On May 4th, a public hearing on “Fighting against discrimination of EU citizens in the EU Member States and
protection of minorities” was held in the Committee on Petitions, in which the representatives of Soteria International participated in order to remain up to date with latest findings on discrimination and minority rights. The hearing addressed numerous petitioner allegations of discrimination in the EU, and fundamental rights violations, particularly of Article 21 of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights. The debated topics included equality and non-discrimination, as defined under EU law and jurisprudence, the protection of minorities (in particular in the field of education), the recognition of LGBT family rights, loss of EU citizenship, and discrimination based on minority languages.
The President of the Committee on Petitions (PETI), Ms. Cecilie Wikström, opened the event by stating that the committee receives many petitions every year on alleged abuses of citizen’s rights to equality and non-discrimination, as stated in the charter. Ms. Wikström emphasized that Article 21 states the principle of equality before the law, and there within is the principle of non-discrimination. She stated that discrimination occurs due to historical and political factors dating back to World War II and that the protection of national minorities is particularly interesting as it is one of the values of the EU, the reason for which these rights exist. Although, the EU has little competence in the actual matter, as the EU regularly points out to petitions on these issues, Ms. Wikström was optimistic that we could find new solutions to fighting discrimination.
Among other speakers present, Mr. Szabolcs Schmidt, the Head of Unit, Director General of Justice D.1 and on behalf of Commissioner on Justice and Gender Equality, stated that Europe has very different cultural habits and legal systems but has a core of principles based in human rights, equality, and freedom. He stated that although there is a lack of data on equality, including a large margin of under-reporting, studies show that only 25% of individuals in the EU are aware of anti-discrimination legislation, and 82% did not report discrimination.
A point was raised that 50% of petitions are dragged out over years, take up resources, and at the end must tell people that we can’t help them so it's good to get an honest answer at the beginning rather than at the end and that the committee should give them options as to where they can get help if the EU cannot be of service
Ms. Chiara Favilli and Ms. Nicole Lazzerini, professors and researchers from the University of Florence, presented the findings of a study they had conducted on Petitions in the EU, "Discrimination(s) as emerging from petitions received.” They stated that the EU Legal Framework pertaining to discrimination is very rigid, and they emphasized that citizens should receive help in understanding the rule of law, prior to any issue rather than after the fact. Thus, the EU institutions and PETI committee must provide as much information as possible in the citizens portal and inform citizens on the scope of the European Union in such matters and what falls under member state competence. The solution proposed by Ms. Favilli & Ms. Lazzerini was to create a checklist of points, in chronological order, which would reduce the margin of error. They also presented a new public website, which offers information about proper implementation of the charter. This resource is freely accessible to citizens, describes why the EU turns certain petitions down, provides information that is easily understandable, and details other instruments that are available to citizens experiencing issues.
The researchers emphasized that “we don’t need to re-invent the wheel and create things,” because there's plenty of information available. Information must be cherry picked and coordinate in order to provide information for the petitions portal in order to help citizens understand the sources of law, to inform citizens of what the EU can do, and what falls within individual member state competence.
This public hearing can, therefore, be seen as a call to the EU institutions to increase the efficiency of response to petitions made by citizens.