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Last Updated: Monday, 16 June, 2003, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
Q&A: Charter of fundamental rights
BBC News Online asks what the charter is, why Europe needs one, and what difference it can make.

What is the Charter of Fundamental Rights?

The European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out a whole range of civil, political and social rights enjoyed by the EU's 372 million citizens.

It is divided into six chapters: Dignity, Freedom, Solidarity, Equality, Citizenship and Justice, and covers everything from workers' social rights to bioethics and the protection of personal data.

Most of the rights are contained in other documents, but they were brought together for the first time in the charter signed at the EU's Nice Summit in December 2000.

Does it have any legal force?

The charter was signed by the 15 EU members as a "political declaration". This means that it may be taken into account by individual national law courts and the European Court of Justice, but it is not legally binding.

However, the charter has now being incorporated into the draft EU constitution.

Why is the charter controversial?

Some countries, such as the UK, fear that if the charter became legally binding it would create new legal obligations that would undermine their national sovereignty.

The draft constitution does try to address this by saying that the charter would "not extend the scope of application of Union law" but this might not be enough to head off a confrontation.

Other governments see the charter as a useful EU addition to the Council of Europe's European Convention on Human Rights.

Business leaders, meanwhile, have criticised the wording of some of the articles on social and economic rights, arguing that such rights are better dealt with by elected politicians than unelected judges.

Supporters contend that the charter provides judges with an explicit guide to fundamental rights, rather than leaving them to interpret vaguely-worded agreements.

Is there any other binding human rights legislation in Europe?

The charter is the latest in a whole raft of European declarations, charters, court rulings, conventions, and treaties concerning human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The European Convention on Human Rights was signed in 1950 by the countries that make up the Council of Europe and is enforced by the European Court of Human Rights.

In 1999, the Amsterdam Treaty established that the EU "should respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, upon which the Union is founded". It allowed the Council of Ministers to suspend certain rights of a member state found to breach the treaty, and it gave the European Court of Justice the power to ensure that EU institutions respect those rights.

The new draft constitution stipulates that the union shall develop a common policy on asylum and immigration, following on from the 1993 Maastricht Treaty which brought justice and home affairs into the ambit of the EU.

Is Europe falling short of the ideals laid out in the charter?

The European Court of Human Rights (which is not an EU institution) already hears cases of human rights abuses from all countries of Europe, both inside and outside the EU.

Typical human rights abuses include discrimination on grounds of race, gender or nationality, beating and intimidation of suspects during police questioning, poor living conditions in prisons, and censorship or infringements of freedom of expression.

These rights are all contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been signed by all the 45 members of the Council of Europe, including all EU and EU applicant countries.

What is the difference between the Charter and the Convention of Human Rights?

The Charter covers some economic and social rights that are not contained in the Convention on Human Rights, such as the right to good administration and workers' social rights, including the right to strike.

It also responds to the challenges of new technology by including articles on bioethics and the protection of personal data.

Finally, the charter also covers the political rights of citizens of the EU, which the Convention does not, because it is not an EU document.

How is the Charter relevant to ordinary EU citizens?

The charter brings together all the existing rights of EU citizens in a more accessible form. While those rights contained in the European Convention of Human Rights were already visible, those that derived from court judgements in the subsequent 50 years were less obvious.

If the charter became legally binding, EU citizens could use it to challenge any decision taken by EU institutions and member states implementing EU law that they felt infringed their fundamental rights. EU citizens could bring the matter before a judge in their country, who could request an interpretation from the Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The European Commission could also use the charter to challenge member states if fundamental rights were being violated.

What happens if rulings made by the Court of Justice contradict judgements made by individual national states and the European Court of Human Rights?

At the moment, the supreme courts of individual states are subject to the control of the European Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg and adjudicates on the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, if a national government chose to ignore a European Court ruling, there would be no way to resolve the conflict apart from political negotiations.

The Court of Justice adjudicates on purely EU matters.

If the charter became law, a mechanism would have to be worked out to allow a single jurisprudence - probably the European Court in Strasbourg - to interpret the law.

Charter of Fundamental Rights
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