Conference “Fundamental rights in the EU in view of the Accession of the Union to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”

Madrid , 

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Two very important events with direct and far-reaching implications for the protection of human rights in Europe have taken place in the past two months. On 1 December last year, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force. And only a few days ago, the Russian Parliament ratified Protocol 14 to the European Convention on Human Rights.

These two legal instruments have been adopted in the framework of two different organisations for very different purposes, but they have one very important thing in common – they both provide for the accession of the European Union to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The accession – and I use my words advisedly – will be an event of historic importance, not only for the Council of Europe - which is the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights - and the European Union, but first and foremost for European citizens.

We now have a unique opportunity to create a continent-wide area of human rights, in which 47 governments and the institutions of the European union will be bound by the same set of human rights standards and scrutinised by the same human rights court.

By accepting to submit the actions and decisions of its institutions to the same external judicial scrutiny which applies to all member States, the European Union is sending a very powerful message to all European citizens– that just like its member States, it is not "above the law" as far as human rights are concerned, and that individual citizens will be able to bring a complaint about the violation of the European Convention on Human Rights by the European Union before the European Court of Human Rights. And that citizens will enjoy the same protection vis-à-vis the acts of the European Union as they enjoy with respect to acts of any member State.

The future accession will not only open new perspectives for the European Court of Human Rights. It will also bring greater clarity in the relations between the Council of Europe and the European Union and open possibilities for more and better co-operation.

The Memorandum of Understanding which the two organisations concluded in 2007, recognised the role of the Council of Europe as the benchmark and the reference source with respect to human rights in Europe. It stressed that co-operation should build on comparative advantages and on the respective competences. The accession of the European Union to the Convention will be a great boost to the Memorandum's significance and potential.

After years of hopes and detours, legal and political ups and downs, the moment of EU accession to the Convention is finally becoming a reality. With the Lisbon Treaty and Protocol 14, this is no longer the question of "if" it is only a question of "when". The accession will be demanding and will require a good deal of effort. But where there is a will there is a way. The decisions have already been taken, now it is up to us, the politicians to show the necessary political leadership in setting the right course, and for the lawyers to draw up the details.

In this respect, I am very encouraged by the determination of President Barroso of the European Commission. He was the first European leader I met when I took up my office in October last year, and his message was unequivocal; the European Union should accede to the Convention at the earliest opportunity.

I also very much appreciate the importance attached to the accession by the Spanish EU Chairmanship. This is why
I responded positively to the invitation to come to Madrid today. I believe that it is important to demonstrate that we, the EU, the Council of Europe and all our member States have a common objective, interest and priority to consolidate the protection of human rights in Europe.

The message expressed in the Stockholm Programme adopted by the European Council last December is equally clear: the programme refers to the "key importance" of the rapid accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Council invites the Commission among other things, to "submit a proposal on the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights as a matter of urgency".

In these new exciting circumstances, it is time for us to take up the challenge and make sure that these declarations of intent are transformed into action. I know that preparations are underway in Brussels and preparatory discussions are taking place in the Council of Europe.

I know that there will be problems. A process of such political and legal significance is bound to run into some complications. But we need to be determined, we need to have a broad outlook and a positive and creative approach in order to find the most effective solutions to the technical and legal questions raised by the accession.

Today, we are facing not only a historic opportunity, but also a historic obligation to bring the entire continent under the same set of human rights standards. What is emerging is a Europe in which, when it comes to the most fundamental values, there are no dividing lines. I, for one, feel privileged and honoured to be able to contribute to a development of such extraordinary importance for human rights in Europe.