Sonya Walkila: Charter of Fundamental Rights: 10 years an integral part of our European law, life and values
Ten years ago, the EU reached a turning point in consolidating the legal status and increasing the importance of fundamental rights. While the importance of fundamental rights had already been gradually growing within the EU and in EU law, it was only in December 2009 that the Treaty of Lisbon gave the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union the same legal value as the EU Treaties. The Charter thus became legally binding, not only on the Union but also on the member states – including their courts and public authorities – within the scope of EU law.
The Charter as binding EU law
The Charter is a compass of values. It reflects the shared European values, rights and freedoms that are intended to guide all EU activities and the content of its legislation. At the same time, the Charter symbolises our common European identity: it is a concrete indication that we belong to a community of values that respects fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The potential of the Charter lies precisely in its legally binding nature; it is not merely a political declaration, but also part of the Union’s binding (primary) law. Within the scope of EU law, the Charter of Fundamental Rights is directly applicable in all member state courts and public authorities as well as in national law drafting. It therefore grants individuals rights that they can invoke directly.
At the Union level, the effects of the Charter’s legally binding nature were initially apparent in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Prior to 2009, the Court had considered fundamental rights and their practical effects in a few individual cases only and, even then, in careful terms. Today, however, the Charter of Fundamental Rights is being invoked in roughly ten per cent of all references for a preliminary ruling, and the Court has not hesitated to examine the compatibility both of national as well as EU law with the level of protection afforded under the Charter.
The case law of the Court of Justice has in turn affected the contents of EU legislation. For example, the right to erase data (the right to be forgotten), confirmed by the Court in its ‘Google Spain’ judgment of 2014, represented a new digital-era right based on the protection of personal data and privacy. Following this judgment, the right to erasure was subsequently incorporated in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Fundamental rights have also had the effect of reinforcing the protection of whistleblowers and strengthening EU legislation on the rights of victims of crime.
The Charter in our everyday lives
As a modern fundamental and human rights instrument, the Charter of Fundamental Rights covers a broad range of political as well as social and economic rights. The latter include the rights of the elderly, freedom of the arts and sciences, integration of persons with disabilities and the right of access to placement services. Furthermore, the Charter contains a number of more modern rights, many of which cannot be found in any other fundamental rights or human rights instrument in the world. These rights include the prohibition of the reproductive cloning of human beings, consumer protection, the express right to asylum and the right to good administration.
In the EU’s integration process, the Charter of Fundamental Rights marks a transition from the European Community, which was a primarily economic actor, to a Union which has the citizens at its core. Yet it is almost paradoxical that a large proportion of Europeans have never heard of the Charter. Citizens are not aware of all their rights under EU law. This is why, during its Presidency of the Council of the EU, Finland has made an effort to promote the realisation and visibility of fundamental rights by, among other things, organising a high-level event on this topic jointly with the European Commission and the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights on 12 November 2019.
The Charter enshrines our common values
The scope of EU law is at its broadest at national level. The Charter of Fundamental Rights therefore has particular relevance in the work of national authorities, national law drafters and legislators, as well as national courts. In practice, civil society organisations, human rights defenders and lawyers are on the frontline in defending the rights of individuals and therefore well-positioned to invoke the rights guaranteed by the Charter.
The preamble to the Charter ends with the following statement: “Enjoyment of these rights entails responsibilities and duties with regard to other persons, to the human community and to future generations.” Accordingly, as the Charter of Fundamental Rights now enters its second decade, we all have an important role to play in strengthening our common European values and the rights enshrined in the Charter.