European Union

What is the European Union (EU)?

The EU is an economic and political union of 28 States that are located across Europe. It is based on principles of cooperation and human rights, with a goal of preventing another war in Europe.

As a political entity, it is composed of several institutions exercising legislative, executive and judicial powers. The European Commission is the executive body of the EU and represents the interests of the Union as a whole. It can propose new laws and has to enforce them once adopted. The main decision-making bodies are the Council of the European Union, or Council of Ministers (which represent each individual member State, gathering national ministers to discuss and adopt laws and policies relevant to their domain) and the European Parliament (whose members are elected by citizens of all member States). The European Council defines the global direction of European policies, but has no legislative power. Finally, the Court of Justice interprets EU law and settles disputes between member States and EU institutions, and, under certain circumstances, between individuals and EU institutions.

It also has a vast array of decentralised agencies in charge of specific tasks under EU law, among which the Agency for Fundamental Rights is tasked with collecting data and advising member States and institutions on Human Rights.

The EU’s website contains more information about EU governance and structures.

Human rights in the EU

When the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force on 1 December 2009, it gave the 2007 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union the same legal status as the treaties within EU law. Article 24 is the main provision of the Charter that makes reference to children, including principles such as the best interests of the child, a right of children to protection and care, and a right for children to have direct contact with their parents, unless contrary to their interests.

Member States are only bound by the Charter with respect to the implementation of EU law. Therefore, the binding effect of the Charter does not necessarily means that cases can be brought directly using the Charter. EU institutions cannot legislate to expand the rights under the Charter. Article 6 of the amended Treaty on the European Union and article 51(2) of the Charter itself make it clear that the Charter does not extend the competencies of the European Union's institutions.

However, when European law is already engaged, that law must be interpreted in accordance with Charter rights. If EU law touched on a custody suit, the relevant legislation would have to be interpreted in light of article 24 of the Charter. For an example of where European Court of Justice case law requires EU law to be interpreted in accordance with the Charter in the context of children's rights, see: J.McB V L.E. [2010] C-400/10 PPU

Consolidated versions of the EU treaties and the Charter of Fundamental rights can be found through the EU website.

The EU and the European Convention on Human Rights

As a result of the Treaty of Lisbon, article 6(2) of the amended Treaty on the European Union provides that "the Union shall accede to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" (ECHR). Accession of the EU to the ECHR will strengthen the protection of human rights in Europe, by ultimately submitting the EU and its legal acts to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

An informal working group met between July of 2010 and June of 2011 on the development of an accession instrument, and an extraordinary meeting of the Council of Europe’s Steering Committee for Human Rights (CDDH) considered the results of the working group in October 2011. The CDDH discussed the draft instruments and, given the political implications of some of the pending problems, agreed to transmit a report and the draft instruments to the Committee of Ministers for consideration and further guidance. On 13 June 2012, the Committee of Ministers instructed the CDDH to pursue negotiations with the European Union, in an ad hoc group “47+1”, with a view to finalising without delay the accession instruments (CM decision).

That ad hoc group then held five meetings between June 2012 and April 2013. In April 2013, the 47 Council of Europe member States and the EU finalised the draft accession agreement of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2014, the EU Court of Justice gave its opinion on the draft, declaring it incompatible with EU law. Since then discussions have been unresolved.

What does the EU do?

Children’s rights in EU policies and programmes

On 4 July 2006, the European Commission launched a Communication called "Towards an EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child". The aim was to establish a comprehensive approach to children's rights in both internal and external EU-policies. It contained seven long-term objectives (such as fighting child poverty), and short-term measures (including a telephone helpline for children to access from all over Europe). On 15 February 2011, this communication was succeeded by "An EU Agenda for the Rights of the Child". The communication laid out 11 actions for the coming year aimed at making the justice systems within the EU more child-friendly. Actions included adopting a proposal for a directive on victims' rights to raise the level of protection for vulnerable victims (including children) and tabling a directive on special safeguards for suspected or accused persons who are vulnerable (including children). The communication has been described as weak on measures that will ensure the implementation of the commitments made on children's rights by some within the child rights community.

The State of play of the implementation describes progress made on the agenda’s 11 actions.

The Strategy also required the Commission to appoint a "Coordinator of the Rights of the Child", to act as a contact person and ensure co-ordination across Europe, a Commission Interservice Group and to create a European Forum on the Rights of the Child and a Steering Group.

These instances have now been set up and are fully functioning, resulting in more visibility and possibilities to monitor EU’s activities in the field of children’s rights.

The activities of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), EU’s decentralised agency dedicated to human rights, also cover children’s rights. The agency helps to ensure that the fundamental rights of people living in the EU are protected, by providing expert advice to the institutions of the EU and the Member States.

In addition, the EU has also developed financial assistance programmes, including funding programmes relating to integrated child protection systems.
A full list of grants awarded by the Commission is available at this address

Children’s rights in EU Law

The Council of the EU, the Parliament and the Commission are involved at different stages of the EU’s complex decision-making process.

The European Union has adopted numerous legislative and non-legislative documents focusing on or related to the rights of the child. The former include regulations, directives and decisions while the latter include green papers, communications, reports, studies, and declarations. For a full list of these instruments, please refer to the EU acquis and policy documents on the rights of the child. They are all used as instruments to promote children's rights in areas including:

  • asylum and immigration;
  • justice and family matters;
  • child trafficking and prostitution;
  • violence against children;
  • Information technologies;
  • discrimination and social exclusion;
  • child poverty;
  • child labour (including trade agreements committing to the abolition of child labour);
  • health and education;
  • children in armed conflict.

In 2015, the Fundamental Rights Agency issued a handbook on European law and caselaw relevant to children’s rights (this includes caselaw from the EU Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights.

Children’s rights in external relations of the Union

In recent years, the EU has focused on children in its external relations. For example, in 2003 it adopted the "EU Guidelines on children in armed conflicts", which updated in 2008. The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) has financed projects relating to children (e.g feeding, vaccination, primary education, and reintegration of child soldiers) and has identified children as a priority in its last two annual strategic plans and guidelines. Other projects also have been financed under the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).

In 2017, the Foreign Affairs Council (ie, the configuration of the Council of Ministers which gather Ministers of Foreign Affairs) adopted renewed Guidelines for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of the Child, called “Leave no child behind”. The Guidelines focus on external policy and aim at providing comprehensive guidance to EU institutions and Member States. The Guidelines were renewed in 2017 following a series of commitments made by the EU to adopt a rights-based approach and mainstreaming human rights in its external operations. Although they clearly affirm that children rights are human rights and as such are indivisible, universal and inalienable, they are a non-binding instrument.

Finally, the European Commission incorporates a "human rights clause" into nearly all EU agreements with third countries. It has also incorporated human rights into the conditions required for countries wanting to join the EU. Candidate countries must respect those EU principles common to Member States.

Further Information