Mr Chairman, Members of the LIBE Committee,
It has been a great pleasure over the years to have interacted with you in LIBE. It has always been a place for frank, open discussions, which is very much appreciated. We have not always seen things eye-to-eye, but that is how it is with parliaments. I really hope that you will greet my successor in the same constructive way that you have worked with us during the first eight years of the life of the Fundamental Rights Agency.
I must say, on a personal note, that it has been a tremendous privilege to have been offered the opportunity to build an entirely new institution in the area of fundamental rights, trying to work out how we actually add value and what the Agency could, and should, do in order to assist you in your important work, as well as the work of the Commission, the Council, and of course, the Member States.
We have come a long way. I think we have built an agency that fulfils its mandate, and one that has had a great impact on a number of issues, which was noted in the external evaluation of the Agency in 2013. Let me just briefly go into some of the work and methodologies that were assessed in the external evaluation.
Over the past seven years, we have created a unique pool of data about key fundamental rights issues throughout the EU, issues that we had very little, or no knowledge about before FRA began working on them. To mention just one issue, we knew very little about hate crime before it came to light in a number of different surveys. The large-scale surveys we have carried out have been: on violence against women, for which 42,000 women were interviewed; the LGBT survey, with 93,000 respondents; a big Roma survey, reaching out to 80,000 Roma household members; the ethnic minorities survey; and of course, the survey on antisemitism, which has recently been in frequent use, unfortunately. This survey has provided a real insight into the experience of Jewish communities in Europe today.
In fact, all of these surveys have given us a very detailed insight, making it possible for you to shape legislation targeted towards the particular concerns that need to be addressed.
In parallel, we have done a number of legal analyses and handbooks that have proved very popular. Some 150,000 copies have been distributed on issues such as data protection, asylum, anti-discrimination legislation, or the rights of the child. The handbooks were produced jointly with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which has been a very good collaboration. I am proud to say that of all the publications produced by the EU institutions, our reports are some of the most distributed of all of them, so we are near the top of the list and our reports are very much being used.
The external evaluation interviewed 300 key stakeholders in the EU, from the European Parliament, the Commission, as well as from the Member States, civil society and others. They basically underlined that we have impact. But any good evaluation also points to areas where improvements can be made, and as Maija Sakslin just mentioned, in the area of legal Opinions we have some strong limitations. We are very pleased with the requests that we have got from the Parliament on specific legislation when you have asked for our opinion. But if, as is normal in many Member States, national human rights institutions can give such opinions on their own initiative, I think the Agency should also be able to. I must add that aside from their use to the Commission and Member States, the Opinions are being used by governments when assessing particular items of legislation.
Another area in which the evaluation indicated improvements could be made is in our interaction with Member States. To begin with, we targeted the EU institutions as our primary stakeholders, but subsequently we began to increase our interaction with Member States. Just last week, we had, I think as the first EU agency, a meeting with national parliaments, after asking national parliaments – on a voluntary basis – to appoint a focal point in the parliament who could be a liaison between the national parliament and FRA. We invited all the parliaments, and most agreed to come to Vienna last week, where they met to exchange ideas, not only on how we could strengthen our interaction, but between the parliaments themselves.
On a more substantial note, I would like to highlight two or three issues on which we need to focus in the future. Firstly, we need to promote the understanding of fundamental rights as a horizontal issue. It is still too often the case that when I ask why the agency was not invited to this particular hearing, the answer is that fundamental rights were not on the agenda, but what was on the agenda was, for example; asylum, internal security, child rights or Roma issues, which all have very profound human rights considerations. We need to see human rights an issue which is not compartmentalised, but a horizontal issue, influencing all agendas.
This brings me to the second point, namely internal security. In this regard, I would say that the Italian Presidency managed to integrate the language of “human rights by design” quite successfully, but this should not only be the case for internal security. Human rights are often termed a ‘soft issue’. It’s not about hard or soft though, but about smart approaches. Maybe we need new legislation, but maybe we also need to think more about how we work as an inclusive society, and how we can create more social cohesion in Europe. Here again, I refer to the data that the agency has produced, which gives us a lot of insight into some of the challenges and issues which are having the opposite effect. An example of this is ethnic profiling, which we see in all Member States, by which ethnic minorities are profiled and targeted by police far more often than the majority population.
The third point I would like to raise brings us back to social cohesion. Over the past seven years, I have travelled across Europe, and I would say that there is a growing anger which we should not ignore. The economic situation and austerity measures have created deep frustrations, and it is high time that we further integrate economic and social rights much stronger into policies. As Maija Sakslin said, it is a pity that the agency does not have a ‘self-standing’ economic and social rights mandate. We do work on them though on a number of the other issues, but much more could be done in this regard, also in terms of legislation that is being developed. Finally, on the issue of asylum, we need a much more comprehensive and higher level of solidarity between Member States.
To wind up, I want to again underline the importance of interaction between the institutions when addressing human rights issues, and that we need to further develop the notion of ’we’ – that we all interact, that we all push for the same goal, having a high level of fundamental rights protection throughout Europe in order to support social cohesion. Here, there is still a lot that can be done, through creating stronger synergies, complementarities, and understanding the roles of the different institutions. I think we are on a very good track and have come a long way in the past seven years. I hope that you will work with the new director with the same positive attitude with which you have worked with me.
I wish you all the best for the future, and I am sure that for many of you, our roads will probably cross in one capacity or another.
Thank you very much for your attention.