Select Committee on European Union Eighth Report


16 May 2000

By the Select Committee appointed to consider European Union documents and other matters relating to the European Union.




1. The occasion for this report is the current proposal of the Cologne European Council in June 1999 that the fundamental rights applicable at EU level should be consolidated in a Charter and thereby made more evident. The need to respect human rights is deeply engrained in the traditions and constitutions of the Member States of the European Union. At the wider European level the fount and guardian of such rights is universally recognised as being the Council of Europe. It was under its auspices that the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) and the European Court of Human Rights were set up. The Community Treaties in their original form contained no requirement for either the Member States or the institutions to observe human rights. Both the European Community and now the Union have gradually absorbed human rights into their laws and policies, both internal and external. The European Court of Justice has adopted and applied such rights as "general principles" of Community law. Moreover fundamental rights have, in a succession of Treaty amendments, taken on a higher profile. The changes made at Maastricht and Amsterdam, and the consequent accelerated movement into the areas of justice and home affairs (by way of the "third pillar" and the incorporation of the Schengen acquis), have served to emphasise the importance of ensuring that the Community institutions, the new bodies such as Europol, and the Member States when giving effect to Community or Union legislation, pay strict regard to international and domestic human rights standards.

2. Although the institutions of the European Community and (since 1993) the Union have operated for more than 40 years without reference to a tailor-made Charter of Fundamental Rights, the idea of such a Charter is not new. A proposal to that effect was put forward by the European Parliament in 1989. The possibility was also mooted at the time of the 1996 Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). The current proposal for a Charter of Fundamental Rights is but the latest attempt to raise the status of human rights in the EU. The difference, this time, is that the initiative has been endorsed at the highest political level and machinery has been established to take it forward.

3. In June 1999, the European Council meeting in Cologne decided that a European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights should be established to consolidate fundamental rights applicable at Union level and, as noted above, to make "their overriding importance and relevance more visible to the Union's citizens". The Charter was to contain the fundamental rights and freedoms as well as basic procedural rights guaranteed by the ECHR and derived from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States as general principles of Community law. It was also to include the fundamental rights that pertain only to the Union's citizens and to take account of economic and social rights as contained in the European Social Charter and the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers.

4. The Cologne European Council also agreed a timetable and a procedural framework for the drawing up of the Charter. In October 1999 the European Council meeting in Tampere reached agreement on the composition and working methods of a drafting body as well as on the practical arrangements for its activities. The body, somewhat confusingly[1] called "the Convention", consists of representatives of the Heads of States or Government, a representative of the President of the European Commission, Members of the European Parliament and representatives from national parliaments. The draft Charter will be submitted to the European Council at Nice in December 2000.

5. The first meeting of the Convention took place on 17 December 1999. Mr Roman Herzog[2] was elected, by acclamation, to be the Chairman. Each of the three main groups of members presented its own elected Vice-Chairman. The United Kingdom Government is represented by Lord Goldsmith QC. Lord Bowness and Mr Win Griffiths MP represent the House of Lords and the House of Commons respectively. The Convention has met, as a full body or as a working group, on an almost weekly basis since it was set up. A report on progress is proposed to be made to the Feira European Council in June. It seems likely that a first full draft of the Charter will be publicly available shortly beforehand.

6. The idea of an EU Charter has proved from the outset to be controversial and it has produced a variety of reactions and discussion papers. The response in the UK has been substantial, not least perhaps because of the increased interest in, and impetus to be given to, the enforcement of fundamental rights in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998 and because of the existence of well-informed and experienced human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Despite the apparent limitations of the Conclusions agreed at the Cologne European Council, expectations have been raised throughout the Member States and such issues as the relationship of the Union and its institutions to the ECHR have been put back onto the political agenda. Our Committee decided to look at the broad issues arising from the initiative. We sought views, in particular, on the questions of the need for and purpose of an EU Charter, the legal status it should have, and its scope and content. Since we commenced our inquiry draft texts have been prepared and discussed in the Convention. While we have had the benefit of seeing some of them, we have not looked at these drafts in any detail. We see our task at this stage of the proposal as being to focus on the main issues of principle which any EU Charter would raise.

7. The inquiry on the proposal to establish a Charter of Fundamental Rights was carried out by Sub-Committee E (Law and Institutions) under the chairmanship of Lord Hope of Craighead. The membership of the Sub-Committee is listed in Appendix 1. The witnesses are listed in Appendix 2. The evidence, written and oral, is printed with the Report. We would like to thank all those who assisted in the enquiry.

8. The subsequent Parts of this Report are as follows. Part 2 describes the development of the Community's, and then the Union's, recognition of human rights. Part 3 contains a summary of the evidence received. Part 4 sets out the Committee's opinion and conclusions.

1   Because in the context of human rights in Europe the ECHR is commonly referred to as the Convention. Back

2   President of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1994 to 1999 and, before that, from 1987, President of the Federal Constitutional Court. Back

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