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EU: Rights Charter Would Bind Union Members, Candidates

  • Don Hill

The leaders of the 15 European Union member states are considering adopting a Charter of Fundamental Rights. The charter, which could be in place as soon as next month, would affect not only current members but also prospective members from Central and Eastern Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports the charter is raising some complex problems.

Prague, 2 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations has its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Council of Europe its Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Now, comes the EU with a draft Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. And the EU's project is a controversial one.

What could be controversial about a document promising people fundamental rights?

For one thing -- if adopted next month as leaders of the 15 EU member-states say it will be -- the charter will at least morally bind a large number of people who have had little or no say in its content. These include the 10 potential EU accession nations: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia. Some critics say those unheard from include the peoples of the member states as well.

In its current issue, the pro-EU British weekly "Economist" dismisses the draft charter as, in its word, "vacuous." The magazine derides the failure of the charter's faceless authors to stimulate debate on its content.

The "Economist," which offers its own proposed constitution for a united Europe, says this: "[Member-state] governments have defended their approach to steering the EU -- 'We decide everything -- one day you'll thank us' -- as strong leadership. Thus, all governments [except] Denmark's resisted the idea of putting membership of something as important as monetary union to a referendum."

University of Amsterdam Professor Karel van Wolferen has expressed particular concern over the lack of what he calls a "European forum" through which voices from across Europe -- other than those of EU politicians and bureaucrats -- can be heard. Van Wolferen told a conference on European values in Zurich last week (Oct 27-28) that the time is ripe for the creation of a Europe-wide, not-for-profit newspaper to provide a forum for politically aware Europeans to present their voices.

"I have mentioned an effort in the past to establish a European-wide newspaper -- or efforts in the plural -- and that these have come to naught, and also that these efforts go back to about 10 years ago, and that today we have a different Europe that has gone much farther in its process of integration."

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, or IPI, an international network of editors and media executives, convened the Zurich conference. The "Economist" was not represented at the IPI conference, but Van Wolferen's call for European-wide discussion sparked interest among the 120 publications and organizations that were.

A number of other speakers said they disapproved of the idea of EU bureaucrats drafting a charter to guide all of Europe without an opportunity for discussion by the union's peoples themselves.

Van Wolferen told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that several fellow participants approached him and asked to join the effort to create a European forum.

"People came to me at the IPI conference and said they were very interested and they would like to take some action. I told them that we could continue the conversation about it and they and some other people whom I know would be interested could get together and we could hammer out some basic ideas and some basic principles."

Speakers at the IPI conference expressed misgivings about the draft charter's alteration of the phrasing of press guarantees contained in the Council of Europe's European Human Rights Convention. The council has 41 members, including 17 countries from the former East bloc.

Where the Council of Europe's convention provides "guarantees" for press freedom, the EU's draft charter says press freedom must be "respected." The convention includes the phrase "seeking information" among human rights, while the draft charter does not.

Ronald Koven, the European representative of the World Press Freedom Committee, warned that softening the convention's language could have the effect of diluting established guarantees of press freedom and other rights.

Proponents of the draft charter responded that its language was intended only for EU institutions. They point out that nations obligated to observe the UN declaration or the human-rights convention remained under those obligations.

One prominent participant at the Zurich meeting said he believed concerns like Koven's had been answered satisfactorily. President Luzius Wildhaber of the European Court of Human Rights told our correspondent:

"We all know that realities across the world are widely different. I think we all know that core guarantees must be and should be guaranteed across the whole world. And then you have the opportunity to move ahead -- as we have in our system -- on a regional level."

Wildhaber addressed another concern as well. The European Union operates the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Wildhaber's human rights court is an organ of the Council of Europe and sits in Strasbourg. When the 50-year-old Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and the EU's new Charter of Fundamental Human Rights are both in force, the two courts will be referring to similar -- but different -- documents for decisions.

Wildhaber says some form of harmonization will be needed to avoid contradictory or competitive rulings by the courts. Some European leaders have proposed that the EU court in Luxembourg seek advisory rulings from the human-rights court in Strasbourg, but this has not been agreed on. Wildhaber said he believes the two courts will manage to harmonize their rulings informally through good communication.

"So I think you need two courts that are willing and reasonable enough to approach problems in the same spirit, to coordinate their activities without losing their independence. And since our relations with the Luxembourg court are good, I hope that we can work on that basis."

EU leaders who are trying to develop a common statement of European values face other challenges. One is how to deal with member states that seem to be straying into political extremism, while avoiding another quagmire like that created by EU sanctions imposed earlier this year against Austria after it formed a government including a far-right party. Another is how to avoid back-door suppression of the press through libel and security laws.

There was talk at the IPI conference in Zurich that the EU's draft Charter of Fundamental Rights could evolve into the foundation for a European constitution.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, a featured speaker, expanded on that idea. But, he said, an EU constitution could develop only if the union's peoples engage in discussing its contents.

As Schuessel put it: If the charter "becomes just another paper prepared by 65 wise men," it will be filed away and forgotten.

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