Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,
I am pleased and honoured to be opening this event to mark the tenth anniversary of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
And what a decade it has been! Over this period, the EU has developed a formidable array of structures and practices to protect fundamental rights. When the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU became legally binding in 2009, the Fundamental Rights Agency was the first EU body with competence stretching across the full breadth of the Charter. FRA was tasked with providing the EU institutions and Member States with “assistance and expertise,” particularly through the collection of “objective, reliable and comparable information on the development of the situation of fundamental rights.”
The Agency is therefore in a key position to give a voice to those people across the European Union who are most frequently the target of discrimination and hatred. Many of them are at the margins of our society. But the rights of those at the very centre of our society are also under threat, for example through the tools of the digital age which, in spite of their huge advantages, also open the door to online hate speech and unbridled state surveillance, both of which we have seen too often recently.
The Agency works in close and continuous cooperation with institutions and organisations at both the national and European level. These partnerships have helped us to grow over the last 10 years in both strength and reputation.
One of the Agency’s greatest achievements has been its pioneering development of surveys with which it captures the essence of human rights experiences and perspectives of people across the EU. These surveys are a unique tool and a rich source of information, providing detailed and comparable data to EU and national policy makers to help them understand and surmount the fundamental rights challenges we are confronting.
The surveys and the reports and recommendations based on them are one aspect of our work. Our legal opinions scrutinise EU legislative proposals to ensure they are rights-sound. We have been delighted to see the growing number of requests for such opinions by the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council of the EU.
Then there are the practical handbooks developed in close cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. And more recently, FRA has begun providing practical, on-the-spot guidance to support practitioners in the field. This assistance has been essential in helping to improve the human rights situation for migrants arriving in the hotspots in Greece and Italy.
All these examples demonstrate FRA’s strength. As Chairperson of the Agency’s Management Board, I cannot describe to you how proud I am to see the daily efforts of FRA staff to find solutions to the human rights challenges we are facing, and how impressed I am at the increasingly visible impact of what is a relatively small team.
However, we must grow still stronger. The belief that human rights form the bedrock of our societies and our dealings with each other is waning to an extent that profoundly concerns me. Indeed, in my 30 years of experience in the human rights field, I never expected to observe lack of acceptance for diversity that we are witnessing today.
One reason for this growing mistrust are the profound disparities we are witnessing. This is particularly true of social and economic rights, and it is understandable that the pledge to turn European integration into a driver of ‘economic and social progress’ rings hollow to those whose lives and livelihoods have become so precarious.
But the malaise is deeper. Already in 2013, FRA highlighted the increasingly difficult environment for human rights protection. Extremist ideologies of one hue or another have been gaining ground in mainstream political and public debate. And make no mistake, the continued and unrestrained expression of intolerant rhetoric, magnified by the traditional and social media, leads to a climate in which it becomes only a small step to discrimination, hatred or violence.
Our task is therefore twofold. We must ensure that fundamental rights make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. At the same time, we must counter the perception of fundamental rights as a nuisance or even a hurdle in responding to the urgent problems facing the EU today.
We don’t have to look far for arguments in our favour. We often just have to speak more loudly about the many achievements that make the European Union what it is today. This Europe of values is one in which debate thrives and in which growth and diversity flourish. Learning, understanding, and gaining new insights every day is part of our culture. The people of Europe enjoy a degree of justice, freedom and security that is unknown in many places, and it is for these characteristics that the EU is respected and emulated worldwide.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Our distinguished speakers, Professor Jan Wouters of the Institute for International Law in Leuven and Franco Frattini, former Vice-President of the European Commission with responsibility for Freedoms, Security and Justice, will shortly be answering the question ‘Are we facing a crisis of rights in the EU today?’ This will thereafter be discussed by a panel composed of the present and former directors of the Agency. During the subsequent open discussion, I look forward to hearing your own thoughts about the nature of this crisis and where solutions might lie.
I will now hand over to the head of the European Commission Representation here in Vienna, Jörg Wojahn, who has so kindly made the premises of the Representation available to FRA today.
I wish you pleasant listening and fruitful discussions.