Is the European Parliament really upholding fundamental rights?

March 12, 2018

  Roxana Stanciu

The European Parliament adopted its Annual Report on the situation of fundamental rights in the EU on March 1, 2018. The report – which is viewed as a critical instrument in upholding these rights in the EU – focuses on specific situations where the respect of fundamental rights is not ensured.  We note with concern, however, that it fails to draw sufficient attention to certain central issues which are ongoing.


The right to freedom of expression

One of the European Parliament’s concerns is “the alarming increase in manifestations of hatred, hate speech and fake news”. It therefore condemns incidents of “hate speech motivated by racism, xenophobia or religious intolerance or by bias against a person’s disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, which occur in the EU on a daily basis.”

Governmental elites are not immune from such behavior, notes the European Parliament, which“[c]ondemns the normalisation of hate speech sponsored or supported by authorities, political parties or political leaders and reported by social media.” 

Members of the European Parliament who voted to approve this report by an overwhelming majority have failed to acknowledge one core problem: that there is no clear definition as to what constitutes ‘hate speech’. At the EU level, the definition is vague and rather subjective. It also has not been considered in any major international human rights document or treaty, nor has it been defined by the European Court of Human Rights or by any other international court.

Nevertheless, European officials continue to consider any speech that can incite ‘hate’ as ‘hate speech’.  But what if controversial views are considered by officials as inciting ‘hate’? Under such a broad understanding, ‘hate speech’ could thus include any criticism of abortion, Islam, marriage legislation or mass migration – and would thus be considered a violation of fundamental rights.

Moreover, the fundamental right of freedom of expression that every European citizen benefits from can be threatened by such ‘hate speech’ claims. Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights clearly states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

The Report adopted by the European Parliament fails to address this issue. It recalls the fundamental value of freedom of expression – but only in reference to journalists. Freedom of expression, however, is and should be recognized as important for any European citizen as a fundamental element of democracy, as emphasized in European legislation.

Branislav Skripek MEP rightly pointed out: “If we come into a situation of being afraid to speak our mind, because someone will not agree with our viewpoint […] we will see fundamental rights and traditional European values disappear in the wind. […] We must have free speech to express opposing views […] and to debate them without fear of violence or coercion.”


No mention of parental rights

The Report also stresses the importance of education for the development of values. It “[e]ncourages the inclusion in school curricula of education about the value of tolerance in order to provide children with the tools they need to identify all forms of discrimination.” At the same time, it “[c]alls on the Commission to share Member States’ best practices for addressing gender stereotypes at school.”

But why is there no mention of any parental rights? The European Convention on Human Rights clearly protects the rights of parents. In the context of the education and teaching of children, Article 2 states: “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

However, the Report on Fundamental Rights fails to acknowledge the primary responsibility of parents in the education of their children – thus undermining parental rights.


How about conscientious objection?

Another area overlooked in the Report is the right to conscientious objection.  This right is enshrined in Article 10(2) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights: “The right to conscientious objection is recognized, in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of this right.” But despite being given the opportunity to include amendments reaffirming the right to conscientious objection, MEPs failed to adopt any in the Report approved by the European Parliament.

In this, there is an unwillingness to recognize the problem.  In fact, according to a Resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2010, “in the vast majority of Council of Europe member states, the practice of conscientious objection is adequately regulated. There is a comprehensive and clear legal and policy framework governing the practice of conscientious objection by health-care providers ensuring that the interests and rights of individuals seeking legal medical services are respected, protected and fulfilled.” 

It is thus of great concern to see that there is no mention of the right of conscientious objection in the Report on Fundamental Rights.

These are just a few of the problematic areas in the Annual Report on the situation of fundamental rights in the EU. As stated at the beginning, this report should really serve as an instrument to help uphold and protect fundamental rights across the EU. However, based on how it has been drafted and what it has omitted, what we have instead is a narrow document that misses some of the key elements related to the very topic that it purports to address. Is it, then, accomplishing its purpose? The answer is quite clear.