The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union turns 20!

Difficult and ambitious drafting

Many difficulties arose when drafting the Charter, because this time it was not a question of revising the Community treaties or expanding the European Union’s competences. The goal was to underline and set out the rights that the institutions and Member States should respect in their actions. However, the members of the Convention were not content with merely drawing up a catalogue of rights. What they really wanted was to better establish these rights and ensure they would be effectively guaranteed.

The differences between legal systems in the Member States (for instance, differences between statutory law and common law, and between law enforceable in the courts and general principles of law) made harmonisation a complicated task. Some clauses are therefore the result of compromises and have been worded very carefully. In fact, the Charter text essentially incorporates provisions that had been dotted about in various international and national instruments until that point. Nonetheless, the Charter also includes new features, particularly regarding the right to access the documents of European Union institutions, protection of personal data, the principle of sustainable development and protection of the environment, and also bioethics-related rights (known as ‘new-generation rights’).

The result is a short text containing 54 articles, and it is written in a clear, consistent style so it can be easily understood by all those to whom it is addressed. The Charter groups rights around a few essential principles: human dignity, fundamental freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizenship and justice. The preamble to the draft Charter points out that ‘the peoples of Europe, in creating an ever closer union among them, are resolved to share a peaceful future based on common values’. Although it does not refer to religious heritage, the Charter also mentions the spiritual and moral heritage of the European Union, which is ‘founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity’, stipulating that it is ‘based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law’.

The first chapter establishes that human dignity is inviolable. The following articles set out the right to life, the right to the integrity of the person, the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and then the prohibition of slavery and forced labour. The section on freedoms lists the rights to liberty and security, and respect for family life. It recalls freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The rights to education, work, property and asylum are also laid down. Restating the fact that everyone is equal before the law, the chapter on equality prohibits all forms of discrimination and proclaims equality between men and women. The rights of children, the elderly and persons with disabilities are also addressed. The next section is on ‘solidarity’, which was the term eventually chosen instead of ‘social rights’. The Charter includes a series of rights, such as the right to collective action (including the right to strike), the protection of workers in the event of unjustified dismissal, the right to fair and just working conditions, the right to social and housing assistance, the right to social security benefits and the right to health care. It also prohibits child labour. The chapter on citizens’ rights covers the rights granted to European citizens: the right to vote and stand as a candidate, the right to petition the European Parliament, the right to diplomatic and consular assistance in the territory of a third country and the right to good administration by the Union’s institutions.

The Charter then restates essential notions on justice, such as the presumption of innocence, respect for the right to defence, the principles of legality and proportionality of offences and penalties, as well as the right to an effective remedy and a fair trial before a tribunal. The final articles relate to the scope of the rights and freedoms recognised by the Charter and the scope of its provisions.