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The FRA gets down to work

By Dick Leonard. Source: The European Voice

The EU's fundamental rights agency has made a good start, but needs greater powers, writes Dick Leonard

It took a long campaign by human rights activists, strongly supported by the European Parliament, to secure the establishment of the European Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA). It was set up in Vienna just over a year ago, and has just published its first annual report.

It was only last month, however, that its first director, Morten Kjærum, formerly head of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, took over from the acting director, Constantine Manolopoulos. One of his first actions was to hasten to Brussels, where he gave an upbeat account of the agency's mission to a well-attended meeting of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

The agency replaced the former European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), but has a much wider agenda. This was set out in the Multi-annual Framework, adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs Council in February 2007. It authorized the FRA to work in nine different policy areas, the main one being defined, very broadly, as:

Discrimination based on sex, race or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation and against persons belonging to minorities and any combination of these grounds (multiple discrimination).

The other areas included xenophobia, compensation of victims, the rights of the child, asylum and immigration, visa and border control, democratic participation by EU citizens, respect for privacy and protection of personal data and "access to efficient and independent justice".

However, the agency is not authorized to take up or investigate individual complaints or to exercise regulatory decision-making powers. It is also precluded, according to Mr. Kjærum, from dealing with 'pillar three' issues within Justice and Home Affairs, issues under Article 7 of the Rome treaty (dealing with discrimination between member states) and practices beyond the borders of the European Union.

It may, however, associate candidate members (currently Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia) with its work, and in some cases, countries which have association agreements with the EU.

When EU leaders gave the green light for the creation of the agency, at a summit in December 2003, two fears were expressed by its leading advocates. One was that it would have "no teeth", and that its role would be so narrowly defined that it would have no impact.

That does not seem to have happened, though it is regrettable that the Agency has not been given the right to investigate individual cases. The European Parliament was anxious that it should have this power, and should certainly continue to press the Council of Ministers to reconsider.

The second concern was that it would overlap with the work of the Council of Europe, which has made human rights its core function, and would possibly undermine the effectiveness of the C of E without adding any significant contribution.

Kjærum claims that this has not happened, and that its work is proving complementary rather than competitive with that of the Council. The Council of Europe, he says, does not have the capacity or the budget to do much research. This, however, has been a central activity of the FRA.

It has, he says, a strong analytical capacity, and has already produced several major reports, which has enabled it to give authoritative advice both to the EU and the CoE, with whom it is working in close co-operation.

He cites the agency's recent report on Roma issues, and that on Homophobia in Europe, published on 30 June. The agency planned to produce by next year the biggest survey yet undertaken on victims of racism, and – referring to the CoE's new convention on violence against women – Kjærum expressed the hope that it would undertake a comparable survey in this field.

The agency's influence should increase if and when the Lisbon treaty, which incorporates the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights into EU law, comes into effect.

The FRA's current mandate continues until the end of the Multi-annual Framework in 2012. It may be difficult to persuade member states to amend it before then, but the European Parliament should keep up the pressure to ensure that when the next Framework programme is agreed, for the five-year period beginning in 2013, it is given the extra powers which it needs to play a more effective part in protecting the rights of EU citizens.

Dick Leonard is the author of The Economist Guide to the European Union.