Human rights are all too often assumed to be primarily matters arising in a country’s external relations rather than its internal affairs. The project from which this article has resulted began with a strong focus on the role of human rights within the external relations of the European Union. It quickly became apparent, however, that the internal and external dimensions of human rights policy can never be satisfactorily kept in separate compartments. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.
In the case of the Union, there are several additional reasons why a concern with external policy also necessitates a careful consideration of the internal policy dimensions. Firstly, the development and implementation of an effective external human rights policy can only be undertaken in the context of appropriate internal institutional arrangements. Secondly, in an era when universality and indivisibility are the touchstones of human rights, an external policy which is not underpinned by a comparably comprehensive and authentic internal policy can have no hope of being taken seriously. Thirdly, as the next millennium approaches, a credible human rights policy must assiduously avoid unilateralism and double standards and that can only be done by ensuring reciprocity and consistency. Finally, the reality is that a Union which is not prepared to embrace a strong human rights policy for itself is highly unlikely to develop a fully-fledged external policy and apply it with energy or consistency. As long as human rights remain a suspect preoccupation within, their status without will remain tenuous.
This analysis thus makes no fundamental distinction between the internal and external dimensions of the Union’s human rights policy. To use a metaphor, it is clear that both must be cut from a single cloth. By the same token, it is perhaps prudent to acknowledge from the outset that this approach will not easily gain acceptance. There is an unfortunate, although perhaps inevitable, element of schizophrenia that afflicts the Union between its internal and external policies, or to put it differently, between its First, Second and Third Pillars. The result is that very few officials concerned with the EU will be interested in an analysis of this type as a whole. Instead, those concerned with external relations will focus solely on its implications in that domain, while their internal counterparts will adopt an equally narrow approach. Meaningful action will thus require that the governments of Member States see beyond the narrow and compartmentalized concerns of different bureaucratic and political actors and embrace a vision which recognizes the true place that human rights must come to occupy in the new Europe.
3 The Current Situation
The Treaty of Amsterdam marked a significant step forward when it affirmed that the Union ‘… shall respect fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention [on Human Rights] … and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, as general principles of Community law’.19 But it still remains for these solemn words to be matched by the same institutional, legislative and administrative follow-up which characterizes other areas. The failure to take adequate measures is particularly striking since the very same Treaty Article provides that ‘[t]he Union shall provide itself with the means necessary to attain its objectives and carry through its policies’.20
Before examining what needs to be done, it is essential to understand the broader historical context within which these commitments were made in Amsterdam. Until the Treaty of European Union, signed at Maastricht in 1992, neither fundamental rights nor the concept of European citizenship had been recognized in the various Community treaties. Nevertheless, even before Maastricht, the Union did not come to the field of human rights with a blank sheet.
Despite the absence of any reference in the original constituent Treaties to the protection of fundamental human rights, the European Court of Justice began in the late 1960s to affirm that respect for such rights was part of the legal heritage of the Community. Measures incompatible with fundamental human rights were deemed to be unacceptable and judicial protection of those rights took root in the Community legal order.21
In essence, this initial step was an example of negative integration. Whereas positive integration requires that affirmative steps be taken to expedite the achievement of specified goals, negative integration confines itself to a prohibition of violations of the principle in question. But in this respect, the starting point was no different to that which was used in relation to foundational developments in other fields of Community life. It is instructive to take as an example the centrepiece of the Community, the creation of a Single Market through the establishment of the four fundamental economic freedoms: free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. There, too, the first step was the creation of an obligation of non-violation; a ban on measures which would compromise the key principles. And again the Court of Justice played an important role in interpreting these interdictions as legally enforceable duties. It is this approach which scholars have characterized as negative integration.22
In these other fields it was not long before it became widely accepted that negative integration was insufficient to attain the agreed goals. It needed to be matched and complemented by positive integration. The result was the adoption of specific policies in the various economic fields designed to ensure that the common market place would become more than a series of legal prohibitions. It seemed self-evident that courts alone could not ensure the full attainment of the four fundamental economic freedoms. The political institutions had to play their role too. A wide range of major political initiatives followed.
In stark contrast, the move from negative to positive integration in the field of human rights has been far more problematic. Already in 1977 the political institutions of the Community jointly affirmed their support for the basic legal principle of non-violation contained in the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice.23 But in retrospect, it is now clear that what should have been no more than an initial political step has become a powerful presumption that Community political activity in the field of human rights should be largely confined to negative prohibitions rather than positive initiatives. Thus on the one hand, starting with the Single European Act of 1986, the commitment to respect for fundamental human rights has found an increasingly important place, with ever more ringing rhetoric, in the Treaties. On the other hand, however, attempts in the field of human rights to match the legal prohibition on violation with positive measures and a pro-active human rights policy have met with varying degrees of success and on some occasions with resistance and hostility, principally from various Member States.
A few examples are sufficient to illustrate this inconsistency. In 1978 the Commission proposed to begin a process which would lead to the European Community’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights.24 The proposal was important not only for its symbolism, but also for a series of practical reasons. In particular, it would have sent the message that Community measures were subject to the obligations contained in the Convention and that if Community institutions, including the Court of Justice, were not vigilant, there would be a prospect of being found to be in violation by the Court in Strasbourg. The relevant provisions of the European Convention (especially the requirement ‘to secure’ the relevant rights, as Article 1 puts it) have long been interpreted as imposing both negative and positive obligations. But the proposal to accede was not taken up by the Council and the Member States. Attempts to revive the initiative more than a decade later also failed.25 The result is that the Treaty rhetoric affirms the normative commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights, but this commitment is not matched by political practice.
There are, nevertheless, some important instances within Community law in which the need for human rights measures to go beyond the principle of non-violation has been understood. An inventory of Community activity in the field of human rights would not be negligible. In some cases such activity derives from specific legal bases to be found in the Treaty, where human rights and the objectives of creating a common or single market happen to coincide, at least in part. Such has been the case, for example, in the area of gender discrimination, where Community policies, though far from perfect, have made important contributions and have afforded a degree of protection going well beyond that which was available at the time within the Member States. But, as important as such examples are, they also serve to highlight the fact that in other areas of social policy there has been far less affirmative human rights policy, and in some cases almost none.
In the external relations field, on the other hand, an early emphasis upon linking human rights to sanctions, such as the suspension of aid or trade preferences, has been definitively replaced by a more pro-active emphasis on promoting the development of democratic institutions, strengthening the rule of law, working through civil society, and both encouraging and funding specific human rights initiatives.