Anna-Maja Henriksson: Common EU justice area – 20 years of work for safe and smooth everyday life
At the time of Finland’s first Presidency of the Council of the European Union 20 years ago, the EU heads of state or government made a major policy decision. They decided to develop the EU as an area of freedom, security and justice.
Born at the Tampere European Council, the EU justice area today is an integral part of everyday life for both people and businesses, even though we may not always be aware of its existence. A great deal of work has gone into the development of the justice area. It is an achievement to be proud of.
Founded on shared values
In 1999, the EU member states jointly decided to try to work a change which would enable citizens to approach the courts and authorities in any other member state as easily as in their own. The idea was also to prevent criminals from exploiting differences or barriers between legal systems. Another aim was to ensure that courts throughout the EU would comply with and effectively enforce decisions issued by courts in other member states.
This important decision was only made possible by the commitment shared by all member states to freedom based on human rights, democratic institutions and the rule of law.
There was also a clear need for judicial cooperation at a purely practical level. I remember well when, as a young bank lawyer, I had to deal with an inheritance case involving both property and heirs in several different countries. I have a vivid recollection of how difficult it was to notify a will to heirs living abroad. Proving its legal validity was also a challenge. During the recession back in the 1990s, the fact that Finland was not a member of the EU also meant that bankruptcies with an international dimension were hard to manage. We had no common procedures for dealing with such matters.
We have come a long way since then: many legal issues are easier to deal with now that cooperation between EU member states has increased and we have agreed on common rules.
Where are we now?
Over the past 20 years, we have jointly agreed on a number of rules that safeguard citizens’ rights and improve their legal protection when living, working or moving within the EU. People tend to be unaware of the importance of legal provisions until something goes wrong, whether this means being the victim of a criminal offence abroad or nothing more than failing to complete an online purchase.
One of the EU’s main purposes is to protect citizens and freedoms. Nevertheless, it is only realistic to recognise that anyone can fall victim to a crime.
It has been estimated that up to 25 million offences are reported annually in the EU. Despite this, citizens should be able to feel safe in the EU.
Today, EU legislation safeguards the right of victims to be recognised and to be treated in a respectful and professional manner without discrimination, regardless of the country in which the offence was committed. During Finland’s Presidency, I would like to discuss with my EU colleagues whether we could do even more together to strengthen the position of victims. We intend to launch work on an EU strategy for victims of crime.
The EU’s common area of justice now has an increasingly tangible impact on family life, too. This can be due to cross-border inheritance issues of the kind I had to deal with during my time as a bank lawyer. Cross-border divorces take place to the tune of 140,000 every year in the EU. In some cases, it may be necessary to agree on child custody and maintenance arrangements when a marriage breaks up and the parents are citizens of different member states. EU rules make it easier to deal with difficult situations such as these.
As the number of international families increases, so do the issues of international law. The ageing of the population brings new cross-border issues that we need to resolve together. For example, situations in which it is necessary to appoint a guardian for a senior citizen retired in another EU country are likely to become increasingly frequent. How should such decisions be recognised and dealt with across borders?
Where next? – Contribution of Finland’s Presidency to future of EU justice area
One of the priorities of Finland’s Presidency is to safeguard and strengthen common values and the rule of law, which are the cornerstones of all EU action. This is at the very core of our twenty-year-old EU justice area.
Under the rule of law, the public powers always act within the constraints set out by law, in accordance with the values of democracy and fundamental rights, and under the control of independent courts, which protect the rights of citizens.
I have invited the EU’s ministers of justice to Helsinki this week. Maintaining the rule of law requires constant effort. In the EU, we can learn from each other and identify common challenges. The independence, quality and efficiency of national legal systems have a particular significance in guaranteeing the rule of law, both nationally and throughout the Union.
Our common value base is most visible to citizens when daily life runs smoothly, guaranteed by well-functioning institutions. I will work to ensure that this remains the case in the future.
Together we create a citizens’ Europe.