The European Union
Initially of a purely economic nature, European integration began with the European Coal and Steel Community. Since then, European integration has increased, from the Treaty of Rome in 1957 to the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. The latter treaty was ratified after the failure to pass the Treaty Establishing a Constitution in 2005, which was rejected by France and the Netherlands. The European Union now encompasses economic and monetary policy (with the adoption of the Euro in 1999) as well as foreign policy and collective security. Today, it has 27 Member States.
There are three principal institutions of the European Union.
The European Commission
The European Commission is composed of 27 Commissioners, each of whom is assigned certain responsibilities. The Commission is elected by the Parliament after appointment by the Council and a hearing in front of the Committees of the European Parliament. Its President was recently reelected for another five years. The Commission, which has an administration made up of European civil servants, is responsible for the respect and execution of the Treaty as well as of the budget. It alone has the power to propose new laws. A Commissioner is responsible for human rights.
The Council of Ministers
The Council of Ministers for General Affairs and the European Council (a Council reserved for Heads of State and of Government that drives priorities at the highest level and meets twice every six months) are presided over by a President of the Council elected for two and a half years. The Councils of Specialized Ministers, such as the Council of Ministers of Agriculture or Transportation, are presided over by the Ministers of the Rotating Presidency of the Council (which changes every six months). The driving force of foreign policy and security of the Union is the Council of Foreign Affairs, presided over by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who is also Vice President of the Commission.
The services of the High Representative (the new European External Action Service) include a Human Rights Administration. This administration is charged with following the implementation of the human rights strategy of the Council in international instances (notably during meetings of the United Nations Human Rights Council), and at the occasions of regular dialogues with certain non-member states such as China, India, or Russia or in the context of Structured Dialogues. In cooperation with the Commission and the European Parliament, the Council adopted a number of guidelines intended to clarify the action of the European Union in areas like the fight against torture or the abolition of the death penalty.
The European Parliament
The European Parliament is directly elected for five years by universal suffrage, and has been since 1979 (in contrast with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe). Today it includes 736 members. It counts seven political groups among its members: the European Popular Party, the Socialist Party, the Liberal Conservative Party, the Green Party, Europe of Freedom and Democracy, and independents. Its president is elected for one term of two and a half years. The European Parliament has progressively gained nearly all of the powers of a real parliament.
With the Council, it decides the budget (but does not have the power to generate revenue), co-decides legislation in most cases, and has the power to nominate members of the Commission, the President of the European Central Bank, the European Ombudsman, etc—not to mention having ample Tribunician power. In matters of human rights, the European Parliament follows the situation internally and externally through its committee on freedoms and interior affairs as well as its subcommittee on human rights and its committee on foreign affairs. Each year the Parliament adopts a report on the situation of human rights in the European Union and a report on the situation of human rights in the world. It also awards the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Human Rights.
Among the institutions or internal or external bodies that also address human rights are:
The Court of Justice of the European Union is composed of 27 judges and 8 general lawyers. It may be called upon to adjudicate the application of human rights, in particular the application of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. In order to avoid any differences in interpretation of the European Convention of Human Rights between the two Courts of Luxembourg and Strasbourg, the European Union, endowed with a legal status, should adhere to the European Convention of Human Rights, which in large part inspired the Charter. Mechanisms of cooperation between the two Courts are being studied.
The European Agency for Fundamental Rights, established in Vienna, Austria, is above all a consultative research body whose goal is to analyze, as objectively as possible, the situation of certain human rights and to propose means of preventing and sanctioning violations. The Agency’s reports are part of a multi-year plan fixed by the Commission. The Agency can also be called on to respond to specific requests of the Commission or the European Parliament. NGO’s, including FIACAT, are associated with the work of the Agency, in particular at the occasion of the annual meeting on the platform of NGO’s.
The Human Rights Committee (COHOM), composed of representatives of the 27 Member States, prepares the position of the Council on matters of human rights that touch upon the external strategy of the Union in this domain. Today, it has a long-lasting presidency (two and a half years) and comes together more frequently than in the past.