MAASTRICHT. Safeguarding existing catalogues of human rights and fundamental freedoms, that is what article 53 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is about. In short: member states may always provide their inhabitants with more protection in their own constitution than in the EU Charter, but never less. But does the fact that countries are permitted to do so mean that they must do so? And in that case, does national or European law apply in court of law? There has been a lot of discussion on this subject since the introduction of the article. Various law courts have interpreted it differently. European Law School alumnus Matteo Bonelli analysed the article for his master thesis.
“I was already interested in constitutional and fundamental rights law. And I really wanted to do something on the relationship between European and national laws,” says Bonelli. It surprised him that he liked doing the research for his thesis so much. “When I did my bachelor thesis in Italy, things were very different compared to here. In Maastricht it was more challenging, but I also had a better supervisor and a better library at my disposal.”
The hard work did not only provide him with a good thesis - Bonelli scored a 9.5 - but also one of the 2013 Student Prizes for the best theses, and a new passion: doing research. “I am hoping to return to Maastricht to do research as a PhD candidate. I am now waiting for the results of my NWO application.”
Back to article 53 of the Charter. Bonelli argues for a flexible interpretation. “I don’t think that you can look purely at the theory; you also need to look at the circumstances. Sometimes it is good that not every country has the same system of protection of fundamental rights. It offers member states the possibility of maintaining their own identity within their laws. In other instances, it is awkward, for example when you have a case that plays in different countries.”
Take the Melloni case. This Italian guy was arrested for fraud in Italy. He paid his bail and fled to Spain. That is how he came to be sentenced in his absence to ten years imprisonment. A European warrant for his arrest was posted and he was rearrested in Spain. Italy filed an extradition order. Melloni claimed that extradition was against the law. He referred to an article in the Spanish constitution that says that nobody may be extradited if he has been sentenced in his absence and could not appeal. Which law should you look at? Spanish or Italian? Or - in the framework of uniformity and equality - European law?
Bonelli thinks that in this type of situation the judge could interpret the article in various ways. “When it concerns something that is important for a country’s identity, honours its traditions, then national law should be above European law. If that is not the case, then it is important to maintain European uniformity.”