The Lisbon Treaty strengthens and enhances the protection of the human rights of the people of Ireland. One of the central functions of the Lisbon Treaty is to make the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding. The European Charter brings political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights together into a single and concise document. It may be the most advanced human rights declaration ever drafted.
Far from threatening our fundamental rights, as critics of the Lisbon Treaty have suggested, the Charter builds upon the European Convention on Human Rights, which dates back to 1950. Whereas the European Convention is mainly limited to the more classic civil and political rights, like freedom of expression and the prohibition of slavery and torture, the Charter covers other areas, such as the right to good administration, the rights of the disabled, the social rights of workers, the right to a clean environment, the protection of personal data and bioethical rights.
But even in the area of civil and political rights, it is a very progressive document. Compare the European Convention on Human Rights, which actually authorises the use of capital punishment (remember, it was drafted 60 years ago), with the new EU Charter, which not only prohibits capital punishment but even forbids the extradition or transfer of persons to other countries where this might take place.
All Bills of Rights use broad language, and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is no exception. It is in their nature. This is a valuable feature, because it enables them to be interpreted in an increasingly expansive manner over time, as attitudes and values evolve. Strangely, the broad language has been used by critics of the Lisbon treaty to concoct scenarios and interpretations that have more to do with fantasy than reality.
The Lisbon Treaty makes clear that the provisions of the Charter shall not extend in any way the powers of the EU as defined in the relevant treaties. The fact that certain Charter rights concern areas in which the EU has little or no competence (for example, the death penalty or the right to strike) to act is no contradiction. Although the powers of the EU are limited, it must avoid even indirect interference with all fundamental rights.
Fundamental rights guaranteed by national constitutions are merely complemented, not superseded by the Charter. The Charter will certainly apply to EU institutions. But it only applies to the Member States when they implement EU law. This is not reflective of some sinister centralist agenda but rather a salutary commitment from Brussels to respect fundamental rights in all aspects of its activities. How can this possibly be harmful? It strengthens our protections and fundamental guarantees.
It is also seriously misguided to argue that the EU Charter might weaken fundamental rights because its protections are allegedly inferior to those of the European Convention on Human Rights or our own national constitution. As amended by the Lisbon Treaty, the new Article 6 specifically provides that fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, will continue to constitute general principles of EU law.
The ‘Solidarity Section’ of the EU Charter contains articles relating to workers’ rights to information and consultation, health care or access to services of general economic interest. There is nothing really new here; such rights are already guaranteed by EU law. However, the fact that such economic and social rights are now described as ‘fundamental rights’ ought to be welcome. EU courts will have to take them into account when interpreting EU legislation, and they will undoubtedly percolate down to the Irish courts too, if history is any guide.
The preposterous view that the EU Charter could be used to challenge Ireland’s anti-abortion legislation has circulated in the debate. Yet in countries such as France, the same argument has been put, but in reverse. It is contended that by proclaiming that ‘everyone has the right to life’ the EU Charter will prohibit abortion. Neither view deserves to be taken seriously. The text in the Charter merely reflects similar words in the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been applied in Ireland for the past sixty years. The EU Charter will change nothing with respect to Ireland’s abortion laws.
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is part of the Lisbon Treaty package, is a progressive addition to existing legal protections. We may not all feel confident that we understand many of the complex legal provisions that appear in the Lisbon Treaty. But every citizen can grasp the meaning and scope of the EU Charter. The language is straightforward, innovative, and even poetic at times. Any plain reading makes clear how desirable it is that the text be adopted. No hidden agenda, ambiguity or subterfuge lurks behind the words. It is a good reason to vote yes in the referendum.
Laurent Pech, Jean Monnet Lecturer in EU Public Law
William Schabas OC MRIA, Professor of Human Rights Law
National University of Ireland, Galway