Government cautious on EU rights charter


The European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights would become EU law, with a superior status to the Irish Constitution, under a European Commission proposal to the Convention on the Future of Europe.

The Commission's contribution to the convention on November 18th will also call for the Commission President to be elected by the European Parliament, a move which the Government opposes.

The Commission's plans emerged yesterday after an unexpectedly stormy, four-hour meeting between the 20 Commissioners and the Convention's President, Mr Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The proposal to incorporate the Charter of Fundamental Rights into a new EU treaty will alarm conservatives, some of whom claim that it could lead to a liberalisation of laws governing abortion and sexual morality.

The Government approved the charter as a political document when it was drawn up by an earlier European convention in 2000. But Government representatives at the Convention on the Future of Europe have been cautious about moves to make it legally binding.

In a lecture at Louvain university in Belgium last night, Ireland's ambassador to the EU, Ms Anne Anderson, said the issue of including the charter in a new treaty was a sensitive one.

"In Ireland, for example, our citizens look to the Irish Constitution as the source and guarantor of their rights. The European Convention on Human Rights is also a known and cherished text. The concern must be to ensure that the convention work in this area brings genuine added value rather than any increment of confusion," she said.

But Ireland's Commissioner, Mr David Byrne, said it would be possible to incorporate the charter into law in such a way that it would fit comfortably into Ireland's constitutional tradition. He pointed to proposals made by the convention's working group on the charter, which is chaired by the Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner, Mr Antonio Vitorino. "The work done there has, I think, neutralised many of the anxieties expressed by Ireland and other member-states," Mr Byrne said.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights sets out a range of civil, political and social rights enjoyed by the EU's 372 million citizens. It is divided into six chapters: Dignity, Freedom, Solidarity, Equality, Citizenship and Justice, and covers everything from workers' social rights to bioethics and the protection of personal data.

Most of the rights are contained in other documents, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and legislation in member-states, but they have all been brought together in the charter for the first time.

The Commission's support for incorporating the charter into a new EU treaty will put pressure on the Government to soften its attitude. The Minister of State for European Affairs, Mr Dick Roche, sounded a more conciliatory note at the convention last month. But officials say the Government has yet to finalise its position.

Some Commission officials have expressed surprise at the Government's approach to the convention, which they characterise as excessively resistant to change. Mr Byrne did not criticise the Government yesterday but he suggested it was in Ireland's national interest to promote an enhanced role for the Commission. "The Commission is the best guarantor that the interests of the smaller member-states will be taken into account - and not ignored."

The Government opposes moves to allow the European Parliament to choose the Commission President, favouring instead a role for national parliaments.

Mr Giscard was reported to be taken aback by the force of opposition Commissioners expressed yesterday to some of his proposals.