Addressing the confusion between the EU and the ECHR

The European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights are independent of one another

Photograph: 'EU Flagga' / MPD01605

During the 2016 referendum campaign on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), there appeared to be confusion between the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The leave campaign helped create an obscurity between both the EU and the ECHR which perplexed voters further.

After multiple political discussions with friends and family, it is clear to me that these confusions still remain. Many of the electorate do not know the difference between the two bodies, or believe them to be one and the same. It was this revelation which propelled me to write this article, explaining the differences between the EU and the ECHR in a way that is as clear and understandable as possible.

Although I aim to distinguish between the two bodies in the most simple way, I acknowledge it is very easy to confuse the two. It is rather easy to confuse elements of each organisation with each other, but I hope this article helps to remove any confusions.

What is the European Union?

The European Union is a supranational organisation, meaning its power and influence transcends national boundaries. There are currently 28 member states that are part of the EU, however the UK has triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, meaning it will soon cease to be a member.

Every Member State has control over the decisions and laws that are made by the EU, and each contributes to the running costs of the Union. These financial contributions to the Union are around 0.7% of a Member State’s GNI and a 0.3% share of VAT.

The European Union is comprised of five main bodies that have a variety of functions, which will be explained in turn.

  1. The European Commission. This body proposes legislation and is composed of 28 commissioners (one for each Member State). Each Commissioner serves a 5-year term and must be confirmed by the European Parliament to serve. The current President of the Commission is Jean-Claude Junker.
  2. The Council of Ministers.  This institution adopts legislation and is the Union’s main decision-making body. It has a 6-month revolving presidency.
  3. The European Council. It is very easy to confuse both ‘councils’ in the EU with each other. Comprised of leaders of each Member State, the European Council meets 4 times a year to discuss the priorities and agenda of the EU. The current President of the Council is Donald Tusk
  4. The European Parliament. Made of 751 MEPs, elected every 5-years, the parliament discusses laws and proposals. The UK currently has 73 MEPs, with a share of seats based on the population size of each Member State.
  5. The Court of Justice of the European Union. It appears that the biggest confusion between the EU and the ECHR lies with the role of the court. The Court of Justice sits in Luxembourg, whereas the European Court of Human Rights is based in Strasbourg. The Court of Justice is sometimes referred to as the ECJ or CJEU, and has 28 judges (one from each Member State).

Although the European Union adopted its own Charter of Fundamental Rights in 2000, it is wholly independent of the European Convention on Human Rights.

What is the European Convention on Human Rights?

The European Convention on Human Rights sets out rights and liberties attaining to all human beings. Examples of convention rights include the right to a fair trial or the right to education. The ECHR was proposed by Winston Churchill and drafted by British lawyers following the atrocities of the Second World War. Its aim was to promote democracy, freedom and the rule of law across Europe. These convention rights were incorporated into domestic law in 2000, following the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998 by New Labour.

Similar to how the EU operates, the ECHR has multiple institutions that have varying functions connected to the convention rights.

The convention rights are governed by The Council of Europe (not to be confused with similarly named institutions of the EU). There are currently 47 Member States of the Council, which is much more than the EU’s 28 Member States. Some countries such as Russia are Member States of The Council of Europe, but not Member States of the European Union. Be aware that UK’s pursuance of Brexit will have no effect on its membership of the Council of Europe.

Similar to how the Court of Justice of The European Union enforces EU law, The European Court of Human Rights enforces the convention rights. Once again, this court is wholly independent of the EU. This court sits in Strasbourg and hears applications regarding a Member State’s alleged breach of the convention rights. One of the most notable cases heard by the court in recent years is that of Hirst v The United Kingdom [2005]. This case is hugely significant and controversial as it ruled that the UK is in breach of the convention rights by not allowing prisoners to vote. To this day, the UK has still not acted upon this decision by giving prisoners the vote.

The final institution within the ECHR is the Parliamentary Assembly. This examines human rights violations and can recommend sanctions. The assembly has 315 members that are elected or appointed by national parliaments in each Member State.

The EU and the ECHR are completely independent of each other

A confusion between the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights can be easily made. Each has a court, both have institutions called ‘councils’, and each has its own parliament. The key differences as previously discussed are this, The ECHR promotes democracy, freedom and the rule of law across the continent. It also enforces human rights against its Member States. Whereas, the European Union upholds similar values, but focuses on creating new laws and regulations that benefit the continent.

If there is anything that you take away from this article let it be this; the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights are not the same. Brexit is irrelevant to the ECHR!

Want to test your knowledge? you can take a quiz on the ECHR here!


Samuel Marc Evans 4 Articles
LLB Law student and political enthusiast! Likes to rant about politics.

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