20th ANNIVERSARY OF THE EU CHARTER OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS: WHERE ARE WE NOW?

On 7th December, it is 20 years since the proclamation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by the Presidents of the EU institutions. To celebrate it, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, in partnership with the European Commission, held a virtual conference ‘Reinforcing the EU Charter: rights of people in the EU in the next decade’. European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová, who is in charge of the revised Strategy for the Charter’s implementation, President of the Court of Justice of the EU Koen Lenaerts, and FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty had a panel discussion on the need for collective efforts to reinforce application of the Charter. But, after 20 years, how’s the Charter been applied in the EU and its Member States?

According to the 2018 Report on the application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the most recent yearly report published in July 2019, the Charter is living up to its promise as the most modern, sophisticated and comprehensive legally binding fundamental rights instrument. It continues asserting itself as a key instrument to make fundamental rights a reality in people’s lives. The Charter is the most effective, with a real impact on people’s lives, when the entire enforcement chain applies it. Over recent years, the EU has adopted many initiatives protecting and promoting people’s Charter rights and references to the Charter by the CJEU have increased substantially. National courts are also referring to the Charter in their decisions and increasingly asking the CJEU for guidance. Their role is key in ensuring that the Charter delivers for everyone. However, the Charter is still not used to its full potential and there is room for improvement, especially at national level. The report underlines the importance of civil society organisations and rights defenders in raising awareness of the Charter rights and ensuring that everyone can effectively enjoy them.

Limited Charter awareness among citizens is one of the main weaknesses at national level and is proved by the results of recent Eurobarometer surveys. According to the 2019 survey, only a minority is aware of the Charter of fundamental rights, or feel informed about it: only 42% of respondents have heard of the Charter and only 12% really know what it is.

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European Commission, Infographics on Special Eurobarometer 487b – “Awareness of the Charter of Fundamental rights of the European Union”

On the other side, the majority of respondents would like more information on the content of the Charter, when it applies, and where to turn if their rights are violated. Actually, if they felt their Charter rights were being violated, respondents would turn to a variety of institutions or bodies: from courts (36%) to ombudsmen or independent bodies in their countries (34%), from EU institutions (34%) to the police (32%). In Italy, respondents are more likely to turn to court. In Bulgaria, respondents are equally likely to mention an ombudsman or independent body, while very few would turn to an NGO, as in Spain, where instead an EU institution is the most mentioned option.

European Commission, Infographics on Special Eurobarometer 487b – “Awareness of the Charter of Fundamental rights of the European Union”

Almost half of all respondents correctly think that the Charter is legally binding, but fewer are aware of when it applies (i.e., know that it applies to EU Member States only when they implement EU law and to all actions of EU institutions and bodies).

If we consider the countries involved in the Lawyers4Rights project, it is worth noting that Italy is one of the countries with the highest proportion of respondents saying they have never heard of the Charter. Moreover, the proportion of respondents saying they feel informed about the Charter has slightly decreased since 2011 (-3pp.). Taking into consideration the survey on the understanding of when the Charter applies, Italy is also one of the countries with the highest proportion of respondents with no correct answers. While in Bulgaria there is one of the largest proportions of “don’t know” responses, be it on the fact that that the Charter applies to all actions of EU Member States including on matters of national competence (which is false) or to the fact that the Charter applies to EU Member States only when implementing EU law. Considering the opinions about whether the Charter is legally binding, in Spain there is one of the lowest proportions of respondents thinking the Charter is legally binding (40%).