The entry into force of the Charter of Fundamental Rights 10 years ago was an important milestone for the European Union. The fact that the Charter gained the same legal value as the EU Treaties demonstrated that fundamental rights are the cornerstone of the European Union and must be fully respected by all member states and the EU institutions. But the Charter will not live up to its full potential unless parliaments, governments, courts and civil society at all levels actively apply it.
Achievements and bottlenecks
Since it came into force on 1 December 2009, the Charter has been driving a more coherent and comprehensive application of fundamental rights. Every year the European Commission publishes a report monitoring the progress made in the implementation of the EU Charter by EU institutions. For the first time, the past Commission assigned to its first Vice-President the task of ensuring that every Commission proposal complies with the Charter. As a result, the Charter is increasingly used in caselaw and legislative impact assessments.
To facilitate the implementation of the charter, the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has developed several resources including a handbook for legal practitioners, the online Charterpedia tool explaining the provisions of the Charter, and a series of country factsheets on the use and added value of the Charter for each and every EU Member State. Over the past 10 years progress has also been made in a number of areas, including accessibility, data protection and disability, where new legislation has been adopted. But the protection of other fundamental rights still lags behind. For example, the Equal Treatment Directive, proposed in 2008, with the aim to enlarge the legal protection against discrimination beyond employment, is still missing the necessary consensus of European Member States to be adopted
“We want to see the horizontal equality directive to be finally adopted!” urged in the Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, MEP and the Chair of LIBE Committee of the European Parliament at the EU conference on the 10th anniversary of the Charter.
Awareness of the Charter is increasing but remains low. According to the results of a recent Eurobarometer survey , only 42% of EU citizens have heard of the Charter and only 12% know what it is. The FRA has also concluded that Member States do not appear to be making sufficient efforts to promote awareness, or the implementation, of Charter provisions.
How about older persons?
The Charter dedicates article 25 on the « rights of the elderly ». The challenges faced by older persons to have their human rights respected are slowly but gradually recognised. In 2018 the Fundamental Rights Agency has dedicated the focus chapter of its annual report to the equal enjoyment of human rights in older age. In the recent conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Charter the urgency to protect the human rights of older persons gained visibility thanks to remarks by the EU Ombudsman and the FRA Director.
‘Older people’s human rights in nursing homes are under threat’, stated Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the Fundamental Rights Agenda of the EU, when calling to reinvigorate the attention to the Charter and its potential to uphold human rights for all. Emily O’Reilly, EU Ombudsman pledged in favour of the promotion of dignity of older people, referring to institutional care settings, and to address the issue of well-being in old age as a matter of human rights. The EU Charter should be used further in enhancing equality for all population and age groups, she concluded.
What is next?
The new European Commission, which took office on the 1st December 2019, promised a revised strategy for the implementation of the Charter. This is an important moment to take stock of progress made and to step up efforts towards the full application of the charter. Addressing the relatively weak knowledge of the Charter both among Europeans and institutional actors will be an important step forward. The EU has a key role to play to support civil society organisations, Member States and others to increase awareness of the Charter, for example through funding, development of tools and resources, monitoring and guidance for the implementation at national level. Particular attention must be paid when implementing the social rights listed in the EU Pillar of social rights.
We call on the new European Commission for coherence in its action and to ensure that its policies contribute to protect the dignity of the whole European population.
The EU Charter is a critical tool to ensure the fundamental right to equal treatment of all individuals, regardless of age, becomes a reality everywhere in Europe. Let us not wait another ten years before using it!