing it on a non-discriminatory manner, based on objective and reliable data.

To conclude,

The Union should finally consider developing an internal fundamental rights strategy, to mirror the human rights framework and guidelines existing for the EU’s external policies. I would be delighted to work with the incoming Italian Presidency on such a strategy, which would illustrate clearly that the EU practices at home what it projects to the outside world.

National parliaments should play a key role in defining the strategy. For a continuous cross-national dialogue on such issues, it may be useful to create a network of national parliamentary committees dealing with fundamental rights.

Fundamental rights are not just for the good times. It is in time of crisis that their robustness is being tested.

Thank you for your attention.