Thank you for inviting the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights to address you.
I have come to this meeting directly from a gathering in Vienna of the EU High Level Group on racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. That meeting was striking on a number of counts.
First, it drew attention to and triggered debate on a grave and worsening human rights issue within the EU: the relentless rise in levels of racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.
However, another striking feature of the event was the extent to which it brought together a wide array of actors necessary to make a difference. These certainly included EU bodies such as ours, but also notably the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
With regard to the role of the Council of Europe, there was a clear acknowledgement of its work for the combat of racism, including through development of standards and the work of ECRI.
In my own contribution to that Vienna discussion, I pointed to efforts and achievements which would not have been possible without a strong collaboration of the Fundamental Rights Agency and the Council of Europe.
That is why it is a great honour to address you today, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Agreement between the EU and Council of Europe on cooperation of the Council of Europe and our Agency.
I recently re-read the agreement document, and was struck by drafters’ efforts to create vital channels for cooperation based on extensive coordination and exchanges. The arrangements have worked well.
You may recall that, when our Agency was established, there were concerns that it would duplicate many of the Council of Europe’s own activities.
Looking back on these 10 years, I would instead argue that the story of our work has been one of impressive complementarity. And this has been present from the outset.
The Council’s participation, via an independent expert, in the Agency’s Executive Board and Management Board meetings has been consistently constructive. Here I would like to single out the excellent contributions made by Professor Rainer Hofman, and thank him for enriching our Management Board’s work.
We also consult the Council on all of our key strategic outputs, from the Programming Document that structures our work to our flagship yearly fundamental rights report.
More generally, we always aim to ensure our work reinforces and lends visibility to the Council of Europe’s activities and standards. This is done both informally—through regular contact between our respective staff members—and formally, as for example when we shine a spotlight on case law from the European Court of Human Rights in our assessments of the fundamental rights compliance of draft EU legislation.
I think we can be satisfied, then, that the processes and mechanisms detailed in the Agreement are having their intended effects, 10 years on. Given the environment in which we and other human rights bodies currently operate, these concerted efforts could not be timelier, or more needed.
In Europe and across the world, human rights protection systems as a whole are being rejected. Words and deeds that were unacceptable back when this Agreement was signed in 2008 have become—if not mainstream—then certainly normalised. In the European Union alone, three brave investigative journalists—two of them women—have been murdered in the recent past. In some places, civil society is denied funding and the legal protections it requires to operate freely and independently.
All of these concerns are front of mind for human rights defenders. They certainly were three weeks ago, at our Agency’s Fundamental Rights Forum in Vienna, at which the Council of Europe played such a key role.
We assembled 700 people to debate the great human rights issues for the EU. Those participants came from a very wide array of backgrounds, well beyond the “traditional” human rights community.
In my comments to you this morning, I wish to emphasise the work of the Forum, because in spite of the generally gloomy analysis of the state of human rights in Europe, it provided welcome reasons for optimism.
I saw new networks being formed, heard more about what is making a real difference on the ground, and felt our Agency’s own work galvanised. Above all, I was struck by the hope expressed by so many of our younger participants.
During the Forum, we also heard positive feedback from participants about many activities that we and the Council carry out in parallel and in partnership, like our work on migration, where the analyses that my Agency provides to the European Commission, European Parliament and Council of the European Union draws on the standards developed by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. And where the Country Reports filed by the Council of Europe’s Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration and Refugees help us prepare and refine the technical assistance and advice we provide on fundamental rights at migration hotspots.
Both the Fundamental Rights Agency and the Council of Europe have undertaken to maintain regular consultations at all levels in the migration context to ensure synergies. This is and will continue to be key to achieving the objectives we share, on the basis of promoting our common values and standards.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the appreciation expressed at the Forum for the handbooks we have been producing together with the Council and the European Court of Human Rights since 2010. You might recall that the series began with a Handbook on European non-discrimination law, which incidentally was updated this year.
The series has now grown to include Handbooks on topics like asylum, migration and borders, children’s rights, and data protection. These and all areas where combining our organisations’ expertise has met strong demand from judicial actors. On our joint data protection handbook in particular, it was a great professional satisfaction to be able to present European Commissioner Věra Jourová the first copy on 25 May this year, the day General Data Protection Regulation entered into force. In the time since, there have been over 18,500 downloads from our website alone.
By way of a final remark about the Fundamental Rights Forum, I was particularly impressed by the discussion there about the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals. It was recognised that these can play a very important role for the strengthening of human rights protection within European states. Indeed, in navigating these challenging times, we see the SDGs as both a roadmap towards and vehicle for delivery of strong, rights-respectful societies.
Mention of the SDGs reminds me that today, October 17th, marks the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. And again in this area we must draw on Council of Europe standards and proceed in a great complementarity of the activities of the Council and our Agency.
Today, we publish a report entitled Combating child poverty: an issue of fundamental rights. It highlights Eurostat data that show 1 in 4 EU children live at risk of poverty. And that 2.5 million of our children experience extreme poverty.
Ensuring a child’s right to an adequate standard of living is not just a policy choice made with the goal of a more cohesive society. It is a matter of legal obligations: the right to health, to social security and assistance, to social, legal and economic protection of the family and of children.
As you well know, these rights are all enshrined in the European Social Charter. And we are advocating that EU institutions draw more effectively on its legal standards—and consider acceding to the Treaty—in order to help break the poverty cycle. We also recommend that the EU’s Member States consider ratifying the European Social Charter, and accept to be bound by its Article 30.
In my remarks this morning, I have attempted to convey the scale and intensity of the cooperation between the Fundamental Rights Agency and the breadth of the Council of Europe.
Today, 10 years on from the Agreement that defines the relationship, our collaboration has become a fixture in Europe’s human rights landscape. I am grateful to the Council of Europe for its support, and look forward to continuing our work together to ensure that the rights of everyone in the EU and in Europe are defended and respected.