Keynote speech at Fundamental Rights Platform meeting 2014

Keynote speech at 2014 meeting of the Fundamental Rights Platform by the Director of the Fundamental Rights Agency.

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends and partners,

A warm welcome from me to all of you. It’s a really great pleasure to see you all here, for some of you, for the 7th time! It’s a great continuation of the discussions we have had from previous years. Having worked for and with civil society myself for over 30 years, every year I particularly look forward to this important meeting and to continue that engagement and to listen carefully to issues that are going on and what are the issues that are your concern.
In my view this meeting is a great opportunity for all of us. We have 200 leading human rights experts in this very room, people who really know what the issues are and let’s use it and let’s use also the diversity we have here. The one thing that ties us together is that we all want to make fundamental rights a reality for everybody in Europe. We share a common goal. I very much look forward to the discussions in the coming days.

I also want to thank the outgoing Advisory Panel because without the Advisory Panel we would simply not have been able to keep the momentum between now and the next year or previous years. So this continuation, this advice, and this engagement on where it is that we should actually get deeper into particular issues or address particular groups of organisations is particularly welcome. So thanks a lot from my side as well and I of course very much look forward to working with the new panel.

Dear colleagues,
Of course meeting this year I believe is of particular importance. We are in a stage right now in Europe where there is a changing of the guard. I am, of course, referring to next month’s elections at the European Parliament, followed in the autumn by a new European Commission. On top of that we will also see a new set of strategic priorities in the Justice and Home Affairs area, an area which is a concern in one way or another to all of us. And all this happens hopefully against the backdrop of the preparations for the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights.

So, a number of new things are coming together this year in 2014 which at the same time offers, like any change, also a lot of possibilities to take things forward to change a bit the agenda. So it is a time of change and since we are all in one way or another agents of change working on issues of concern where we would like to see that the current situation, the current challenges, are being addressed, maybe in different ways. Of course when we have a changing of the guard that offers a number of possibilities.

As we all know this is not only theoretical. There are some real issues. Let me just highlight some of them:

  • Around 6 months ago almost 400 people died in the tragedy off the coast of Lampedusa, and many more continue to do so simply because they are looking for a better life and better possibilities;
  • We see extremism and populism on the rise throughout Europe;
  • We see signs of threats to the rule of law in some EU’s democracies;
  • We see more and more unemployment, especially among younger people. Are we losing a generation of youngsters here?;
  • We see threats to social and economic rights, such as access to health and education;
  • We see second generation kids growing up in the sewers of European capitals, living there for two generations now. That is Europe today.
  • And of course as Max just said the right to privacy which is severely challenged as he has well demonstrated. But also we saw this with the Snowden case.

The issues are there. The challenges are there. There is no room for complacency anywhere in Europe today. If fundamental rights are to be safeguarded, all those involved must commit themselves, we must commit ourselves with all the vigour we can mobilise. The rule of law debates, which gained intensity in 2013, confirmed this, by focusing on how to ensure that all Member States uphold the very founding values of the European Union, the very basis that we stand on.

That is of course all of the challenges. But in all fairness, we have all achieved a lot. We have a lot to be proud of. Our citizens enjoy a degree of freedom, security and justice that for sure is envied by most people in other regions across 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 against discrimination and to give EU citizens the right to move freely between the 28 countries, freedom of movement. And we also not only have we rights, we have the tools to enforce these rights. And we know neither the Commission nor the Court of Justice shy away from using these tools to enforce these rights for the citizens. We do not have any other system globally which is as strong as the infringement and other procedures that we have inside the Union. And since I mentioned Lampedusa, I would just like to say that a few days ago the Italian navy saved 4,000 people off the Italian coast.

So, is this a time for despair or hope? For me, it is a lot of both. In any case, it is a call for action – for all of us. And it is again proof that it is crucial that everyone across the human rights landscape acts together in synergy and complimentarity to achieve our common goal: namely a life of dignity for everyone in the EU.

And this is of course the in essence of why we are here and why we meet at least once a year here in Vienna.

It is about finding ways forward. I am very pleased to see several EU and national policy makers among us - from the Council, from the European Commission, also representatives from international organisations and everyone else. The fundamental rights challenges that Europe faces are increasing and they are complex. We need to join forces to help address them. And together here over the coming days we aim to compile all the input to share with policy makers what you, from the perspective of civil society, consider to be the strategic priorities. What is it that should be brought forward in the area of freedom, security and justice.

This year the Stockholm Programme - the EU’s priorities for the area of justice, freedom and security since 2010 - draws to a close. While we have moved past the point where we have to argue that fundamental rights are an integral part of any security policy, we are at the point in time when the Union again needs to redefine and reshape its strategic priorities in the areas of immigration, asylum, visa, border control, integration, criminal justice and civil justice, etc. So it’s a vast complexity, a vast area which in one or another touches on what all of you are dealing with. As I said, what I think is a unique opportunity if you go back look at post 911 where you were faced with the choice either you have security or you have human rights. We have moved on. There is an increased realisation that security and human rights are two sides of the same coin. They are interconnected and interrelated. We saw the beginning of that understanding in the Stockholm programme and hopefully with a strong message from here and from other parts that we can move that understanding further, so we really see it truly materialising in all the different aspects in the future justice programme.

This of course has also been fed into by the rich contribution from the Commission whose one report, An open and secure Europe: making it happen, centres on the debate on the future of Home Affairs issues. On then on the justice side, we received the EU Framework to strengthen the rule of law and the EU Justice Agenda for 2020 - strengthening trust, mobility and growth within the Union. Very interesting rich proposals from DG Home and DG Justice which I am sure many of you contributed to.

The Stockholm Programme was a catalyst for change, resulting in many new laws. Some of the legislation adopted also aimed at addressing key fundamental rights issues and challenges. However, as we all know legislation is one thing. Another element is what happens on the ground. How is that legislation actually translated into the realities at the very local level throughout the 28 Member States. And this is again where your input is of extreme importance to have that reality check to have the impact of the legislation. Of course the reports by the European Commission, FRA and others also underline this.

So what can be done in terms of structures and processes to better safeguard fundamental rights?

What are some of the ideas that could be put forward. Let me highlight 3-4 ideas.

1) First, legislation must respect, protect and promote fundamental rights.
Recently the EU’s Court of Justice declared the Data Retention Directive to be invalid because it seriously interferes with fundamental rights. This as well as national examples show that there is space for further improving checks on the fundamental rights impact of future legislation. How do we do that? This also entails compliance with human rights standards. Reality checks with intended beneficiaries would also improve implementation reaching out to those of direct concern. Here civil society is an obvious interlocutor and partner. Interestingly, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities obliges Member States to consult with disability groups when shaping policies and laws. Maybe this could be expanded to other areas in the future.

2) Second, rights awareness amongst rights holders is a precondition for the system to work.
One striking common thread that emerges time and time again in our surveys but also surveys and opinion polls carried out by Eurobarometer surveys, is that rights awareness tends to be very low among Europeans. In some of our surveys on ethnic minorities we saw almost 60% of respondents did not know about any legislation or any system that could actually protect them against discrimination taking into consideration the systems that we have in place. There is room for improvement here. We saw the same in our survey of violence against women, again a very high number of respondents not knowing their rights. So there is an important element here in order to protect fundamental rights, people also need to know what rights they are covered by.

3) Thirdly, when implementing the law all fundamental rights actors must work together on shared objectives.
Fundamental rights issues are a shared responsibility, across governmental levels and sectors. If we too tightly define who does what in the fundamental rights arena, we run the risk that some rights or some groups of individuals fall in between the actors and their issues are not being raised sufficiently.

Therefore, the different institutions and procedures at international, European, national and local levels must coordinate their efforts much better.

Last year in September we convened a meeting here, some of you probably participated with Ombuds institutions, Equality Bodies, and National Human Rights Institutions from all 28 Member States. They came in, they flew in. Some of them probably met for the first time on the plane. But definitely I know very many of them, met for the first time when they met here in Vienna, although they were maybe only 2 or 3 streets between them back home but they never met; lack of coordination and lack of seeing the possibilities of what closer coordination and interaction can contribute to the overall work. So at all levels we need much closer interaction. I think actually here again what we see at the fundamental rights platform so many different actors getting together maybe we could replicate this some way or another at the national level. Here we do see civil society and national human rights bodies, governmental officials working on fundamental rights files working together, addressing what are the issues, what are the concerns, and what are the ideas to actually bring about change. Not to reach the big consensus. I mean there are different views and perspectives, but definitely just to meet and exchange and see maybe how can we move things forward. I would very much like to see that in the years to come. At all levels we need much stronger interaction and that could play up with the European system where again increased coordination could also take place. So there are a lot of institutional issues that need to be addressed here.

4) Finally, among EU Member States we need to develop further the mutual legal trust, a shared “fundamental rights culture”.
In a shared area of justice, judgments and other legal decisions are mutually recognised. The underlying assumption here is that all legal systems come up to the same standards and are all based on shared values. The EU has laid important foundations for the promotion of mutual trust, but this needs to be further strengthened to ensure that the people and the judiciary fully trust decisions taken, no matter which Member State has passed the decision.

Better structured multilateral and bilateral contacts would also help to create a shared ‘fundamental rights culture’ to raise the bar in the area of fundamental rights protection. It would promote understanding and learning from each other. To give just one example: the European e-justice portal could become a sustainable access point for promising practices on how best to live up to EU standards.

Tomorrow we will illustrate a small tool the agency has developed. It is a tool where we are looking at how can we ‘join up’ the different the work in order to increase fundamental rights protection. The uniqueness of it is, again like the eJustice portal, it comes with examples. Use the examples so we can share and have the best practice platform in all these different areas on how to better join up the different groups working on fundamental rights issues. It is a small start, a small beginning and we very much hope a number of institutions we take ownership of it and feed in the examples because it is so much needed.

There are many other ideas and some of it is in the paper that you can find in your conference welcome pack that we will submitted to the overall process but also in our upcoming annual report. We will have a much larger catalogue of ideas and forward-looking proposals that hopefully can help to shape polices in the time to come.

But in the end it is civil society that is called for here to see how you see these issues. So basically I would put the comment to you that we really need the input. In short what are your concerns in this area? Are there any good practices that you see that should be shared? Why are they good practices? What were the particularities that led to that issue being pushed forward? The sort of ideas that Max already illustrated. Just one example of pushing a particular issue and what can be achieved. Let’s get more of that sort of proposals and ideas and experiences. We really urge you to be as concrete as at possible in your deliberations.

And then we promise to harvest the many ideas in one format or another and bring it to the attention of the Council. We are in touch with the Council and they are waiting for it and we met with them a few days ago. You will already tomorrow evening get the first brief summary of what has taken place. We will dig further into it. I can assure you things will happen.

So, let us all work together to make fundamental rights a reality, for everyone. I will closely with a small quote that I really like from an old African proverb that says: “If you want to go fast, go alone - If you want to go far, go together.” Let’s do that. Have a nice day.

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