Text Box: The Council of Europe and the European Union

The Council of Europe and the European Union

Key points

·         The 47-member Council of Europe and the 27-member European Union (EU) are separate organisations which perform different, yet complementary, roles.

·         The core function of the Council of Europe is to uphold key European values – namely human rights, democracy and the rule of law. These same values also help to shape the EU’s deeper political and economic integration processes.

·         The two organisations work together in many different areas, and this cooperation has intensified since the adoption of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.

·         The EU is now committed to signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights, which means that the EU itself will be soon bound by the same human rights standards which already apply to 47 of the 48 countries[1] in Europe.

·         The EU is also considering signing up to a number of other Council of Europe agreements – on issues including corruption, domestic violence and human trafficking – many of which are open to partners around the world.

Summary

The Council of Europe and the European Union share the same fundamental values – human rights, democracy and the rule of law – but are separate organisations that perform different, yet complementary, roles.

Focusing on those core values, the Council of Europe brings together governments from across Europe, and sometimes beyond, to agree minimum standards in a wide range of areas. The Council of Europe then monitors how well countries apply the standards that they have chosen to sign up to. It also provides technical assistance, often working together with the EU, to help them do so.

The EU refers to those same European values as a key element of its deeper political and economic integration processes. It often builds upon Council of Europe standards when drawing up laws and agreements which apply to its 27 member states (all of which are also members of the Council of Europe). Furthermore, the EU regularly refers to Council of Europe standards and monitoring work in its dealings with its neighbouring countries – many of which are Council of Europe member states.

The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force in 2009, increased the scope for EU action in many areas where the Council of Europe has significant experience and expertise. This has led to increased cooperation on issues such as fighting human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children and violence against women. It has also opened the door to the EU itself signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as other Council of Europe agreements.

Questions and Answers

All 27 EU member states are also members of the Council of Europe, and the two organisations work on many similar issues. Is this not simply duplication?

The Council of Europe and the EU have very different aims, priorities and working methods. The scope of the work that they do is also very different, both thematically and geographically, as is the legal basis of their work.

The Council of Europe is an inter-governmental organisation which focuses on promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It has 47 member states, including Russia, Turkey and a number of “micro-states” such as Andorra and San Marino. Belarus is the only country in Europe which is not currently a member.

Based on its core values, the Council of Europe brings countries together on an equal basis to agree certain standards, which often take the form of legally-binding treaties, or conventions. There are now over 200 such conventions, on issues ranging from the mutual recognition of qualifications to fighting terrorism and, most recently, counterfeit medicines.

Different bodies, including the European Court of Human Rights, monitor how well member states implement the standards that they choose to sign up to. However, most Council of Europe conventions are not obligatory. Member states can choose whether they sign up to them or not, and many are also open to non-members, including the EU. The Council of Europe and its monitoring bodies tend to implement these standards by applying political peer-pressure rather than imposing sanctions.

The EU, on the other hand, fosters deeper political and economic integration. The EU’s 27 member states – all of which are also members of the Council of Europe – have therefore transferred decision-making powers in certain policy areas to “supranational” institutions including the EU Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament. EU countries are obliged to follow EU law, which is implemented by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

One important difference is that Council of Europe standards, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, apply to all policy areas in the signatory countries. EU law, however, only applies to those specific policy areas in which the EU member states have agreed to transfer decision-making powers to the EU institutions.

Some say that the Council of Europe is simply a stepping stone for countries which want to join the EU. Is that true?

Many countries have become members of the Council of Europe before going on to join the EU – notably several countries from Central and Eastern Europe, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also countries such as the United Kingdom. Furthermore, signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights is now a pre-condition for EU membership. However, aspiring to join the EU is not a condition of Council of Europe membership and it is unclear whether many Council of Europe members – such as Russia, Switzerland or Norway, for example – will ever do so.

What does cooperation between the Council of Europe and the European Union mean in practical terms?

Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU now has decision-making powers in a number of areas where the Council of Europe is also active. These include issues such as fighting human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children and violence against women. The EU also works on other issues of common interest such as cybercrime, data protection and promoting integrity in sport.

In many of these areas, EU agreements can build upon and further strengthen the standards which have been established across the continent – and sometimes beyond – by the Council of Europe. EU and Council of Europe staff regularly consult each other to avoid duplication and ensure that the Council of Europe’s experience and expertise on these issues can be put to good use by the EU.

The EU also makes use of information provided by the Council of Europe’s monitoring mechanisms to help shape its foreign policy, including in the context of EU enlargement. Furthermore, a wide range of joint projects combine the Council of Europe’s expertise with the EU’s political and financial support to help promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law beyond the EU’s borders.

Why should the EU sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights? It already has its own Charter of Fundamental Rights.

All 27 EU member states are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, which means that their laws and practices have to respect agreed human rights standards. However, the EU itself is not bound by the convention. As the decision-making powers of the EU have grown steadily over the years, this means that more and more decisions and actions are falling outside the scope of the convention and cannot be challenged by individual citizens in the way that national authorities can.

At the same time, the EU has developed its own Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is overseen by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Although the Charter of Fundamental Rights only applies to policy areas which fall within the competence of the EU, and the courts in Strasbourg and Luxembourg follow each other’s work very closely, it is important to formally link the two structures in order to maintain a comprehensive and coherent system of human rights protection in Europe.

Will the EU eventually become a full member of the Council of Europe?

This remains to be seen. However, a recent report from the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly urged the EU to sign up to many different Council of Europe mechanisms and also to consider adhering to the Council of Europe’s statute.

Further information:

For further details please see our dedicated web page or contact:

Andrew Cutting, Communication Officer, Council of Europe office in Brussels

Tel. + 32 (0)2 235 05 09; Mobile +32 (0)485 217 202; E-mail andrew.cutting@coe.int,

Twitter @CoEinBrussels



[1] Belarus is a member of neither the EU nor the Council of Europe and is therefore not bound by the ECHR.