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Charter of Fundamental Rights

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Introduction

The Charter of Fundamental Rights (CFR) sets out all the civil, political, economic and social rights of EU citizens, as well as all other persons living in the EU. The CFR became legally binding for all member states in 2009. Poland and Britain secured opt-outs so the new legal obligations would not undermine their national sovereignty. However, other governments, including those of France, Germany and the Netherlands, welcomed the charter and were keen to give it legal force.

How does the Charter of Fundamental Rights work?

The purpose of the CFR is set out in its introduction: ‘to strengthen the protection of fundamental rights in the light of changes in society, social progress and scientific and technological developments by making those rights more visible in a Charter’. The CFR is divided into six sections: Dignity, Freedoms, Equality, Solidarity, Citizens’ Rights and Justice.

Each of the CFR’s 54 articles, which set out individuals’ rights and freedoms, is taken from previous rights agreements.  Most of the rights are contained in other documents, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the constitutional traditions of member states, the Council of Europe’s Social Charter and other international conventions.

History

Until the signing of the CFR, the protection of human rights in Europe had been guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), signed by the member countries of the Council of Europe. These rights were protected by the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU institution. All the member states of the EU have signed the ECHR, although the European Union itself was not a member until 2009.

At the European Council in Nice in December 2000, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the heads of state and government of the EU member states proclaimed the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as part of the signing of the Nice Treaty (2001).

Because the Charter of Fundamental Rights was written as an annex to the Treaty of Nice, it was not legally binding; national law courts and the ECJ could consider the CFR in their judgements, but were not bound by its content. However, the Charter was included in the Lisbon Treaty (2007), which made it legally binding for EU member states from December 2009. Along with the Czech Republic and Poland, the UK negotiated the right to opt-out from the Charter, so that it cannot be used to challenge current UK legislation.