The European Union

February 2013

[English] [français]

Initially, European integration concerned just one sector (the Coal and Steel Community), then from the Treaty of Rome in 1957 to the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 it extended to cover economic and monetary affairs (adoption of the euro in 1999) and a common foreign and security policy, and widened to include now 28 Member States.

One of the EU’s objectives is to promote human rights, both in the Union and in the rest of the world. The EU’s fundamental values are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Since the Lisbon Treaty was signed, all these rights have been enshrined in one document: The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. The European Institutions have a legal obligation to comply with it, as do the Member States, once they implement European Union law.

There are four main European Union Institutions

The way the European Union’s Institutions are organised is unique in the world. Its legislative and executive functions are divided among the European Council, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union.

Setting priorities

The European Council, which brings together the Heads of State or Government of the EU Member States, its President and the President of the Commission, and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, provides the EU’s overall political guidance, but does not have the power to adopt legislation. Its current President is Herman Van Rompuy. It meets at least once every six months, for several days.

Drawing up legislation

Three Institutions are involved in the legislative process:

The European Parliament, made up of Members elected by direct universal suffrage, who represent the people of Europe;

The Council of the European Union, which represents the Member States’ Governments; a system of rotation allows each Member State in turn to hold the Council Presidency;

The European Commission, which represents the interests of the EU as a whole.

These three Institutions together use the “ordinary legislative procedure” (or “codecision”) to draw up policies and laws to be implemented throughout the EU. In principle, the Commission proposes legislation, and its proposals are adopted by Parliament and the Council. Once adopted, the legislation is implemented by the Member States and the Commission, which is responsible for ensuring that it is correctly applied.

The European Institutions and human rights

In cooperation with the Commission and the European Parliament, the Council has adopted a number of guidelines intended to target the EU’s action precisely in such areas as combating torture or abolishing the death penalty.

With regard to human rights, the European Parliament monitors the internal and external situation through the work of its Committee on Civil Liberties and Internal Affairs (LIBE) and its Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) which is attached to the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET).

Every year Parliament adopts a report on the human rights situation in the EU and a report on the human rights situation in the world; it also awards the prestigious Sakharov prize for human rights.

Other EU institutions and bodies playing a key role in human rights

The European External Action Service (EEAS) assists the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, ensuring that the EU’s external action is coordinated and coherent, drawing up proposals for action and implementing them after the Council has approved them. It also assists the President of the European Council and the President and members of the Commission in carrying out their respective functions in the area of foreign relations, and ensures close cooperation with the Member States.

The Court of Justice of the European Union is made up of 28 judges and 9 advocates-general who can be asked to give a ruling on the application of human rights, in particular the application of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) is primarily an advisory research body, which aims to examine, as objectively as possible, the situation of certain human rights and to propose ways of preventing and penalising violations. The Agency reports in the context of a multiannual programme set by the Commission, and can also be asked to respond to specific requests from the Commission or the European Parliament.

The Human Rights Working Group (COHOM), made up of representatives of the 28 Member States, prepares the Council’s position on human rights issues which affect the EU’s external strategy in this field. prepares the Council’s position on human rights issues which affect the EU’s external strategy in this field.

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