Reding stresses Charter of Fundamental Rights for new post
By Anna Jenkinson | Tuesday 12 January 2010
Viviane Reding, the commissioner-designate for the new portfolio of justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, opened her European Parliament hearing, on 12 January, by setting out three priority areas that she will focus on if confirmed in the post: strengthening the European Union’s position in protecting citizens’ privacy in all EU policies, strengthening the right of citizens to move freely in the EU, and the need to ensure that all accused and suspected persons have clear rights in Europe.
Speaking to MEPs in Brussels, the commissioner-designate addressed the three key parliamentary committees that deal with the issues of what Reding hopes will be her future portfolio. The above priorities were aimed at the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. In a session that overran the designated three-hour slot, but otherwise went smoothly except for an outburst from non-attached MEP Krisztina Morvai (Hungary) yelling across the floor “this is all a show,” Reding also addressed the Legal Affairs Committee and the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.
In all areas, Reding stressed the importance of now having the Lisbon Treaty in place and the fact that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is legally binding and, as the commissioner-designate put it, “on an equal footing” with the treaties.
“It has been a long journey to arrive here,” Reding told parliamentarians. “Our citizens will now expect from Europe action and concrete results.”
The Charter of Fundamental Rights should be the “compass for all EU policies,” Reding said. As a result, she plans to propose adding a fundamental rights chapter to all impact assessments so that all Commission departments justify their actions in this respect. She also plans to ensure that all member states fully comply when they implement EU law. There will be “a zero tolerance policy” with regards to violating the charter, she said.
On formally reconciling the coexistence of the EU’s two supreme documents on fundamental rights – the Strasbourg Convention and the EU Charter - Reding said that “negotiations will start very quickly indeed” to allow for a swift accession of the Union to the Strasbourg Convention. “My objective is to bring Strasbourg and Luxembourg into a coherent system of fundamental rights protection that in the end will clarify and strengthen the fundamental rights citizens enjoy in Europe,” Reding said.
The reformed EU treaty states that the Union should offer an area of freedom, security and justice.
In Reding’s opinion, the emphasis in the past has been too often only on security. “To me there can be no freedom without both security and justice,” she said. She believes that Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s decision to create a new, separate portfolio specifically dedicated to justice, fundamental rights and citizenship emphasises this policy reorientation. For Reding, the first test of this policy reorientation will be the action plan on the Stockholm programme, which includes about 170 new initiatives.
PRIVACY OF CITIZENS
In protecting the privacy of citizens, Reding said that data protection will be “high on my agenda”. Privacy in the context of law enforcement, crime prevention and international relations with partners, such as the United States, all need to be strengthened, she said. As a result, Reding wants to review the effectiveness and proportionality of many measures put in place in recent years.
“The fight against terrorism is important, there can be no doubt,” according to Reding. “But I am not convinced that we really need so many new laws and new restrictions on our citizens’ privacy to achieve this purpose.”
As she said in response to a question on the use of body scanners at airports, “we should never be driven by fear but by values on which the European Union is founded”. While emphasising that body scanners are just one aspect of a range of security measures, Reding said their use should be voluntary, respect the right to privacy by applying safeguards and assess the consequences on health.
In response to many questions, Reding emphasised her wish to make the daily life of EU citizens easier. For example, she said it makes sense to abolish exequatur, a procedural step that can cost between €800 and €2,000 in legal fees to get a court judgement accepted on the other side of a border. She also plans to introduce a green paper early this year on the free movement of civil documents which would, for example, help a Finnish-British couple get married. At present, such a couple faces administrative barriers as the Finnish authorities want a type of document that Britain does not foresee.
Cross-border marriages and divorces were an issue that cropped up more than once. Reding said that she wants to make fast progress on the applicable law in matrimonial matters, Rome III, in order to remove “substantial legal uncertainty for children and their parents in often conflicting bi-national situations”. If there is no other solution, Reding said she was prepared to present a proposal on enhanced cooperation on Rome III within the first months of her mandate. She said she would prefer to have all 27 member states on board, adding that she will do everything in her means so that the others join the ten member states that have so far asked for this measure.
On gender equality, Reding said that “the yardstick will always be the Charter of Fundamental Rights”. Her three priorities in this field are reducing the gender pay gap, which stands at 17%, bringing more women into decision making, and combating violence against women and children. Reding called on the Parliament to help make a difference, such that at the next elections in five years, “all women in Europe will know what Europe is doing for them”.
Reding acknowledged that in many areas she will be working in close cooperation with the Commissioner for Home Affairs, set to be Cecilia Malmström. If confirmed, this would be Reding’s third term as a European commissioner.