Mr Chairman, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation to introduce myself as (almost) new director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. It is a particular pleasure to be able to address you in the knowledge of the strength and depth of the cooperation between the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights and the Council of Europe. I am no less aware that we meet in troubled times when human rights, even the fundamentals of the regional and international systems, are challenged. We need, more than ever, to intensify our cooperation in defence of human rights.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before I go on, I would like to stress that the Fundamental Rights Agency is assiduous in its work in drawing on all of the applicable human and fundamental rights. We are concerned with the interplay of Union law and in particular the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU with the European Convention on Human Rights and also with the UN human rights treaties.
Indeed in our work, we make sure never to lose sight of the fact that we exist within a constellation of human and fundamental rights bodies. We are only as good as the extent to which we are sufficiently embedded in this larger family. And the Council of Europe is, of course, one of the most important members of this family. In this regard we are determined to increase the visibility of Council of Europe and UN standards within the EU system.
As you know, the Agency is the EU’s independent centre of fundamental rights excellence, with the task of advising the EU institutions to ensure that their activities are compliant with fundamental rights. We have existed now for 10 years and deliver our advice through a range of tools, such as large-scale surveys, legal Opinions, our presence in the field, and awareness raising. Since arriving at the Agency, I have strived to move it forward in a spirit of continuity, respecting well-established working methods. At the same time, I deeply believe that the Agency needs to have the flexibility to react to urgent and unfolding situations, thus ensuring the relevance of its work and positive impact for rights holders.
There is no area in which this ability to react is more urgent than that of migration. And so with this newly achieved flexibility, the Agency for the first time deployed staff to observe the fundamental rights situation on the ground and provide expertise and advice there where it’s needed.
Between March and August, FRA had a permanent presence at the hotspots in Greece. The purpose was initially to support the EU institutions and FRA’s sister agencies Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office on the ground with fundamental rights expertise.
However, FRA’s activities have changed together with the evolving situation and now, the Agency is offering targeted capacity-building activities to support EU operations and the relevant Member States. As well as supporting the Greek authorities in implementing safeguards concerning detention, return and readmissions, FRA experts are currently in Italy to develop a programme of support on child protection and for the benefit of other vulnerable groups. We also publish monthly overviews on the fundamental rights situation of migrants entering the EU, and are developing legal and practical guidance relevant to the Council of Europe’s work.
Migration was one of three topics selected for debate at the 2016 Fundamental Rights Forum. This new initiative of the Agency drew some 700 experts from across Europe to Vienna in late June. I was particularly glad to welcome, the Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, as a keynote speaker, as well as a number of other Council of Europe representatives.
The dialogue at the Forum, between people who rarely engage with each other and who often have differing views, was frank. The speeches, panels and debates at the Forum resulted in a Chair’s Statement, containing over 100 action points to put human rights back on track. A number of these made explicit reference to the Council of Europe. The Forum is a biennial event planned to occur again in 2018, when we would hope to welcome many of you to Vienna.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Collaboration between the Agency and the Council of Europe is extensive at a number of operational levels. For instance, we are currently strengthening our cooperation on the topic of the rule of law. In this context, I am grateful for the invitation I have received to speak to the Venice Commission later this month.
As we engage more intensively with the topic of the rule of law, there are a number of ‘red lines’ I would indicate.
First, it is clear that human rights is only one component of the rule of law. This, in turn, limits FRA’s contribution. I note that the Council of Europe’s remit is clearly far broader in this regard.
Second, whatever tools are developed by the EU, they must not compete with or compromise the Council of Europe’s excellent and longstanding work on the rule of law.
Third, efforts to assess the state of rule of law in any state must draw on all of the relevant findings of the Council of Europe – specifically the Court of Human Rights – the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU itself and other relevant instances.
The final point is that the Fundamental Rights Agency does not make EU policy. Its role is to provide technical support on the rule of law and other issues. Any initiatives to develop further mechanisms or arrangements belong solely to the EU legislators.
Our cooperation with the Council of Europe on rule of law is still in its early stages. However, our institutions have already worked closely on a number of other topics. I will mention three of these:
First, we have a long track record of collaborating on and sharing methodologies from the conduct of human rights surveys. This experience is to our mutual benefit.
Second, I would mention our cooperation in the area of Roma inclusion. FRA and the Council of Europe are founding members of the Operational Platform on Roma Equality. Next month we will publish the findings of a major study that shows that up to three-quarters of Roma feel discriminated against when trying to rent or buy accommodation. Overall, 80% of Roma and their children are at risk of poverty, compared with an average of 17% of the population across the EU. The detailed findings will be shared with the Council of Europe.
In this field, as in many others, there is still much work to be done. I look forward to continuing our excellent cooperation in this regard, including with the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Roma issues, whom I will have the pleasure of meeting later today.
Third, we are very pleased with the cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights for the production of handbooks on European human rights law. The latest of these relates to access to justice. This handbook is of particular significance because access to justice is not just a right in itself, but also a key enabler for making other fundamental rights a reality. This practical guide provides legal practitioners with a key legal resource to help them actively support all those who face barriers to full access to justice.
Time was short today, and I only had time to give you very brief information about our excellent cooperation with the Council of Europe. As I have already indicated, we need to maintain such close coordination if we are to make a meaningful difference for the people of the EU and Europe more widely. I assure you of the commitment of FRA to move forward in a manner that truly reflects these sentiments.