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The EU and the Council of Europe: towards greater collaboration and partnership.

When the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, attended the 60th anniversary ceremony of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last year, in October 2009, he spoke of the important role it played in helping Europe emerge from a painful past. A year later, with the Lisbon Treaty in force, I am very much focused on where the Council of Europe can take Europe in future.

Last year President Barroso spoke of the importance of visionaries, of aspiring to a better respect for human rights. I believe that, despite the great strides we have taken in the last 60 years, we need to hold on to this visionary approach, always aspiring to do better. After all, if nobody steps forward and sets greater standards, we will never move forward. That is, I believe, a driving force behind the Council of Europe that I hope to apply to the newly created post of Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship.

As the EU's Commissioner for Justice, Citizenship and Fundamental Rights, I am in a very good position to talk about the importance of long-standing cooperation the EU has with the Council of Europe. It stands to reason that two institutions with such similar goals would work together fruitfully; especially since the 27 EU Member States are all part of the Council of Europe, which has 47 Member States.

Our cooperation covers all fields of competence of the Council of Europe: human rights, democracy and rule of law, and is quite diversified: from regular exchange of information to the use of the Council of Europe monitoring mechanisms as a useful source of information in a number of areas of interest for the European Union, to the organization of joint activities.

This is also backed up by very important work on the ground: an illustration of the intensity of cooperation is that close to 40 Joint Programmes are currently in operation, worth a total amount of 62 million [euro], 80%-co-financed by the EU.

This represented over 20% of the Council of Europe's programme of activity for 2009. This makes the EU the main contributor to Council of Europe operations: 70% of voluntary contributions in 2009.

But now we have a chance to deepen the relations between the two organizations: to the benefit of European citizens.

Charter of Fundamental Rights to entrench the Convention on Human Rights

The European Union will work hard to defend and improve citizens' rights. The legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, achieved by the Lisbon Treaty, and interpreted by the Court of Justice entrenches all the rights found in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Charter, however, allows for more extensive protection entrenching other rights and principles derived from the common constitutional traditions of the EU Member States, the case law of the European Court of Justice and other international instruments, including, notably, instruments of the Council of Europe. These rights include economic and social rights and the so-called "third generation" fundamental rights, such as data protection, guarantees on bioethics and on good and transparent administration. The Charter of Fundamental Rights makes it clear that the level of protection provided must be at least as high as that of the Convention on Human Rights.

The access of the EU to the Convention of Human Rights will complement the introduction of the legally binding Charter of Fundamental Rights. Accession to the Convention will ensure that the case-law of both Courts--the Court in Strasbourg and the Court in Luxembourg--evolves in step. It is therefore an opportunity to develop a coherent system of fundamental rights protection throughout the continent with a strong promise for a Europe truly united by law and in values.

Development of a common culture on Fundamental Rights in the EU: accession to the ECHR is the best means of ensuring harmonious development of the case law of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. A judge elected in respect of the EU would bring additional expertise on the EU legal system to the Strasbourg Court.

Right to a fair trial: better EU rules to impact on the back-log of cases in Strasbourg

The entry into force of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on 3 September 1953 was the crowning achievement of centuries of European endeavor to hold rulers and laws accountable to human rights. Since then, the European Court of Human rights in Strasbourg has brought justice to people who did not find it in national courts of the 47 countries that signed the Convention. At the Strasbourg Court, around one hundred thousand cases are waiting to be heard. Of these, about one quarter are related to the right to a fair trial. I believe that Justice delayed is justice denied. That is why the European Union will work with the Council of Europe to clear the big backlog of cases and the long delays. The European Union has a strong interest in the efficient functioning of the Court.

Better EU rules protecting the right to a fair trial that can consequently have an impact on the back-log of cases in Strasbourg. EU needs to create a real single area of justice. Citizens and companies should be confident that their rights will be protected no matter where they are in the EU. They should be able to engage in cross-border procedures without facing too many procedural difficulties or exaggerated costs.

To develop a common area where judicial decision taken in one jurisdiction can be effectively enforced in other jurisdictions as easily as they are nationally, we first need mutual recognition between EU Member States of each other's judicial decisions. This can be achieved by setting common minimum standards. To this end, the European Union has recently adopted the first ever EU law protecting citizens' fair trial rights by obliging Member States to provide interpretation and translation to suspects. The Commission will pursue its efforts by proposing a series of measures to improve procedural rights in criminal cases and build a true "equality of arms" between the rights of the prosecution and the rights of the defence. Judicial cooperation cannot work when there is a risk that standards of human rights protection, such as poor detention or prison conditions, have slipped below the level that is now clearly set out by the Charter. From now on, the Charter of Fundamental Rights must become the compass for all EU policies.

The European Court of Human Rights will have fewer occasions to intervene on matters linked to EU law if the EU is beyond reproach when it makes legislation and when Member States implement it.

European Day of civil Justice and Crystal Scales of Justice prize

In order to assist European citizens in understanding role that civil justice may play in their lives European Commission and the Council of Europe (CEPEJ) in 2003 established 25 October European Day of Civil Justice. The Day is an opportunity for the public to familiarise themselves with the civil justice system, which should make it easier for them to access it. Events that are organised together with Council of Europe and also by number of Member States every year are aimed at getting people closer to civil justice, to show them, that their rights could be effectively protected, that they should not hesitate to use various opportunities and procedures that are offered to them. This year, main event of the European Day of Civil Justice will take place in Ljubljana. It will focus on broadly speaking family law area, and will bring together stakeholders, who will consider future of broadly understood family matters, European judicial training, as well as use of IT in mediation. Quality and innovation in the area of justice is at heart of both European Commission and the Council of Europe.

In the context of the European Day of Civil Justice, the two organisations created in 2005 a European prize for innovative practice in civil justice organisation and procedure: the Crystal Scales of Justice. The original purpose of this award was to discover and spotlight innovative and effective practices either in court organisation or in respect of the conduct of civil proceedings in the courts of Europe, so as to improve the operation of the public system of civil justice. This prize has represented an excellent way of encouraging European courts to emulate each other in introducing new practices that contribute to improving the quality of civil justice. During these years, the competition evolved. Today, it is not anymore limited to civil justice but its aim remains the promotion of best practices and innovative projects, creative ideas that proved to be useful in practice, thus worth to be implemented in other States. Participation is wide-open: participants can be relevant national administrations, but also NGO's, judicial authorities, prosecutor's offices and others whose work is related to operation of justice in a Member State of the European Union or the Council of Europe.

Joint Conferences

The Joint Conferences are a mean to raise a debate with stakeholders and represent an important basis for the drafting of future legislations. The Council of Europe and the Commission organized the Conference " Towards a better access to justice for citizens", dealing mainly with legal aid and mediation. In 2004, the joint Conference "Towards an ideal trial' discussed the use of electronic communications to send a claim to court and the added value of the simplified civil procedures, such as the "small claims" and the payment order. The most recent joint conference took place in Strasbourg 30 November-1st December 2009 and was devoted to the adoption procedures in Europe. It has been also the occasion for the Commission to disseminate the findings of its study about adoption procedures between Member States and to invite EU Member States to sign the revised CoE Convention on adoption.

The Convention on Human Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights is managed by the Council of Europe ("CoE") and widely seen as the most important rights instrument in Europe as it gives citizens of all 47 Contracting Parties and individual right to bring a complaint against any Contracting State before the European Court of Human Rights (the "Strasbourg Court"). The entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009 represents an historic breakthrough for the European Union. The accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights is not only an option but a requirement in the Lisbon Treaty. The 27 Member States of the European Union have already acceeded to the Convention. With EU accession, the specificity of the Union as a distinct legal entity vested with autonomous powers can be properly reflected in proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights.

The recent launch of accession negotiations of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights marks an important step in the relations between the EU and the Council of Europe. EU accession to the Convention on Human Rights will strengthen the partnership between European Union and the Council of Europe as it will enhance the credibility of the strong commitment of the EU to fundamental rights.

An opportunity for both the EU and the Council of Europe

As the Secretary General of the Council of Europe pointed out recently "protecting human rights is not just about the Court condemning states. It is about anticipating problems and cooperating in their solution". Protecting human rights is not about creating a culture of litigation, it is about upholding human dignity and the full enjoyment of rights. The accession of the European Union to the Convention is an incentive to develop the policies that strengthen the effectiveness of the fundamental rights that people enjoy in Europe.

The world is changing rapidly: in 60 years Europe's place in the world could change even more than it has done in the last 60. Human rights will play an ever more important part in the way Europe is seen in the wider world, and the role Europe can play in it.

With the opening of a permanent European Union delegation to the Council of Europe in 2010, I believe we are at the beginning of a new era, both in our bilateral relations but, more importantly, but in the way we build a European area of justice fit for the 21st century.

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission and EU Commissioner responsible for Justice, Fundamental rights and Citizenship.
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Title Annotation:Democracy, Political Reforms & Civil Society
Author:Reding, Viviane
Publication:Crossroads Foreign Policy Journal
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:May 1, 2010
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