Protecting human rights: Questions and answers about the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

Met dank overgenomen van Duits voorzitterschap Europese Unie 2e helft 2020 (Duits Voorzitterschap) i, gepubliceerd op zaterdag 5 december 2020.

7 December marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Yet only half of respondents to a Eurobarometer survey had heard of the Charter. The Charter can only be effective in the everyday lives of EU citizens if they are aware of their rights.

What is the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights?

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union sets out for the first time the rights and liberties of the 450 million people living in the European Union. The actions of all organs and institutions of the EU, such as the European Commission and the European Council, are measured against this yardstick. National authorities too are bound to comply with the Charter. If rights laid out in the Charter are violated, legal action can be taken to demand compliance. This marks a great strengthening of fundamental rights in the EU.

The Charter is divided into six sections: Dignity, Freedoms, Equality, Solidarity, Citizens’ Rights and Justice. Many of these rights are also enshrined in the constitutions of the individual EU member states, including Germany’s Basic Law or constitution.

What makes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights so important?

The Charter of Fundamental Rights goes further than most national constitutions in the EU in terms of substance. For example, it expressly guarantees the rights of the child and the rights of the elderly, the right to the protection of personal data and the right to good administration. It thus offers an additional legal protection for everybody living in the EU.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights also represents the fundamental values of the European Union. Chancellor Angela Merkel thus attaches great importance to the Charter. “It sets out the shared values and fundamental rights wrested from European history, the process of which, as we all know, involved huge sacrifices. […] Only a Europe that remains true to its values will be able to continue along its path successfully.”

When did the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights come into effect?

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was signed on 7 December 2000 at a special ceremony. It only became legally binding several years later, however. On 1 December 2009 it came into effect along with the Treaty of Lisbon.

Poland is the only EU member state in which the Charter is not fully applicable, since the country signed an opt-out clause for domestic political reasons.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights should not be confused with the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights is an international convention drawn up by the Council of Europe, an international organisation with 47 member states which is not part of the European Union. It too sets out fundamental human rights. Compliance is monitored by the European Court of Human Rights.