Work on the Charter of Fundamental Rights began in earnest at the start of 2000. At that time the European Union had only 15 member states. It was not until 2004 that the first major enlargement admitted ten new states to the community – including eight Central and Eastern European states which were able to join the Western European nations following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Fundamental values before the enlargement

Common values, the rule of law and human rights – the goal was to lay out the fundamental values of the fast-growing community. It was to be made clear that the EU is more than just an economic community – it is a community of values.

At the start of 2000 the European Convention was called – it was the first convention in the history of the European Union. Until then, changes to the European Treaties had been negotiated by the governments of member states. Now a wider group of stakeholders, including parliamentarians, were to elaborate this fundamental document.

Roman Herzog chaired the Convention

Roman Herzog was appointed Chairman of the Convention. He had served as German Federal President until mid-1999. Now he took on a new role. He was to ensure that the process produced an EU Charter of Fundamental Rights capable of achieving consensus among stakeholders.

It was no easy task. Not because the members of the Convention did not consider fundamental rights to be important, but because there was the possibility that Charter could be part of a European constitution. And that – among many other points – was a very controversial matter for the population of many countries. Should the EU have a constitution? Would that mark a step away from nation states?

List of inalienable rights

A total of 62 individuals were part of the consultations of the Convention, chaired by Roman Herzog. They included representatives of the governments of the 15 EU member states, members of the 15 national parliaments and members of the European Parliament. They worked in smaller groups and in plenary session.

They were to draw up a list of inalienable rights for hundreds of millions of citizens vis à vis the EU. The actions of all EU bodies and institutions would then be measured against the yardstick of these fundamental rights – as would the actions of national authorities when exercising EU law.

Opt-out for Poland

It is difficult to reconcile all national interests. Poland and the United Kingdom, which was still a member of the EU at that time, had the most reservations.

Finally, the two states insisted on an “opt-out”. In Poland, the Charter of Fundamental Rights is still not fully applicable.

Long process until the Charter came into effect

After about nine months of intensive discussions, the Convention produced a draft. 54 articles were submitted to the heads of state and government. They approved the draft, as did the European Parliament.

Then the process got bogged down. Almost ten years were to pass before the Charter of Fundamental Rights became law. In the intervening period, efforts to give the EU a constitution failed, and enlargement massively increased the number of member states. The Charter of Fundamental Rights entered into force in 2009 with the Treaty of Lisbon and from that date represented the fundamental values of the European Union.