By Dick Leonard. Source: European Voice
In a recent meeting in Vienna with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberal and Democrat group (ALDE) in the European Parliament, set out three priority issues on which it hopes that progress will be made during the six-month Austrian presidency.
One of these was to ensure that the small Vienna-Based EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) should become a fully-fledged EU Fundamental Rights Agency. This had been agreed in principle at an EU summit in December 2003, but so far little has been done to bring it about.
Last June the Commission did table a draft Regulation to establish such an agency, but this has been heavily criticised for its minimalist approach, in particular that actions by member states, except when they are directly applying European laws, have been excluded from its remit.
This is still being examined by the lead committee in the European Parliament, the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, but critical reports have already been tabled by two other committees, those on Foreign Affairs and Women's Rights. When the Parliament gives its opinion, probably at the May plenary session, it is likely to propose extensive amendments.
Watson and his colleagues are anxious that the Austrians should back these when the Regulation comes up shortly afterwards in the Council of Ministers. Although they are taking the lead in the European Parliament, and the chairman of the Civil Liberties Committee is a French Liberal, Jean-Marie Cavada, they are confident of solid support from the other mainstream groups in the Parliament, and believe that it will endorse a demand for an agency with real teeth.
The EUMC is the smallest (25 staff) and one of the most recently established specialised agencies of the EU, set up only in 1998. Its main task so far has been in collecting and publicising statistics and other information, as well as issuing a number of reports on specific problems.
One of these, on racialism in sport, drew attention to the presence on websites and official publications of football clubs in several member states of racially provocative remarks, prompting football authorities to take a more active role in combating racism.
The EUMC has not hesitated to criticise member governments for failing to provide information. In its annual report for 2005, it states:
"Whilst there are adequate statistics to enable an overview to be given of trends in racist violence and crime in seven Member States, in many other countries there is shown to be a complete absence of usable data in this area. Only when more Member States start to take the recording of racist incidents more seriously will it be possible to gauge the true extent of the problem, and target adequate measures against it."
Amnesty International has campaigned strongly for the establishment of a really effective Human Rights Agency, and its forceful representative in Brussels, Dick Oosting, has been particularly active in lobbying MEPs. He is dismayed by the evidence that human rights has taken a back seat to anti-terrorism measures since 9/11, and that even the success of these measurers is likely to be undermined if individual rights are seen to be lightly over-ridden.
The situation has been made more serious, he argues, by the collapse of the projected constitutional treaty, following the French and Dutch referenda. This has meant that the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which was intended to be incorporated into the EU constitution, now remains only in the form of a declaration. Furthermore, the planned accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights has been delayed, and perhaps put permanently in doubt.
The EU was very active in monitoring progress on human rights in the ten candidate countries which gained full membership in 2004, and is continuing its close scrutiny in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as in the three other countries, currently recognized as candidates, Turkey, Croatia and Macedonia.
Nobody doubts that such scrutiny has had a highly beneficial effect. Yet if it is to come abruptly to an end, through the exclusion of Member State activities from the projected agency, there would clearly be a risk of back-sliding.
Graham Watson is clear that the new agency should not be given judicial or quasi-judicial, powers, but it must, he said, be given the right to investigate alleged human rights abuses, with the possibility of drawing them to the attention of the Commission or the Court of Justice.
The member states of the Union have already accepted that there should be a European human rights agency. It is now up to them to accept, hopefully following a strong lead from the Austrian presidency, that it should be effective and not a sham.
Dick Leonard is author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.