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Viviane Reding on the harmonisation and development of the EU's justice systems

scalesViviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, and EU Justice Commissioner, gave a keynote speech titled  'Justice past, justice present and justice future – three messages to the European Council.'

The speech was delivered at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels on 20 June 2014.

 Reding's main points were:

  • My call to national leaders at the European Council next week: Don't discuss only about 'people' (and the jobs they should get) but also focus on policies for people.
  • The Lisbon Treaty was a game-changer for EU justice policy: no more deals done by national governments by behind closed doors; law-making in this policy area has thus become a lot more democratic and transparent.
  • The 2010s justice policy developments were comparable to the developments in the Internal Market in the 1990s. Over the past four years through over 60 initiatives, we have laid the building blocks of a true European area of freedom, justice and security at the service of citizens.
  • Justice policy used to be a rather isolated area, often perceived as "a playground for lawyers". Today, justice has become an instrument to boost economic growth and employment.
  • Justice policy used to be held hostage to security concerns, consisting mostly of knee-jerk reactions to the latest scare that left no room for the needs and concerns of citizens. We have changed that by putting citizens first.
  • EU Justice Policy in future needs strategic priorities to tackle challenges. I see three tasks: to build more trust, promote mobility and contribute to economic growth.
  • The new rule of law framework is now in place and operational. Respect for the rule of law is the prerequisite for the protection of all fundamental rights. Fundamental rights would be an empty shell without the rule of law.
  • EU citizens' right to free movement is not up for negotiation. The four freedoms – people, goods, services and capital – go together. No one has a right to pick and choose
  • By 2020, a true European area of Justice should exist. Citizens and businesses deserve nothing less.

The transcript follows:

"Ladies and Gentlemen,

This is a decisive moment for Europe. The far-reaching reforms we started to implement during the crisis are starting to bear fruit. Economic recovery is gradually taking hold. And Europe's citizens have made their voices heard about where our Union should go from here. The Members of the European Parliament they elected nearly a month ago, now bear the responsibility, alongside the European Commission and national governments, of following through on their electoral promises and moving Europe forward.

We will have to outline what reforms are needed to make our continent more competitive, to secure long term growth and create jobs. And above all, we will have to keep building a strong, united Europe which allows citizens to feel confident and secure, which protects their rights at all times and which preserves and defends our shared values, both against threats from within and in the global arena.

The European Council in a week's time will be an excellent opportunity for Heads of State and Government to show that they mean business. They will set out the future course of EU justice policy.I am aware that European Council discussions will be very much dominated by decisions on 'people' (and the jobs they should get). My call to national leaders would be, however, to also focus on policies for people. Completing a true European area of Justice is crucial if we are to achieve our twin objectives of making our economies fit for the global race and continuing to build a Europe tailored for citizens.

I am here today to outline my vision of the future of EU justice policy. To do that, I will first look at the profound changes and achievements this policy area has seen in the past five years – as we have connected it to other policy areas and placed justice at the service of citizens and businesses (Part 1). And second, I will set a challenge for Member States. I will argue that if they are serious about boosting competitiveness and putting citizens first, there are three main principles they should promote in taking EU justice policy forward (Part 2).

Part 1 – From people to policies – putting justice at the service of citizens and businesses

To recall why EU justice policy is an essential part of the work we have ahead of us, let us look at the journey it has taken over the past years. And what a journey it has been! For a long time, policy in this area was mostly made by national governments behind closed doors. Not anymore. The Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in December 2009, was a game changer: Now the European Parliament takes decisions jointly with the Member States on justice policy tabled by the Commission; law-making in this policy area has thus become a lot more democratic and transparent.

It was only with the start of the current European Commission that a true justice portfolio was created. I was thus very privileged to be the first ever EU Justice Commissioner, charged with developing a European justice policy firmly anchored in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Through over 60 initiatives, we have laid the building blocks of a true European area of freedom, justice and security at the service of citizens – one of the Union's central objectives, set out in the Lisbon Treaty. The 2010s justice policy developments were comparable to the developments in the Internal Market in the 1990s.

Yet it was not only the decision-making process that took a great leap forward. We also shifted the focus of justice policy to those who rely on it: citizens and businesses. Justice policy used to be a rather isolated area, often perceived as something that was done by experts for experts or as "a playground for lawyers". It has now become a set of legislative initiatives that serves citizens and companies, helping them to take full advantage of the Single Market. Justice has become an instrument to boost economic growth and employment.

We also reoriented justice policy in another important way. It used to be held hostage to security concerns, consisting mostly of knee-jerk reactions to the latest scare that left no room for the needs and concerns of citizens. The rights of citizens played second or third fiddle. We have changed that by making sure that the rights of citizens play the first fiddle. The pendulum has begun to swing back the other way, with justice coming first and not just as an afterthought – like for example with the European Arrest Warrant.

Europe's people are now at the heart of our policies. Their experiences and their struggles, as well as their courage and persistence, have informed and inspired many of our initiatives. Let me give you three examples:

First, take for example Max Schrems, an Austrian student who is locked in a David against Goliath fight: For years he has been wrestling with Facebook to win back control over his data.

The European Commission is lending a helping hand through a modernisation of the EU's data protection reform. We want to put citizens in control of their data by updating their rights and empowering them so they can trust in new digital services. This is one of the main objectives of the reform of the EU's data protection rules I put on the table two and a half years ago – long before Edward Snowden's revelations about mass spying made data protection fashionable. Explicit consent, the right to be forgotten, the right to data portability and the right to be informed of personal data breaches are important elements. They will help close the growing rift between citizens and the companies with which they share their data, willingly or otherwise. And if conflicts arise such as that between Max Schrems and Facebook, citizens will be able to turn to the data protection authority in their own country. At the moment, Mr Schrems has to keep travelling to Ireland as that is where Facebook's European headquarters is located.

Citizens will also benefit from a new provision that ensures all companies offering their products and services in our Single Market play by our rules – even if they are based outside Europe. This puts all companies on an equal footing. Data protection authorities will be equipped with stronger powers to bite, not just bark. For firms that break the rules, the reform foresees sanctions of up to 2% of global annual turnover.

At the same time, the reform will also make life a lot easier for businesses, which will only have to observe one law in all 28 Member States, rather than trying to find their way through the jungle of different national rules they are faced with today. Our reform is therefore a real market opener: it will cut red tape and help companies, especially smaller ones, to conquer new markets. The data protection regulation we proposed thus not only serves citizens, but is also an essential part of getting Europe growing again and making the digital single market work.

The second example of a brave human being inspiring EU justice policy is Maggie Hughes, a British national. Her son Robbie, a footballer, was attacked and badly injured while on holiday in the Mediterranean. She campaigned tirelessly for stronger rights for victims, - not for herself but for all victims and their families so they would not have to go through the same ordeal as Maggie and her son. She had no one to turn to in a foreign country, and had no way to communicate with the medical and justice services.

Maggie's story led to what I call today "the Maggie Hughes Act": legislation to strengthen victims' rights. Of course we cannot reverse victims’ suffering or restore what they have lost. But we are making sure they are treated with respect and receive support in all EU Member States. Victims must never be victimised anew just because the judicial system does not treat them with the respect they deserve. Together with the European Parliament and Member States, we put a law in place that establishes minimum standards for victims and ensures that citizens can rely on a similar level of basic rights wherever they are in our Union. The new rules include provisions to ensure that victims obtain information on their rights and their case in a way they understand, and that victims are protectedduring police investigations of the crime and court proceedings.

My third example of a remarkable campaigner for rights is Harry Shindler. A British veteran of World War Two, Mr Shindler fought for his country during the liberation of Rome. He returned to Italy, and this caused him big trouble: Because he has now been living in Italy for more than 15 years, he has lost his right to vote in national elections in the United Kingdom. He has lost his 'voice' in the nation for which he fought. And he is not alone: there are many EU citizens who are disenfranchised simply because they used their right to move to another EU Member State. And they turned to the European Commission asking for help.

We listened – and acted. We asked the five countries that take away voting rights after a certain period of time spent abroad (Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Malta and the United Kingdom)to show greater flexibility.

We invited them to enable their nationals who make use of their free movement rights to retain their right to vote in national elections - if they demonstrate acontinuing interest in the political life of their country. These citizens should have the option of applying to remain on the electoral roll and should be informed about the conditions for retaining their right to vote in national elections.

This is about empowering EU citizens who feel strongly about their country and making sure they are not automatically denied the fundamental democratic right of voting. And it is about making sure citizens do not lose one right because they exercise another.

There are of course many more individuals who inspire initiatives in the justice area. Think of all the courageous men and women who set up businesses. This is a risky endeavour, especially when the economy is going through turbulences as it has been doing, and sometimes they get into serious financial difficulties and fail. But honest businessmen and women deserve a second chance. We have therefore proposed a modernised law for cross-border insolvencies that will go some way towards establishing the "rescue and recovery" culture that we need in Europe. And this will help many: 600 companies go bust every day in Europe, 1.7 million jobs are lost due to insolvencies every year.

The new rules, which should be adopted by the end of the year, will make it easier to restructure a business in a cross-border context which means that more businesses will be saved from liquidation. This will preserve jobs and help foster entrepreneurship in Europe. Creditors will also benefit because they will have a better chance of getting their money back if the business continues to operate.

To further encourage a shift away from liquidation towards restructuring, the Commission has set out a series of common principles for national insolvency procedures for businesses in financial difficulties. These will, for example, allow for restructuring without the need to open formal court proceedings. Business failures are a fact of life in any economy, but smart insolvency rules are an excellent example of how justice policy can contribute to growth and job creation.

On an even larger scale, we have been defending citizens' rights by fighting to preserve the core values our Union is founded on. While all attention was focused on the economic crisis, some governments in the EU attempted to chip away at some of the very foundations on which our Union is built. They tried to use their prerogatives to limit the independence of courts and media or the conduct of elections. As a consequence, we were confronted with several real "rule of law" crises. In all these cases, the Commission intervened, partly with strong words, sometimes with letters, and sometimes with Treaty infringement proceedings. We always acted on the basis of the competences given to us by the Treaties and secondary EU legislation adopted under the Treaties

Resolving these crises took effort and determination. But as core European principles were at stake these were fights worth fighting. We have always defended the fundamental rights and equality of all EU citizens. Because values, just like basic principles such as the rule of law, are non-negotiable.

Part 2 – Building on our achievements – how to consolidate our EU system of justice

As these examples illustrate – and I have only named a few – justice policy in our Union has taken great strides forward. Yet the work is by no means finished. The legislation agreed now needs to be implemented, and new challenges will no doubt arise that will have to be tackled.

Some are already visible, and we need a smart, coherent approach to deal with them. That is why the Commission has set out strategic priorities, moving away from the old way where Member States simply drew up long shopping lists of measures to be ticked off one by one. Four years after the Lisbon Treaty, the way decisions in the justice area are taken has changed. Justice policy has matured. And so too, the justice programme for the future needs to change.

EU Justice Policy in future needs strategic priorities to tackle challenges. I see three tasks: to build more trust, promote mobility and contribute to economic growth. Let me outline what that means:

Trust– Trust is the foundation on which EU justice policy resides. Trust is not made by decree. It needs constant work. The EU has made good progress in building and promoting mutual trust. But more needs to be done: Trust has to be further strengthened to ensure that citizens, legal practitioners and judges within the Union are fully confident in judicial decisions irrespective of the Member State where they have been taken. To date, we have already succeeded in training over 130 000 legal practitioners in EU law – a figure that should rise to 700 000 by 2020. This is the best investment that Europe can make to foster mutual trust in national legal systems and sound knowledge of EU law.

Mobility – European citizens and businesses are increasingly taking advantage of their rights under EU law, but they still come across obstacles. Despite significant progress, EU citizens still experience practical and legal difficulties when trying to make use of their rights. They rightly demand further efforts to remove barriers. Where citizens move for legitimate reasons such as in order to take up work – as is the case for the vast majority – the EU should help.

GrowthEU justice policy should continue to contribute to economic recovery and our joint efforts to tackle unemployment. Structural reforms need to be pursued to ensure that justice systems are capable of delivering swift, reliable and trustworthy justice, thereby supporting the effectiveness of other EU policies.

This is what the Commission has put on the table. A sound, solid approach for the years ahead. At next week's European Council, Heads of State and Government will have the chance to give this approach a push. To do this, there are three principles they should endorse.

First, justice policy needs to be even more strongly anchored as a mainstream policy firmly linked with others. A large part of justice policy is growth policy. It should be treated accordingly and remain a key part of the EU's efforts to secure long-term economic growth.

Justice policy doesn't belong in some 'experts' corner'. On the contrary, justice policy has close, organic links with a number of other policy areas. The economic crisis, for all the pain and hardship it has caused, has helped to make this clear to many. As a consequence, we have established justice policy at the heart of the EU's growth and jobs agenda, as a natural part of the economic reform project we have embarked on.

That is why, today, the effectiveness of national justice systems has its place in economic reform programmes Member States in financial difficulties have to pursue; it also has its place in the European Semester, the yearly cycle of economic policy coordination. Businesses depend on predictable, timely and enforceable justice decisions. Investors' money will only flow if they trust in the quality, independence and efficiency of a country's justice system.

How long does it take to resolve a litigation case? How high is the clearance rate, is the court system clogged up with a myriad of cases? These are important issues Member States need to bear in mind when drawing up reform programmes. This is not about promoting a particular justice system, but about allowing justice policy to boost business activity and job creation. The Commission is there to assist, to shine a light on the way justice systems function and to show how they can be improved.

Besides the European Semester, there are a number of legislative acts and initiatives aimed at boosting growth. They cut red tape, open markets and stimulate economic activity – touching a large number of sectors and intersecting with other policy areas: Our reform of the data protection rules for example will help to complete the digital single market. New rules on counterfeiting of the Euro and other currencies or on criminal sanctions for insider trading contribute to preserving the integrity of financial markets. And the proposed European Public Prosecutor's Office will protect the EU budget against fraud.

Effective justice policy supports business activity and is therefore an integral part of the efforts needed to make the EU more competitive and create the basis for long-term growth and job creation. That is why its role as an interconnected growth policy needs to be strengthened further.

Second, justice policy can only act as a motor of growth if our fundamental values and rights are preserved and respected.Justice policy is essential to safeguard these rights.This role needs to be recognised and confirmed.

In this context, the rule of law is crucial. Compliance with this principle is the prerequisite for the protection of all our fundamental values. And it needs to be safeguarded across the Union, since threats to the rule of law in one Member State risk destroying the mutual trust we need between all EU countries and citizens. They need to be confident that fundamental rights will be consistently applied and complied with.

That is why the EU has a strong interest in safeguarding the principle of the rule of law across the Union. And that is why it is especially important that the new rule of law framework is now in place and operational. The crisis events in some Member States demonstrated that respect for fundamental values, and in particular for the rule of law, cannot be taken for granted. We need to protect our values. Each actor at EU level should take its own responsibilities. But we are all collectively responsible for upholding our values. In its role as "Guardian of the Treaties and the EU values", the Commission took its responsibilities very seriously and responded by setting up the new rule of law framework.

The framework is strongly anchored in the Treaty and notably in the Commission's power of issuing a reasoned proposal under Article 7 TEU. It describes how the Commission intends to tackle a new crisis. If a systemic threat to the rule of law emerges in a Member State that cannot be effectively addressed at national level, we will act.

First, we will assess the situation. Then, we will have a dialogue with the Member State. And only if this does not lead to a solution, will Article 7 of the Treaty be activated.

Respect for the rule of law is the prerequisite for the protection of all fundamental rights. Fundamental rights would be an empty shell without the rule of law. We have to protect them. With the rule of law framework, we will be. That is for me perhaps the biggest achievement when looking back at the past four years. It shows that the European Union is more than just an economic Union. It is a Rechtsgemeinschaft – a Community based on the rule of law – as the first Commission President Walter Hallstein said. The rule of law framework is the embodiment of this idea.

Third, citizen needs to be at the heart of justice policy. We need a European area of justice in which they feel secure and confident wherever they are – and in which they can freely exercise their right to free movement.

Europeans are increasingly taking advantage of the benefits the Single Market offers them and the rights conferred on them by the Treaty. They cross borders to live, study, work or start a family. And there are still cases in which citizens experience difficulties when they try to enjoy the same rights they have at home in another Member State. Whether it is about getting redress or defending themselves in a court case, citizens can run into frustrating hurdles that can, in the worst case, deprive them of their rights and deny them justice.

We need to tackle this. Citizens need to feel safe and at ease wherever they are in the EU. They should be able to rely on justice being done in every case, everywhere – whether it is about resolving family disputes or succession issues, the service of documents or procedural rights. In particular, they should know that the authorities and courts in all Member States fully respect and act on the legal decisions, acts and judgments of all other Member States.

As a prerequisite, citizens need to be able to trust that the four freedoms will always be upheld. And this is in particular true of the free movement of persons. This is one of the most important rights people have in the European Union, and it has come under threat. From those who put short-term political gains above a right EU citizens cherish more than any other. From those who put simplistic answers above all the evidence that shows how much economies across our Union profit from the mobility of citizens.

The right of Europeans to move freely and reside and work wherever they want in our Union must be protected, including against possible abuse or fraudulent claims. Abuse must be fought because it weakens free movement. And the principle of free movement must be defended vigorously. I have said it before, and I will say it again: EU citizens' right to free movement is not up for negotiation. All four freedoms – of people, goods, services and capital – go together, no one has a right to pick and choose. All four freedoms enable our economies to grow and give citizens the chance to acquire skills and find work. All four freedoms need to be protected for citizens to feel secure – and to be assured that this Union is not only about markets, but about people and their rights. That it is made for them.

So this is what I am challenging the European Council to do: show that you are truly committed to boost competitiveness and put citizens first by setting the right objectives for EU justice policy. By ensuring that its natural links with other policy areas are further strengthened. By ensuring that it remains a central part of our growth and jobs agenda. By ensuring that it safeguards fundamental rights. And by ensuring that citizens can be confident their right to free movement is preserved.

These elements are crucial to complete the European area of Justice. By 2020, a true European area of Justice should exist. We will need ambition to achieve this, the kind we showed in fighting the economic crisis. Europe's citizens and businesses deserve nothing less."

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