The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was signed 20 years ago. On the occasion of this anniversary, Bärbel Kofler, Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, explains, “For the first time, the Charter gave citizens fundamental rights at European level that they can actually demand”.
Ms Kofler, 20 years ago the EU created the Charter of Fundamental Rights. What specific additional value does it offer EU citizens?
Bärbel Kofler: The Charter of Fundamental Rights is the logical next step for the EU, as it moves from being merely a common market towards a political union based on common values. For the first time, the Charter gave citizens fundamental rights at European level that they can actually demand - in whichever EU member state they are.
This comparatively young human rights charter also sets out many rights that are not covered by national constitutions. For instance, the right to physical integrity as laid out in the Charter covers biotechnology and cloning. The right to data protection is mentioned, as are environmental protection and consumer protection.
The Charter also covers rights specific to the EU, including the right to freedom of movement and residence, and rights relating to EU institutions.
In 2009 the EU adopted the Treaty of Lisbon. Since then the Charter of Fundamental Rights has also been anchored in law in the EU. Why is that so important in terms of human rights?
Kofler: Since the fundamental rights laid out in the Charter are anchored in law, they can be enforced by the courts, either by national courts or by the Court of Justice of the European Union. This ensures maximum effectiveness of the rights and maximum benefit for EU citizens.
A legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights is also essential because national legislation is increasingly implementing European law. Without it, a very central aspect - human rights - would be absent in legislation at EU level.
The Charter also gives the EU a framework for foreign policy action. I believe it is important that fundamental values play the role they ought to in common foreign and security policy.
The world we live in is changing rapidly, as a result of digitalisation and global warming to give only two examples. Will the Charter remain topical over the next 20 years? Or do you see a need for the EU to update its Charter of Fundamental Rights?
Kofler: During its Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Germany has sent a strong signal that the protection of fundamental rights is key, also in issues that will be crucial in future. Naturally, in view of societal and technological transformation, it is important to keep reviewing the protection of fundamental rights at national and European level to ensure that it is still appropriate in the face of new challenges.
The conclusions of the Presidency regarding the Charter, which were published in October, have three goals: mainstreaming fundamental rights and values of the EU in the digital era, fostering the EU’s digital sovereignty, and making an active contribution to the global debate on the use of artificial intelligence.
Essentially, fundamental rights and human rights are by their very nature universal and indivisible. That makes two main points important - firstly, that the rights guaranteed by the Charter are enforced and secondly that they genuinely improve the lives of people in Europe. Unfortunately we are repeatedly and increasingly having to call for compliance with these rights, also in other member states.
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On 1 December 2009 a bold and ambitious plan became reality: The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union came into effect. This was the culmination of years of tough negotiations. Member states had battled it out over common values, the rule of law and human rights.