Alarm Over Plan for New EU Rights Watchdog

David Rennie, Telegraph (UK), Apr. 5

The European Commission will next month unveil plans for a “Fundamental Rights Agency” to police European Union institutions and national governments for signs of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.

The new rights watchdog, to be based in Vienna, will have a mandate to monitor and “issue opinions” on whether rights enshrined in the proposed new European constitution are being protected.

Assuming the draft constitution is ratified by all 25 member states—an increasingly tough challenge as opposition mounts in France and other countries with imminent referendums on the treaty—Brussels will gain sweeping new powers over justice and security matters.

The prospect of an EU agency, poised to “name and shame” national governments for failing to ensure equal opportunities for a vast array of competing minorities and social groups, has caused alarm in some European capitals, the EU’s senior justice official admitted yesterday.

Franco Frattini, the justice, freedom and security commissioner, said such fears were misplaced. He was in London yesterday for talks with the Government, as Britain prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in July.

Mr Frattini said: “The agency’s aim will not be blaming and shaming a particular member state—on the contrary it will be to stimulate, to persuade and to suggest, if necessary, some changes.”

The new agency, which the commission hopes to form in early 2007, will “collect, record and analyse data” and produce “thematic reports” on racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.

The agency will incorporate an existing EU “Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia” in Vienna. The new, enlarged agency could widen its mandate to analyse such subjects as domestic violence against women, said Mr Frattini, a former Italian foreign minister.

“The agency will not be a tribunal, it will not be a law-making body. It will be an instrument to co-ordinate European policies, and will indicate best solutions,” he said.

Its mandate will be restricted to monitoring EU laws and their implementation by member states.

Britain broadly supports the agency, as long as its advice is “non-binding” and its main focus is “gathering information and advising on good practice”, British officials said. The exact form it will take will be debated by EU justice ministers.

The “Charter of Fundamental Rights” contained in the draft constitution closely follows the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain has been a signatory since 1953.

However, the Conservatives have proposed withdrawing from sections of the convention, arguing that it ties the Government’s hands in deporting illegal immigrants.

Graham Brady, the shadow Europe minister, said the agency might have “worthy aims”, but represented a “wasteful” duplication of the human rights work already undertaken by two non-EU bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

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