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Last Updated: Monday, 16 July 2007, 18:53 GMT 19:53 UK
Q&A: Charter of Fundamental Rights
The Charter of Fundamental Rights was approved by EU member states in 2000, as a declaration without legal force. That will change, when it is included in the EU's planned new Reform Treaty.

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 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 Nice Summit in December 2000.

How much weight does it have?

The charter is a "political declaration" but it has already influenced judgements of the European Court of Justice.

It was included in the ill-fated draft constitutional treaty and would have become legally binding if the treaty had come into force. It is now set to be included in the new Reform Treaty, instead.

Why is the charter controversial?

The UK fears that if it becomes legally binding the judgements of the European Court of Justice could force changes to British labour law.

It has therefore negotiated a protocol, to be annexed to the EU treaties, which says that:

  • The charter does not extend the ability of the court to find that UK laws are inconsistent with fundamental rights
  • The charter does not create "justiciable rights applicable to the United Kingdom"

Other governments see the charter as a useful EU addition to the European Convention on Human Rights.

How does the charter differ from the European Convention?

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

And it covers the political rights of citizens of the EU, which the c*onvention does not, because it is not an EU document.

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

How is the charter relevant to ordinary EU citizens?

If the charter becomes legally binding, EU citizens will be able to use it to challenge any decision taken by EU institutions, or by 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 it thought fundamental rights were being violated.

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

The EU's Fundamental Rights Agency - known until March 2007 as the Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia - has a mandate to collect and analyse data with respect to the rights listed in the charter.

It complied a report on Islamophobia in the EU, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and, in 2003, documented a rise in anti-Semitic attacks.

Amnesty International says the European Union has a "deeply flawed record in upholding human rights while fighting terrorism" and has accused member states of taking a "see no evil" approach to CIA renditions.

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.

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

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