On December 1, 2009—10 years ago yesterday—the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU Charter) became legally binding when the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force. The EU Charter contains civil and political, as well as economic and social rights. Its six chapters cover dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens’ rights, and justice. The EU Charter generally only binds the institutions, bodies, offices, and agencies of the European Union (EU) and applies to the Member States only when they are implementing EU law. (EU Charter, art. 51.) The EU Charter therefore only complements the national legislation and does not replace it.
Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) provides that:
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
Article 6, paragraph 1 TEU states:
The Union recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union of 7 December 2000, as adapted at Strasbourg, on 12 December 2007, which shall have the same legal value as the Treaties.
The European Council, in its meeting on June 3-4, 1999, concluded that “at the present stage of development of the European Union, the fundamental rights applicable at Union level should be consolidated in a Charter and thereby made more evident.” It adopted a decision stating that “[t]here appears to be a need…to establish a Charter of fundamental rights in order to make their overriding importance and relevance more visible to the Union’s citizens.” A body called the Convention was set up to draft a text. There was, however, disagreement between the Member States and the European institutions over what the legal status of the proposed document should be. As a compromise, the EU Charter was not initially integrated into the EU Treaties. It was officially proclaimed at the meeting of the European Council in Nice in 2000, but “the question of the Charter’s force [was to] be considered later.” The issue of the legal status of the EU Charter was taken up again in the discussions leading up to the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe. The Constitution included the EU Charter as Part II. However, as the Constitution was never adopted, because France and the Netherlands each rejected it in a referendum, the EU Charter remained nonbinding. It was not until the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in 2009, that the EU Charter became a binding legal document.
Relationship to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
All EU Member States are party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The fact that the EU Charter became a binding legal document did not make the ECHR obsolete. Rather, the TEU provides that:
Fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, shall constitute general principles of the Union’s law. (TEU, art. 6, para. 3. Emphasis added.)
Likewise, the EU Charter states that:
Nothing in this Charter shall be interpreted as restricting or adversely affecting human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognised, in their respective fields of application, by Union law and international law and by international agreements to which the Union or all the Member States are party, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and by the Member States’ constitutions. (EU Charter, art. 53. Emphasis added.)
In so far as this Charter contains rights which correspond to rights guaranteed by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the meaning and scope of those rights shall be the same as those laid down by the said Convention. This provision shall not prevent Union law providing more extensive protection. (EU Charter, art. 52, para. 3. Emphasis added.)
Furthermore, the TEU includes a mandate for the EU to join the ECHR. (TEU, art. 6, para. 3.)
Application and Awareness of the EU Charter
Each year, the European Commission publishes a report on the application of the EU Charter. The latest report found that even though references to the EU Charter by the Court of Justice of the European Union and by national courts have increased, the EU Charter is “still not used to its full potential,” especially at national level. In 2019, a Eurobarometer survey was published in conjunction with the report to determine whether EU citizens were aware of the EU Charter. The survey found that only four in ten respondents had heard of the EU Charter, and of those, only 12% say that they know what it is. Six in ten respondents would like to have more information about the content of the EU Charter and what to do when their rights are violated.
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) was established in 2007 as a decentralized EU agency. One of its main tasks is to communicate and raise rights awareness. To that end, it has created an online tool that provides information on and access to case law, law references, explanations, and FRA publications for each article of the EU Charter.