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European Union set to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights.

April 13, 2013 2:44 PM
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats
European Union set to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a bold new step towards ensuring human rights protections for citizens across the European Union, the EU reached an agreement with the Council of Europe which will see the European Union's accession to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

All Member States of the EU are party to the Convention and as such all persons within their jurisdiction, having exhausted domestic remedies, are permitted to take their grievance to the European Court of Human Rights. But with the EU itself not a party to the Convention, persons could not directly bring cases neither against the EU nor against the EU institutions, if, for example, their rights were encroached upon by an EU act, measure or omission.

The ECHR protects the fundamental civil and political rights of persons living in states that are a party to the Convention and through the European Court of Human Rights provides an enforcement mechanism to realise this goal in the margins of the Council of Europe, the international organisation founded in 1949 under which the European Court of Human Rights and the ECHR operate. Extending the right of referral to the court to European citizens against acts of the EU closes the gap in legal protection of fundamental rights in Europe.

Accession to the ECHR has become a legal obligation for the EU under the Lisbon Treaty. EU accession to the ECHR is a major step for the EU, leading to enhanced accountability and credibility both internally and externally ("practice-what-you-preach"). The Union will subject itself to external judicial control in the light of the rights guaranteed by the Convention and triggered by an individual application. This means that any person claiming to be a victim of a violation of a right guaranteed by the ECHR by an institution or body of the Union is able to bring a complaint against the Union under the same conditions as those applying to complaints brought against Member States.

Accession negotiations started in 2010 in the margins of the Steering Committee for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, firstly, in the format of an expert group and as from June 2011 in the format 47+1 (47 Council of Europe Member States + EU negotiator).

From early on, the guiding principle was that the EU as the 48th party acceding to the ECHR should join on an equal footing with other contacting parties with the same rights and obligations, and should have, for example, its own judge in the Court as well as the right to participate in the Council of Europe bodies as regards Convention related functions with a right to vote. However, by definition, the EU joining as the 48th member, as a non-state entity with a distinctive legal system and a judicial system of its own, on top of its 27 Member States, paved the way for cumbersome and technically complex discussions.

For example, in line with the current voting rules the EU and its Member States would have majority in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe when it supervised the execution of judgments. The EU could vote to block the adoption of decisions potentially unfavourable to it. Therefore for the proper functioning of the supervision system rules were needed to mitigate the effects of block voting. What ensues from the negotiations is a complex system, combining levels of majorities with levels of minorities for different types of decisions but the essential objective of ensuring a voting right for the EU on a par with other Contracting Parties seems to have been ensured.

On 5 April 2013 the negotiation team finalised the draft accession agreement of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thorbjørn Jagland, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, welcomed the agreement reached by the negotiators: "This is a decisive step, paving the way to EU accession to the European Convention of Human Rights. It will contribute to the creation of a single European legal space, putting in place the missing link in the European system of fundamental rights protection".

Amnesty International's Brussels Office praised the move as a "ground-breaking step for human rights protection", with Nicolas Berger affirming "we welcome this initial agreement as a key landmark for ensuring coherence in human rights protection and accountability for human rights violations in Europe".

After endorsement by the Steering Committee on Human Rights, the text of the Agreement will be submitted to the Court of Justice of the European Union to assess the compatibility with the EU Treaties and to the European Court of Human Rights. Political institutions of the two organisations need to approve the text and the EU would have to adopt internal rules laying down modalities for the EU post-accession. Least but not least the Agreement needs to be ratified by the 47 contracting parties of the Convention. Thus, before accession is to become a reality there are still several legal and political hurdles that need to be overcome. However, with the agreement at negotiators' level an important step in that direction has been taken.

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