Charter of Fundamental Rights, 2000

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The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union  was signed and proclaimed in 2000 by the European Parliament, the European Commission and by the EU member states, comprising the European Council. It is the first formal EU document to combine in a single text the whole range of civil, political, economic and social rights and certain “third generation” rights such as the right to good administration or the right to a clean environment.

The Charter’s prime objective is to make rights more visible. The text is not intended to establish new rights, but to assemble existing rights that were previously scattered over a range of sources including the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) and other Council of Europe (COE), United Nations (UN) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) agreements.
The Charter applies to all EU member states, but only when they are acting within the scope of EU law. For example, the Charter would apply to the UK if it was passing a law about trade regulation but not if it was passing a law about a purely UK matter, such as fox hunting. Thus, it does not provide, as is sometimes argued, any new freestanding rights, such as a general right to strike. The Charter is accompanied by explanations which provide a guide to interpretation and are to be given due regard by the courts.

Treaty of Lisbon (Lisbon Treaty), December 2009

With the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon (Lisbon Treaty) in December 2009, the Charter has become directly enforceable by the EU and national courts. Art. 6(1) of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) provides that “the Union recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights”. There is no direct incorporation of the Charter in the Lisbon Treaty but the Charter is given the same legal status.

The Charter is part of national law and, after the Lisbon Treaty, has become directly enforceable in national courts if cases involve the application of EU law. However, the general consensus is that article 1(1) of the Protocol merely clarifies that the Charter does not extend the ability of the EU courts to find domestic legislation incompatible with it. The Charter can only be used when a case falls within the scope of EU law.

What is the difference between the EU Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)?

The Charter binds only the EU member states of the CoE, of which there are 27. The main court of the EU is the ECJ in Luxembourg. The Charter includes all the civil and political rights contained in the ECHR, together with existing EU rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. Therefore, it is believed that the EU Charter is a more extensive and up-to-date declaration of rights for EU citizens. Furthermore, the standard of human rights protection might well be higher than the ECHR’s standard of protection.

What impact can the Charter have on my life?

The Charter provides for people in the EU to better understand the extent of their rights and, therefore, any violation of them by the European institutions, bodies and the member states when taking decisions concerning EU law. This is important because many people do not appreciate the extent to which EU law is part of their everyday lives.
The main purpose of the Charter is to make these fundamental rights more visible and accessible to people in the EU. After the Lisbon Treaty, the Charter will enable people to challenge the way a member state has implemented EU law in the member state’s own courts. This will be simpler, cheaper and easier than taking the case to the ECJ in Luxembourg. The national judge will have to directly enforce the rights guaranteed by the Charter.

The Charter also provides the EU institutions and bodies with a set of standards against which they can measure their own performance and the performance of member states when implementing EU law into national law. For instance, if the EU Commission is concerned that a particular member state is failing to protect human rights in an area within the scope of EU law, it may use the Charter to challenge that member state to improve its protection of the right.

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