Select Committee on European Union Eighth Report




9. The objective of the Member States of the Council of Europe, under whose auspices the text of the ECHR was concluded in November 1950, was to secure the universal and effective recognition and observance of rights that had been proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. They "resolved, as the Governments of European countries which are like-minded and have a common heritage of political traditions, ideals, freedom and the rule of law, to take the first step for the collective enforcement of certain of the rights stated in the Universal Declaration". The rights chosen were civil and political in character. Economic and social rights were left aside until later. The Articles of the convention not only proclaimed fundamental rights but also laid down limitations and balancing safeguards. A European Commission of Human Rights and a European Court of Human Rights (the "Strasbourg Court") were set up. States could choose to accept the competence of the Human Rights Commission to examine petitions from individuals claiming that they were victims of a violation of their human rights[4]. The rights proclaimed in the convention and the procedures for their enforcement have had a substantial impact on the relationship between the individual and the State. A human rights perspective has had to be introduced into the decision-making of public authorities for whose acts States may, ultimately, be held accountable before an international tribunal.


10. The European Coal and Steel Community, established under the Treaty of Paris in April 1951, and the European Economic Community and European Atomic Energy Community which followed in 1957 were, like the Council of Europe, formed as part of the reaction to the Second World War. It is clear from the Preamble to the Treaty of Paris that the primary motive of the six original Member States was not narrowly economic. Their objectives were to safeguard world peace by creative efforts, to build Europe through practical achievements which would create real solidarity, and they "resolved to substitute for age-old rivalries the merging of their essential interests; to create, by establishing an economic community, the basis for a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the foundations for institutions which will give direction to a destiny henceforward shared".

11. Similarly, the Preamble to the Treaty of Rome set the goal of greater economic integration within a broader political and security context, referring to Member States "pooling their resources to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty". The Treaty itself prohibited discrimination on the grounds of nationality (Article 7), and provided for free movement of workers and rights of establishment for nationals of Member States (Articles 48-58), for equal pay without discrimination on grounds of sex (Article 119), and for improved working conditions and a better standard of living for workers (Articles 117-122). But the founding Treaties of the three Communities made no mention of fundamental rights.

12. This may not, initially, have been a matter of great concern. The focus on economic, rather than political, integration meant that the Communities were not seen to be operating in areas or through methods which were inherently likely to violate human rights. The Communities were not bound by the ECHR. They could not then, or now, accede to that convention as it stands, since it is open only to Member States of the Council of Europe. All Member States of the Community became Contracting Parties to the ECHR (although not all initially accepted the right of individual petition and the compulsory jurisdiction of the Strasbourg Court - the UK accepted individual petition in 1966). When questions of fundamental rights did arise, incidentally, in matters involving the Communities, the European Court of Justice (ECJ or the "Luxembourg Court") applied such rights as an integral part of the "general principles of Community law". As the ECHR system developed a case law of increasing complexity, the ECJ came in practice to take into account and apply the details of the Strasbourg Court's case law.


13. The Luxembourg Court's assertion of a fundamental rights jurisdiction has been seen as a necessary expedient to ensure the supremacy of Community law. The objectives of the Community could only be achieved by according primacy to Community rules interpreted and applied in a uniform manner in each Member State. The acceptance by Member States of the supremacy of Community law has not been unproblematic, particularly in those Member States where a written list of fundamental rights in the constitution is perceived as essential for the State's democratic legitimacy. The doctrine of the supremacy of Community law therefore carried with it the risk of displacing rights enshrined in national constitutions and safeguarded by the highest constitutional courts. To obviate this risk, the Court stated in the Internationale Handelsgesellschaft[5] case that "respect for fundamental rights forms an integral part of the general principles of Community law protected by the Court of Justice. The protection of such rights, whilst inspired by the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, must be ensured within the framework of the structures and objectives of the Community". The Court has also found "inspiration" in "international treaties for the protection of human rights on which the Member States have collaborated or of which they are signatories"[6]. In practice, a number of constitutional courts have only been prepared to accept the supremacy of Community law on the basis that Community law provides protection for fundamental rights equivalent to that afforded by national constitutions. So, for example, the German Constitutional Court indicated in 1974 that it was unwilling to accord precedence to Community law over parts of the German Constitution dealing with fundamental rights in the absence, at Community level, of a codified catalogue of fundamental rights[7]. But by 1986, the German Court was satisfied that developments within the Community and, in particular, the case law of the Court of Justice were such as to safeguard the essential content of fundamental rights[8].


14. In the intervening period, pressure had mounted for an overt acknowledgement by the Communities of the human rights dimension of their activities. The European Parliament led the way, adopting a Resolution in 1973 "concerning the protection of the fundamental rights of Member States' citizens when Community law is drafted" and another in 1977 "on the granting of special rights to the citizens of the European Community".[9] The Parliament's efforts culminated in a Joint Declaration on Human Rights, issued in 1977, which begins:

    "1. The European Parliament, the Council and the Commission stress the prime importance they attach to the protection of fundamental rights, as derived in particular from the constitutions of the Member States and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

    2. In the exercise of their powers and in pursuance of the aims of the European Communities they respect and will continue to respect these rights.[10]"

The Joint Declaration was endorsed by the European Council in 1978 and respect for democracy and human rights was stated to be an essential requirement of Community membership. But the Joint Declaration, though resonant with symbolism, fell short of articulating a catalogue of binding rights tailored to the Community. The European Parliament has continued to press for the incorporation within the Community Treaties of fundamental human rights and, in 1989, proposed the adoption of a declaration of fundamental rights as part of a 'Constitution' for the Communities[11]. The Parliament has, in tandem, advocated EC accession to the ECHR[12].


15. The ECJ has consistently emphasised the "particular significance" it attaches to the ECHR[13]. The Court's case law has established that respect for fundamental rights extends not only to Community institutions but also to Member States acting within the scope of Community law. National rules that seek to implement[14] or to derogate from[15] Community law must also comply with the same principles and rights as bind the Community.

16. The application of fundamental rights as general principles of Community law has not, however, diminished the voices calling for Community accession to the ECHR. A formal proposal was put to the Council by the Commission in 1979 and renewed in 1990. Four years later, the Council decided to ask the ECJ for a formal opinion as to whether Community accession to the ECHR would be compatible with the EC Treaty. The Court's view[16] was that as Community law then stood accession would require Treaty amendment. In particular, no Treaty provision conferred on the Community institutions "any general power to enact rules on human rights or to conclude international conventions in this field". There was no express or implied power for such purpose and Article 235 (now Article 308) though designed to fill gaps where no specific powers existed did not permit the adoption of provisions that would in effect amount to Treaty amendment. Accession would entail the entry of the Community "into a distinct international institutional system as well as integration of all the provisions of the Convention into the Community legal order" and, as such, would be of "constitutional significance".

17. Accession by the European Union, as distinct from the Communities, to the ECHR, would raise a further legal issue, namely the international capacity of the EU. Each of the three Communities is accorded, under its founding Treaty, legal personality. Thus the European Community (EC) has legal personality by virtue of Article 281 of the EC Treaty and has, in each of the Member States, "the most extensive legal capacity accorded to legal persons under their laws" (Article 282).[17] The Community is party to a wide variety of international agreements and is also a member of a number of international organisations. In contrast, the Treaties do not expressly confer legal personality on the European Union. Consequently, it is argued, the Union does not have legal personality and thus the ability to contract obligations binding in international law or to belong to international organisations. But as a matter of international (rather than Community) law, whether an organisation has legal personality is not dependent on whether its founding instrument expressly confers it. In the (1949) Reparation case[18], an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the capacity of the United Nations, the International Court examined the UN Charter as a whole and concluded that the Organization "was intended to enjoy, and was in fact exercising and enjoying, functions and rights which could only be explained on the basis of the possession of a large measure of international personality and the capacity to operate on an international plane"[19]. Professor Brownlie has noted that the criteria adopted by the International Court in the Reparation case relate to "delicate issues of law and fact and are not always easy to apply".[20] On one view, the European Union does not have legal personality in international law. This view is based in part on the history of the negotiation of the Amsterdam Treaty and the wording of the new Article 24 TEU, setting out the procedure where an international agreement is called for in a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP—Second Pillar) matter. This suggests that the international capacity being exercised is that of the Member States, not the Union. On the other hand there are those who argue, on the basis of the Reparation case and examination of measures that the Union has actually taken under the Second Pillar, that the Union has personality as a matter of international law.


18. As the founding Treaties did not mention fundamental rights, the Court of Justice has been the principal actor in identifying and articulating the content of such rights as are binding on the Communities. Successive Treaty amendments have captured the essence of its jurisprudence without attempting to codify or catalogue the nature and extent of fundamental rights. The Single European Act 1987, which established the political commitment and legal framework for the creation of the Single Market, amended the earlier Treaties in a number of respects. Significantly, in the present context, its Preamble explicitly referred to fundamental rights, stating the determination of the Member States "to work together to promote democracy on the basis of the fundamental rights recognized in the constitutions and laws of the Member States, in the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the European Social Charter, notably freedom, equality and social justice".

19. The adoption of the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers by eleven of the then twelve Member States (excluding the UK) followed shortly afterwards in 1989. It was a political declaration of intent, drawing on rights contained in the Council of Europe Social Charter and ILO Conventions. The Commission drew up an action programme to implement the Community Social Charter in the hope or expectation that it might form the basis for a significantly re-vamped Community social policy. Progress was slow and the UK resisted attempts to amend the social provisions of the Treaty to reflect the content of the Social Charter. At the Maastricht Treaty negotiations, all Member States except the UK entered into an Agreement on Social Policy that was based on the Community Social Charter. This Agreement was annexed to a Protocol agreed by all the Member States which, in turn, was annexed to the amended EC Treaty. The Protocol authorised the parties to the Agreement to use the Community institutions and machinery to achieve the objectives set out in the Agreement. This complex arrangement, and the UK opt-out of social policy provisions based on the Protocol, was abandoned with the conclusion, in 1997, of the Amsterdam Treaty.

20. The 1993 Treaty on European Union (TEU), concluded at Maastricht, was also significant for building into the body of the Treaties explicit recognition of the concept of fundamental rights. Article F(2) required the Union to respect as general principles of Community law fundamental rights guaranteed by the ECHR and by constitutional traditions common to the Member States. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms was stated to be one of the objectives of the Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy[21] and Union activity in the field of justice and home affairs (JHA) had to comply with the ECHR and the Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951[22]. None of these provisions was directly justiciable before the Court of Justice[23]. Moreover, as the jurisdiction of the Court was tightly circumscribed by the TEU, the protection afforded by "the general principles of Community law" was effectively limited to areas in which the Community had competence to act. Other forms of co-operation within the framework of the Treaties but outside the sphere of the Community escaped judicial oversight by the Court.

21. The Amsterdam Treaty has entrenched the concept of fundamental rights as the basic building block of the Union. Article 6(1) declares that the Union "is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States". The Treaty repeats, in Article 6(2), the language of Article F(2) but brings it within the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice[24], although there remain significant limitations on the Court's jurisdiction with regard to police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters[25] and the Court has no jurisdiction in relation to the Common Foreign and Security Policy[26]. Article 7 anticipates the suspension of rights derived from the Treaty, including voting rights, if a Member State is in "serious and persistent breach" of the principles in Article 6(1).

22. The Amsterdam Treaty has also introduced provisions with the potential to create new Community rights. So, for example, under Article 13 of the EC Treaty the Community may adopt measures to combat discrimination on grounds of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. Article 136 of the EC Treaty requires the objectives of the Community's social policy to be consonant with the fundamental social rights set out in the European Social Charter 1961 and the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers 1989. A new independent supervisory body, established under Article 286(2), will monitor compliance by Community institutions with data protection principles. Yet it remains the case that nowhere in the Treaties is there a clear enunciation of the content of the fundamental rights underpinning the activities of the Union.


23. There have been many contributors shaping the debate on human rights within the Union. Since 1996 the European Commission has set up or funded three separate 'Comités des Sages' to consider the Union's human rights policy and possible Treaty amendment. The first, in 1996, recommended enshrining in the Treaties "a basic set of fundamental civic and social rights" of which some were to be enforceable immediately and others were to be worked out in greater detail[27]. A second Comité[28] report, Leading by Example: A Human Rights Agenda for the European Union for the Year 2000, identified six objectives to guide EU human rights policy. These were: full compliance by EU Member States with their international human rights obligations, universality of human rights and the indivisibility of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, consistency between internal and external policy, a strong information base to inform policy-making, and the mainstreaming of human rights in all EU activities. The Comité also recommended accession to the ECHR and to the European Social Charter. The most recent report, Affirming Fundamental Human Rights in the European Union, published in 1999[29], called for explicit recognition of fundamental rights in the Treaties. These rights would build on the ECHR and its Protocols but also take into consideration other international human rights treaties.


24. The European Union's first Annual Report on Human Rights 1998-1999 declared that "human rights policy begins at home". It identified racism and xenophobia as the key human rights challenges for the EU, stating that "racism, xenophobia and intolerance are the antithesis of what the European Union means in its essence. The defence of the basic principle of non-discrimination is at the centre of our understanding of human rights". The Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia was officially opened in April this year and has set itself the goal of becoming "a moral and ethical indicator of the state of the EU"[30]. As mentioned above (in paragraph 22) the Community now has a specific competence to tackle discrimination on the grounds not only of racial or ethnic origin but also sex, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation.

25. There is, however, within the framework established by the Amsterdam Treaty, greater scope than hitherto for EU actions and policies to impinge on individual rights and freedoms. One of the Treaty objectives introduced at Amsterdam is "to maintain and develop the Union as an area of freedom, security and justice"[31]. The European Council proclaimed at the Tampere Summit, in October 1999, that European integration had to be "firmly rooted in a shared commitment to freedom based on human rights, democratic institutions and the rule of law". This commitment will be tested in a number of sensitive policy areas, such as visa, asylum and immigration policy under the new Title IV of the EC Treaty and police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters under Title VI of the TEU. Another challenge for the EU, prompted by the growth in databases permitting the exchange of information among Member States, is the safeguarding of individual privacy rights[32]. Judicial oversight at an EU level is weak in most of these areas and is particularly circumscribed in relation to police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters. Article 35(5) of the TEU states that "the Court of Justice shall have no jurisdiction to review the validity or proportionality of operations carried out by the police or law enforcement services of a Member State or the exercise of the responsibilities incumbent upon Member States with regard to the maintenance of law and order and the safeguarding of internal security".


26. The European Union is uniquely placed to influence the human rights agenda as its role in foreign and external security policy, international trade, development and aid increases. One of the objectives of the Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP) is "to develop and consolidate democracy and the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms"[33]. This same objective also has to inform the Community's action in the field of development co-operation[34]. One of the clearest manifestations of an EU human rights policy has been the inclusion, since 1995, of a standard clause on respect for human rights in the ever-expanding network of trade and co-operation, development, and association agreements concluded with third (non-EU) countries. The characteristic feature of the human rights clause is that a violation of its terms may lead to a suspension of co-operation. EU aid and special trade preferences may also be conditional on the observance of human rights in the beneficiary country[35].

27. Within the framework of the CFSP, EU démarches to the authorities in third countries, and public declarations, have drawn attention to particular human rights concerns. The collective weight of the Member States may be brought to bear in the adoption of a common EU position in international fora by, for example, tabling statements or resolutions at the UN Commission on Human Rights or the UN General Assembly on specific themes or countries. EU co-ordinated diplomatic measures, such as restrictions on visas or on high level contacts and the imposition of arms embargoes have also been a means of demonstrating concern at the human rights situation in particular countries. Under the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, adopted in June 1998, respect for human rights in the country of final destination is one of the criteria to be considered by a Member State in deciding whether to issue an export licence. The Union has also agreed guidelines to promote and strengthen at international level EU policy on the universal abolition of the death penalty[36].


28. The German Presidency of the EU (January-June 1999) made the creation of an EU Charter of Rights one of its aims and priorities. The Presidency programme, entitled Europe's Path into the 21st Century, stated:

In the section on "Objectives and priorities of the German Presidency of the EU", the Presidency stated its intention to initiate "a procedure for the drawing up and adoption of a Charter of Basic Rights to preface the European Treaties".

29. On 12 January 1999 the German Foreign Affairs Minister, Joschka Fischer, told the European Parliament:

    "In order to increase the citizen's rights, Germany is proposing the long-term development of a European Charter of Basic Rights. ... For us, it is a question of consolidating the legitimacy and identity of the EU. The European Parliament which has already provided the groundwork with its 1994 draft should be involved in the drawing up of a Charter of Basic Rights, as well as national parliaments and as many social groups as possible[38]".

30. The Cologne European Council, in June 1999, proposed a political declaration or proclamation of existing rights enjoyed by EU citizens under the Treaties, rather than a legal charter, concluding:

      "44. ... at the present stage of development of the European Union, the fundamental rights applicable at Union level should be consolidated in a Charter and thereby made more evident".

The Council adopted the following Decision:

    "Protection of fundamental rights is a founding principle of the Union and an indispensable prerequisite for her legitimacy. The obligation of the Union to respect fundamental rights has been confirmed and defined by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice. There appears to be a need, at the present stage of the Union's development, to establish a Charter of fundamental rights in order to make their overriding importance and relevance more visible to the Union's citizens.

    The European Council believes that this Charter should contain the fundamental rights and freedoms as well as basic procedural rights guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and derived from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, as general principles of Community law. The Charter should also include the fundamental rights that pertain only to the Union's citizens. In drawing up such a Charter account should furthermore be taken of economic and social rights as contained in the European Social Charter and the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers (Article 136 TEC), insofar as they do not merely establish objectives for action by the Union.

    In the view of the European Council, a draft of such a Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union should be elaborated by a body composed of representatives of the Heads of State and Government and of the President of the Commission as well as of members of the European Parliament and national parliaments. Representatives of the European Court of Justice should participate as observers. Representatives of the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and social groups as well as experts should be invited to give their views. Secretariat services should be provided by the General Secretariat of the Council.

    This body should present a draft document in advance of the European Council in December 2000. The European Council will propose to the European Parliament and the Commission that, together with the Council, they should solemnly proclaim on the basis of the draft document a European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It will then have to be considered whether and, if so, how the Charter should be integrated into the Treaties. The European Council mandates the General Affairs Council to take the necessary steps prior to the Tampere European Council [39]."

31. At Tampere, the European Council finalised the composition of the Convention, its working methods and the practical arrangements for the drafting of the Charter. There are two noteworthy points. First, as regards participation, in addition to representatives of the Luxembourg Court, two representatives of the Council of Europe (including one from the Strasbourg Human Rights Court) were invited to attend as observers, and the EU Ombudsman was included among the bodies asked to submit views. Provision was also made for an exchange of views with the applicant States. Second, the Council emphasised the need for transparency by stating that "in principle, hearings held by the (drafting) Body and documents submitted at such hearings should be public".

3   The expression "fundamental rights" is used throughout this Report as a convenient shorthand for the variety of phrases which are commonly used to describe the broad concept enshrined in the composite formula "human rights and fundamental freedoms" used by the ECHR. Back

4   Protocol 11 to the ECHR, which came into force on 1 November 1998, replaced the Commission and Court by a single full-time Court and made the right of individual petition automatic rather than, as previously, optional. Back

5   Case 11/70, [1970] ECR 1125. Back

6   Case 4/73 Nold v. Commission, [1974] ECR 491. Back

7   The so-called Solange I case [1974] 2CMLR 540. Back

8   The Solange II case [1987] 3 CMLR 225. Back

9   OJC 26, 4 April 1973, OJC 299, 16 November 1977. Back

10   Other similar declarations have followed, such as the European Parliament's 1989 Declaration of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, and a Joint Declaration against Racism and Xenophobia by the European Parliament, Council and Commission in 1986, endorsed and supplemented in 1990 and 1991 by the European Council. Back

11   See OJ C 120, 16 May 1989, p51; OJ C 324, 24 December 1990, p219; OJ C 61, 28 February 1994, p155. Back

12   See 1979 Resolution. Back

13   Cases 46/87 and 227/88 Hoechst AG v. Commission [1989] ECR 2859. Back

14   Case 5/88 Wachauf v. Germany [1989] ECR 2609. Back

15   Case C-260/89 ERT, [1991] ECR I-2925. Back

16   In Opinion 2/94 [1996] ECR I-1759. Back

17   Articles 184-5 of the Euratom Treaty are in identical terms. Article 6 of the (earlier) ECSC is similar but not identical. Back

18   ICJ Reports (1949), 174. Back

19   The International Court went on to say that reaching the conclusion that the organisation was an international person was not the same thing as saying that it was a State or that it possessed the totality of international rights and duties of a State-"the rights and duties of an entity such as the Organization must depend upon its purpose and functions as specified or implied in its constituent documents and developed in practice". Back

20   Brownlie, Principles of Public International Law, (5th Edit 1998), p.680. Back

21   Article J.1(2). Back

22   Article K.2(1). Back

23   Article L of the Maastricht Treaty. Back

24   Article 46(d) TEU. Back

25   Title VI TEU. Back

26   Title V TEU. Back

27   For a Europe of Civic and Social Rights, 1996. Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo, former Prime Minister of Portugal, chaired the Committee. Its membership included Baroness Williams of Crosby. Back

28   The Comité was chaired by Catherine Lalumiere, MEP who is a former Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Its membership also included Mary Robinson, Judge Cassese, and Peter Leuprecht (former Deputy Secretary-General of the Council of Europe). Back

29   The Report was prepared by an expert group under the chairmanship of Professor Simitis and included Jochen Frowein and Christine Bell (University of Ulster). Back

30   Beate Winkler, Director of the Centre, in European Voice 6-12 April 2000. Back

31   Article 2 TEU. Back

32   Examples of existing or proposed databases are Eurodac, the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the Europol database. These were considered in our Reports European Union Databases (23rd Report 1998-99, HL Paper 120) and Fingerprinting Illegal Immigrants: Extending the Eurodac Convention (10th Report 1998-99, HL Paper 69). Back

33   Article 11(1) TEU. Back

34   Article 177(2) EC Treaty. Back

35   Under the Community's Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) additional trade preferences are available for developing countries which adhere to international labour standards set out in certain ILO Conventions. Practices such as forced labour may result in the withdrawal of preferences, as has been the case, since 1997, with Myanmar.  Back

36   The guidelines are reproduced in Annex 7 of the EU's Annual Report on Human Rights 1998-99. Back

37   Europe's Path into the 21st Century, Part I, "Creating a People's Europe - making it part of their daily lives". Back

38   EP Minutes, 12 January 1999. Back

39   European Council Conclusions, Cologne, 3-4 June 1999. Back

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