Seminar and Workshop on Advanced Issues in Law and Policy of the European Union, nafta and the wto



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10 The European Parliament

Since at least the late 1970s, the European Parliament has played a very important role in promoting human rights as an integral component of EU policies in both the internal and external domains. It has done so in a variety of ways, including through annual reports on different issues, debates and resolutions, withholding of its assent to external agreements in cases where serious human rights problems persist, insistence upon increased funding for human rights and democratization programmes, sending of election monitors and parliamentary delegations, and regular calls upon the Commission and the Council to adopt more human rights-friendly policies.90

In considering the ways in which Parliament’s contribution might be further enhanced in the future, three issues stand out. The first concerns the internal institutional allocation of responsibilities for dealing with human rights-related matters. At present, there are two separate forums which have all too little interaction. They are the Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs Committee and the Sub-Committee on Human Rights of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence Policy.91 The Parliament itself has acknowledged the need for its own ‘bodies dealing with human rights and democracy issues to be more effectively co-ordinated’.92 The existing arrangement, born of various internal accommodations, reflects and even reinforces the split between the internal and external dimensions of human rights policy which this article argues is counter-productive and ultimately incompatible with the quest for a coherent EU policy.

The second issue concerns standards. The Parliament continues to entertain a debate over the normative content of human rights which, on some occasions, has led to a virtual stalemate, especially in relation to the scope and status of social rights. This is essentially an anachronistic debate which, in almost all other contexts, has long since been settled. All EU Member States are parties to the European Social Charter and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Moreover, a significant range of social rights find explicit recognition in the EU and EC Treaties.

The third and most important issue concerns the relationship between the Parliament on the one hand and the Council and the Commission on the other.93 Neither have proved to be consistent or reliable interlocutors on human rights matters. In the case of the Council, Parliament has long been highly critical of the Council’s Annual Memorandum describing the human rights activities of the Council and the Member States in the framework of CSFP on the grounds that it is lacking in detail and is submitted on an irregular and unpredictable schedule. Similarly, reports that are drawn up within the CFSP framework and deal with the human rights situation in third countries are not routinely made available to Parliament. In the case of the Commission, the relationship is also based on inadequate information flows and a degree of uncertainty as to the type of information which Parliament is entitled to seek from the Commission. For several years now the Parliament has sought to spell out the structure that Commission reports should follow and the types of information it would like to receive. Much of this relates to analysis as well as raw data. The response has been limited.

This situation has helped to create and perpetuate something of a vicious circle. The Council and Commission seem unwilling to involve the Parliament in various aspects of human rights policy-making, although the latter has been able to use its budgetary and other limited forms of authority to good effect in certain areas. The Parliament, for its part, is perceived by many observers to have acted too often in ways that might reflect an expectation that it will not be taken very seriously. It is thus sometimes unable to resist the temptation to endorse positions which are lacking in nuance, are not necessarily consistent over time or from one case to another, and in the case of external policy issues are not readily reconcilable with the EU’s own internal policies. Its frequent use of ‘urgency procedures’ in relation to specific situations has also drawn considerable criticism, including from within its own ranks.94 These shortcomings are, in turn, taken by the Council and the Commission as a confirmation of the appropriateness of their own relatively unforthcoming attitudes.

It is time for this vicious circle to be broken. Although the Parliament was disappointed in terms of many of the reforms that it had hoped to achieve in the Amsterdam Treaty, its powers have nevertheless been steadily augmented. Amsterdam contains a number of innovations which will enhance the role of the Parliament in human rights matters. They include: the change from cooperation to co-decision as the basis for decision-making in relation to a number of important issues (such as discrimination on grounds of nationality, the right of establishment for foreign nationals, equal opportunities and equal treatment, consumer protection and data protection); the requirement of consultation in relation to issues of discrimination on all of the prohibited grounds, except for nationality;95 the role of the Parliament in any procedure under Article 7 of the TEU to suspend the rights of a Member State for a ‘serious and persistent breach’ of human rights; and the inclusion within the Community budget of operational expenditure under the Third Pillar, which has been classified as non-compulsory expenditure, thus increasing Parliament’s role. Parliament itself can make effective use of these opportunities in order to shape a stronger human rights policy.

In addition, many of the proposals contained in the present article would, if adopted, make a very big difference to the capacity of Parliament to exercise a sustained, informed and responsible role both in exercising oversight and in acting as a catalyst in this area. The member of the Commission responsible for human rights would, in the normal course of affairs, appear before the Parliamentary hearings. In its enhanced constitutional role in relation to the appointment of the President and Members of the Commission, Parliament has an important role in ensuring that human rights are given significant weight. Parliament could attach importance to both the competence and the human rights commitment of the designated Commissioner.

Parliament will also play an important supervisory role in overseeing the Commission and the Monitoring Agency, as well as in terms of development of policy, budget and execution. To the extent that the new human rights policy involves legislation, Parliament will play its role as provided in the Treaties. The monitoring proposals reflected in this article would transform the Parliament’s capacity to analyse, to formulate precise and focused recommendations, and to evaluate action taken in response to its own opinions. This applies in particular to the proposed Annual Report on Human Rights in the World, the annual report on human rights within the EU to be produced by the Human Rights Monitoring Agency, and the more detailed, regular and analytical reports to be submitted by the Commission and the Council in relation to their respective areas of responsibility. All of these reports would enable the Parliament to overcome the information gap from which its deliberations currently suffer, would help it to structure its work in a more systematic fashion, would make it easier to identify genuine priorities and to accord less prominence to the hobby-horses sometimes championed by individual MEPs.

Similarly, the access to justice sensibility that informs much of this article must also extend to parliamentary activities, such as the Petitions Committee96 and to the Ombudsman.97 The function of both extends beyond human rights but also overlaps in some considerable measure. It is our impression that neither is especially well known beyond narrow circles and their visibility could and should be enhanced.

Several other recommendations also emerge from this analysis:


  1. Parliament should consider moving towards a single integrated Committee structure for dealing with both the internal and external dimensions of human rights policy.

  2. The indivisibility of the two sets of human rights should be acknowledged by the Parliament in a way which puts an end to the sterile debates over what is in fact a non-issue.

  3. An effort should be made to reinforce the specialist human rights expertise available to the secretariat of the Parliament.

  4. There should be greater interaction between the European Parliament and the human rights committees which exist in many of the national parliaments, both within the Community and outside. A more effective relationship with the former would reinforce the impact of Parliament’s own work and provide it with a better sense of national policies and concerns.

  5. Parliament should develop more systematic, open and transparent means by which the knowledge and views of non-governmental groups can be taken into account in its work.

  6. Parliament should encourage the Commission to undertake a study of the procedures that could be used in considering whether to suspend the rights of a Member State for a serious and persistent breach of the principles contained in Article 6(1) TEU, which include human rights.

  7. Parliament should develop a more systematic means of monitoring the implementation of its various policy recommendations by the bodies to which they are directed, and seek to reduce the repetitiveness of the content of its resolutions.



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