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Strengthening the independence and functioning of equality bodies within the European Union

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In the European Union (the “EU”), the prohibition of discrimination is one of the cornerstones of the functioning of the common market and therefore of the Community as a whole. EU Ministers for Employment and Social Affairs recently reached agreement on draft rules to strengthen the independence and functioning of equality bodies in the EU to help prevent discrimination and better protect victims.

Equality bodies play a key role in protecting EU citizens from discrimination. The previous EU rules on equal treatment bodies left the Member States wide discretion in their establishment and operation, which in practice led to significant differences in protection against discrimination between the individual Member States.

The newly agreed rules thus set common EU-wide minimum requirements for these bodies, in particular as regards their independence, resources and powers.

These rules propose, for example, to extend the competence of the equality bodies to two existing directives, the Employment Equality Directive and the Directive on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in occupational social security schemes.

The authorities should also have more powers to investigate cases of discrimination by issuing opinions or binding decisions (depending on the choice of the Member States).

Equality bodies should also now be able to appear in court, or be able to suggest alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as conciliation or mediation to the parties to a complaint procedure

Other requirements put forward as part of the proposals for the functioning of the equality bodies are the strengthening of their impartiality and independence from the surrounding environment. If these bodies are to carry out their work with sufficient quality, it is essential that they are not influenced by external entities. The EU has therefore come up with a legal requirement which, in addition to the issue of independence, also regulates the setting up of sufficient human, technical and financial resources the authorities need to ensure their activities. 

At the same time, national public institutions will have to take into account the recommendations of the equality bodies in matters concerning discrimination and equal treatment. Equality bodies will also cooperate with other relevant stakeholders with the aim of sharing knowledge.

Under the current proposals, the services of equality bodies will have to be free of charge and available to all victims on an equal basis, including people with disabilities. Equality bodies will also have to provide complainants with a preliminary assessment of their case

Human rights and the related prohibition of discrimination have long enjoyed very good protection in the EU globally. It is precisely the strengthening and harmonisation of the rights and obligations of equal treatment bodies within the EU that will help to ensure that this equal treatment is maintained for all citizens, regardless of their gender, origin or religion.

The agreed general approaches have not yet been definitively endorsed and need to go through the legislative process. The upcoming Spanish Presidency has therefore been given a mandate to open negotiations with the European Parliament with a view to reaching a preliminary agreement.

Author: Veronika Odrobinová, Jessica Vaculíková