The Missing Link Between Binding European Law and the Political Will

September 11, 2014

Last week the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) and the European Commission presented reports on their respective annual activities regarding human rights during the first meeting of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). Meeting at the beginning of the new legislature, debate at LIBE can set the tone for years to come. Unfortunately, once again we see a narrow agenda dominating the fundamental rights debate at the European Parliament — hate speech, homophobia and discrimination against LGBT persons were presented as Europe’s biggest challenges with regards to fundamental rights.

The FRA´s main discourse has not changed much since it was first established. Morten Kjaerum, Director of the Agency, focused his presentation on examples taken from the FRA’s ongoing project, “Surveying LGBT people and authorities”. This project has the aim of “providing data to enhance understanding of LGBT people experiences of discrimination and victimization”. Françoise Le Bail, European Commission Director-General for Justice, then supported the FRA’s Director, calling for greater protection against hate speech, homophobic speech, racism, and xenophobia

This heavily biased approach is simply not justified by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which provides the very basis for the FRA’s existence and work. Nowhere in the Charter is there any support for such a limited approach to fundamental rights — which, instead of more equality for all, aims ultimately at more protection for LGBT people than the rest of Europe’s citizens, thus creating greater inequality.

The FRA has already surprised observers several times with the poor quality and low scientific standards of its reports. European Dignity Watch has previously reported on this. [Link] So any reports and data coming out of this EU agency have to be read with caution and a critical mind. It is also worth noting that according to the latest figures, the Agency’s section that is dedicated to issues of discrimination, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance receives three times more human resources than other sections working on other issues. The sections working on the information society, respect for private life and protection of personal data, access to efficient and independent justice, and migration and asylum rights, for example, all received much less attention from the Agency. In fact, none of these latter topics were even mentioned by the Commission’s Director-General for Justice in his report on the status of implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

There are many other fundamental rights mentioned in the Charter that deserve human and budgetary resources. To name but a few: the right to life (Art. 3), the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Art. 4), the right to liberty and security, the freedom of expression and information (Art. 11), the freedom of assembly and association (Art. 12), and the protection of personal data (Art. 8). The guarantee and protection of these rights are serious issues for fundamental rights today. But any discussion of these was blatantly absent from the presentations made by the FRA and the Commission.

What about freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Art. 10) in a Europe where a person can be fired from her job merely because she is Christian (as happened to a British Airways stewardess last year)? Or the right to education and the right of parents to ensure the education and teaching of their children in conformity with their religious, philosophical and pedagogical convictions (Art. 14), which are also threatened by attempts to enforce compulsory sexual education in schools (as the so-called Estrela report — which was thankfully defeated — originally sought)? Even discussion about the right to equality before the law (Art. 20), which is not even affordable in many countries due to the high fees that access to justice requires, seems to be absent.

Why is there no debate about these fundamental rights and issues, which concern all citizens of the EU, not just a few? Where is the link between the written reality of the EU Charter, and the institutional discourse taking place? How can the biggest part of the FRA’s budget and human resources be assigned to issues like ‘hate speech’, ‘homophobia’ and ‘xenophobia’ when these terms are highly controversial among member states and when there is no clear definition of what they actually mean?

The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs will set the tone for the deliberations that will take place on these issues under the legislature’s new mandate. As they do so, European Dignity Watch will gear up and work closely with MEPs to foster a broader, balanced and non-biased fundamental rights debate that aims at the good of society as a whole. Just as we did with the Estrela report, we will not allow the human rights discourse to be limited to a narrow, radical agenda pushed by a small group at the expense of the rest of society; instead, we shall advocate for true equality, true justice — and the same rights for all.

Useful links:

FRA 2013 Activity Report

Report from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: 2013 report on the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

EU Charter of Fundamental Rights