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The grounds for debate on fundamental rights in the European Union are currently more fruitful than ever. Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, not only did the Union avail itself with its own ‘Bill of Rights’, i.e., the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, but is also preparing for its accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. By the same token, the Charter was elevated to the same level as other primary EU law. The frequent horizontal effect of fundamental rights in recent case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union is an indication of a stronger presence and the increased significance of fundamental rights in the Union’s legal order at the time when the boundaries between the public and private spheres are increasingly blurred. The Court of Justice strives to interpret and apply the law in a way which contributes to a build-up of a coherent case law and conforms to fundamental rights as closely as possible. The immediate source of the jeopardising act or degree of the incurred effects should not prove decisive. Rather, the horizontal effect of fundamental rights contributes to the ‘primacy, unity and effectiveness of European Union law’.
This study suggests it is feasible to consider the horizontal effect of fundamental rights in the context of EU law. However, because of the semantic and structural openness of fundamental right norms they often necessitate the deduction of a more concrete normative content. This concretization of abstract norms makes adjudicating on the basis of fundamental rights a delicate matter, since it gives great power to the courts. Where this power is extended to the area which typically falls in the sphere of private law, it grows even stronger.
Hence, besides powerfully serving to enhance the inner coherence and consistency of Union law and offering feasible solutions to legal problems, the horizontal application of fundamental rights implies a move towards a strengthened constitutional phase of the integration process. Arguments on fundamental rights entail much more than just formal or dogmatic disputes over the scope of application of an act of EU law. They touch on fundamental questions relating to the functioning of the Union and its constitutional nature which pertains to the entire legal order of the EU.
Sonya Walkila is Senior Adviser, Legislative Affairs, in the Ministry of Justice, Finland and Lecturer of European Law at the University of Helsinki.