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

The pioneering role of the European Parliament

Throughout its history, the European Parliament has sought to defend and promote human rights. It has launched many political initiatives in this area and, among other things, has called for the European Community to adopt the European Convention on Human Rights. For Parliament, this means taking into consideration all the civil, political, economic and social rights of citizens of the European Union’s Member States.

As early as 1975, Parliament voiced regret that no reference was made to human rights in the founding treaties of the European Communities, the primary purpose of which was economic. It therefore adopted a resolution stressing the need to provide the future European Union with its own charter of fundamental rights. In the MEPs’ view, this supported the political aim of building a united Europe. Two years later, thanks to MEPs’ efforts, the presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission signed a joint declaration in Luxembourg in which they committed, on behalf of their institutions, to respecting fundamental rights.

Then, in 1984, the European Parliament adopted the draft Treaty establishing the European Union (the Spinelli draft) by an overwhelming majority. It provided for the adoption of a declaration on fundamental rights by the Union within five years. The European Parliament repeatedly found an ally in the Court of Justice of the European Communities, whose case-law establishes that human rights should be protected by Community law.

The Single European Act, which came into force on 1 July 1987, restated Member States’ commitment to promote democracy together on the basis of fundamental rights such as freedom, equality and social justice. But the European Parliament wished to go further, firmly believing that respect for human rights was the critical condition for providing legitimacy for the European Communities. Accordingly, it proclaimed and adopted a declaration of fundamental rights and freedoms on 12 April 1989 and called for citizens to actively support it. Preservation of the environment and certain new social rights – the right to social protection, the right to education, and consumer protection, among others – joined the fundamental rights that the European Parliament sought to champion. Although this text was an important step forward, and despite the clarifications provided by the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam, MEPs’ expectations would ultimately only be met at the end of the 1990s.