Mr Chairman, Distinguished Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning, and many thanks for the invitation to talk to you today. It is a pleasure to be able to address you knowing that cooperation between FRA and the Council of Europe is considered such a success. And this positive collaboration relates to all the bodies of the Council of Europe, from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), through the Court to the Parliamentary Assembly.
However, the excellent cooperation between our two institutions is not an end in itself. And while there has been progress in some areas of fundamental rights as legislation is strengthened – for example in the area of victims’ rights – we also share a sense of disquiet. Disquiet at the rise of populist extremism in Europe that creates a fertile ground for fundamental rights abuses; disquiet at the signs of poverty and social exclusion; and disquiet at the challenges in some countries to the rule of law.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It pains me to speak to you today for the last time in my capacity as Director of the Fundamental Rights Agency at such a sombre moment, following the brutal attacks in Paris earlier this month. The terrorists killed 17 people, they attacked the free press and basic human rights. They increased fear in the Jewish and their own Muslim community and injected anxiety into the general population. In light of this attack the continued collaboration between FRA, the Council of Europe and other human rights actors is particularly important.
The discussion about the necessity for an effective and cohesive EU security strategy in the wake of the attacks makes it especially important that fundamental rights implications are taken into consideration from the very beginning. I am thinking here of ways we can help build safeguards into the proposed system to exchange Passenger Name Records between Member States or with third countries. And I am convinced that law enforcement will need advice on how to make legitimate use of intelligence-based profiling without it amounting to discriminatory racial profiling.
Any policy to increase internal security must integrate fundamental rights from its very inception – fundamental rights by design so to speak. I believe that the earlier annulment of the data retention directive by the Court of Justice of the EU illustrated this point.
As the statement issued after the meeting hosted by the French Interior Minister on 11 January made clear, it is also important to consider short and medium-term strategies for preventing radicalisation and extremism. FRA and ECRI have been collecting data that measure trends over time in areas such as hate crime, hate speech and discrimination, and can offer their extensive expertise on these issues. FRA is now in the course of collecting data on Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and other such incidents since the Paris attacks. We hope to be able to report back on this at the informal meeting of EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers at the end of this month.
We cannot defend human rights against terrorists by restricting freedoms or justice, or by allowing discrimination and racism against certain religions or minorities to persist or even increase. We therefore need longer-term and sustainable cohesion policies that can help to overcome the barriers and often increasing alienation in our societies. FRA has just launched a new project on the social inclusion of migrants and their descendants, and the Agency will also this year be carrying out the fieldwork for its second large-scale survey of ethnic minorities in the EU. With this, we will be repeating such a survey for the first time, allowing us to identify trends over a longer period. This is crucial for formulating targeted policy to combat xenophobia, hate crime, discrimination and social exclusion. The findings will feed into many aspects of the Council of Europe’s work.
The issue of social exclusion brings me to a second concern, which I know we share. This is the issue of social and economic rights, which are coming ever more under threat in Europe. In the wake of the economic crisis, pensions have been reduced in some places, leaving elderly people desperate or dependent on support from family and friends. And it is not just the elderly. According to Eurostat, more than 30 million children are currently living under the poverty line. Joblessness, homelessness, the worsening quality of nutrition, lack of means to pay for medical treatment and cuts to social benefits have resulted in a deteriorating family environment that can have a terrible impact on children.
The economic crisis and the widespread view that decision makers are unable or unwilling to find an adequate response has left many people poor, disappointed, and angry. This has contributed to a crisis of trust in democratic institutions. And it has also contributed to a surge in support for populist groups, primitive rhetoric and scapegoating.
If we are to reverse this trend, a greater emphasis on economic and social rights is crucial. The economic crisis has been, and continues to be, a test of our resolve to regard fundamental rights as a lynchpin of European identity and not as an ‘optional extra’. The Council of Europe’s legal instruments and mechanisms are important in this regard.
Finally, I come to the rule of law. There has been deep concern in recent years regarding the situation of the rule of law in the EU. Concerns about the independence of the judiciary, the protection of civil society organisations and media freedom. These have been discussed and it has become clear that EU Member States are not immune to structural deficits in the rule of law. Europe needs to find a way to address these profound challenges to the rule of law.
At the same time, it is of the utmost importance that any rule of law debate is based on solid evidence and that all Member States are treated on an equal footing. The Council of the European Union recently agreed to regularly discuss rule of law issues, and these discussions must be substantial and based on objective and reliable evidence. This, in my view, could be an area of increased cooperation between FRA and the relevant Council of Europe bodies.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
To address all these issues, cooperation between FRA and the Council of Europe needs to stay at the top of our agenda. In order to illustrate what we already have and can build on, I would like to conclude with some thoughts on how I have seen our cooperation develop during the past seven years.
Firstly, FRA data underpin Council of Europe standards. FRA’s report on violence against women, which was based on interviews with 42,000 women throughout the EU, was published last March. We always made sure to link the survey to the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, and I am certain that in this way we also contributed to the number of ratifications that took place in the course of 2014. The survey won a prize from the Spanish Government, and was recently listed by a leading German national newspaper as one of the key events in the debate about violence against women last year.
Secondly, our joint publications have a very wide outreach. The handbooks jointly produced by FRA and the Council of Europe together with the European Court of Human Rights have proved immensely popular with practitioners in the field. After the publication last year of guides on i) European data protection law and ii) European law relating to asylum, borders and immigration, we are this year working on a handbook of European case law on the rights of the child and a handbook on access to justice case law.
Finally, our institutions play a key role in promoting joined-up human rights work in Europe. In this regard I would like to mention the recently established cooperation between FRA, the Council of Europe, the European network of equality bodies (Equinet) and the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions on key areas of fundamental rights: migration, Roma integration, hate crime, and the promotion of social and economic rights. I am confident this platform will prove a useful forum for enhancing cooperation at the international, EU, and national levels.
So it is clear that our two institutions have long overcome the initial nervousness after FRA’s establishment in 2007. Now the focus is entirely on how we can – separately and together – add value to the lives of the many Europeans who need and rightly expect our help.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Before I end my remarks, I would like to add my voice to the words of our Chairperson and thank Maud de Boer-Buquicchio and also her predecessor Guy de Vel for their excellent contribution in bringing the Council of Europe and FRA closer together.
And in the name of FRA, a new institution in the fundamental rights field that I have been proud to lead and help build up, I would like to express my appreciation to the members of this committee for your great commitment to our common human rights agenda. At the same time, I also call on you to continue your support in the years to come. For reciprocal cooperation and mutual trust between our organisations is vital if we are to succeed in resolving the fundamental rights challenges we face today.
Thank you for your attention.