LIBE hearing on fundamental rights: listen to the talk rather than face the walk?

On 30 March the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee held its hearing on the situation of fundamental rights in the European Union (EU). A draft report on the same topic authored by Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Laura Ferrara was welcomed by many. Ms Ferrara made a strong opening call on the EU to demonstrate its added value of protecting fundamental values through its legal documents and court rulings. Rights violations experienced by civil society organisations that Ms Ferrara consulted with suggest that rights, equality and dignity are being compromised for the sake of economic efficiency in Europe.

The hearing was joined by Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Better Regulation, Interinstitutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, who positioned himself on several issues. He made the point that fundamental rights is the essence of European integration, whereas the single market is merely an instrument for it. We need to establish “inclusive tolerance”, in other words a shared understanding about faith and secularism, and different values; Vice-President Timmermans stressed that it is important to involve civil society in order to achieve this, and this will be part of his conference in October on Islamophobia and antisemitism. He also underlined the importance of adopting the proposed Equal Treatment Directive. On the other hand, he stated that much more has to be done before considering the last resort of Article 7 TEU, deeming states for serious breaching the Unions founding values; Monitoring of member states compliance is a decision for the Council, and not for the Commission.  To add, he does not believe the Scoreboard aimed for the Europe 2020 Strategy targets is the right tool for fundamental rights, and neither will he put forward any specific rights strategies (such as for example the LGBTI Roadmap) because it is not the solution that lead to results.

Rodolfo Cattani spoke in his capacity as Vice-President of Social Platform and Secretary-General of the European Disability Forum. His messages were three-folded: he called for an EU internal strategy to promote human rights, complementary rights-specific frameworks and policies, and the adoption of the Equal Treatment Directive. You can read Mr Cattani’s full speech here. Other representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to address the hearing were Iverna McGowan, Acting Director of Amnesty International’s EU Office, who spoke about the EUs human rights legitimacy and how it can proactively tackle intolerance, discrimination, hate crime and the humanitarian crisis, and Lotte Leicht, Secretary-General of Human Rights Watch, who raised concerns about saving lives in the Mediterranean.

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, shared his observations from visits to 14 EU member states. Besides commonly known fundamental rights violations such as institutionalisation of children with disabilities, he mentioned the consequences of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in terms of restrictions on the right to freedom of speech, limited data protection and obstacles to the right to freedom of movement.

The Parliament presented its study on “The impact of the crisis on fundamental rights across member states of the EU”. The report concludes that “people’s rights should be placed at the heart of decision-making; the public and civil society organisations should be allowed to participate in decisions around the budget.”

While the agenda promised two sessions with more focus paid to the latter, the first part took up most of the hearing, and left less than half the time allocated for the second panel. While this can be excused by engaged speakers and a lack of timekeeping, it can also be symptomatic of what issues and speakers are perceived to be more important. “Governance of the EU framework” was discussed first including prominent speakers such as Vice-President Timmermans and the Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice, attracting a full room. However, when it was time for the panel on “specific threats to fundamental rights” with NGOs and researchers, most of the audience left the room. While this is not a new observation in itself, it made me wonder if it is easier to listen to politicians and decision-makers talk, rather than to face the faces and the figures of the walk?