Working through the European Parliament to improve human rights

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Baroness Nicholson’s work as Rapporteur for the accession of Romania

Interview with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, London, 8 March 2023


This post based on an interview with Baroness Nicholson in London on 8 March 2023.

The complete recording of the interview may be found here, as part of the HAEU Oral History Collection The European Parliament Contribution to the European Project (1979-2019).

The focus of the interview is human rights and in particular, her own role as rapporteur during the accession negotiations with Romania.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne served as an MEP from 1999 to 2009, representing the constituency of Southeast England. She had previously been a UK MP for ten years and was made a life peer in 1997. Her priority, on being elected, was to serve her constituents. Given that these numbered 10 million, represented by 10 MEPs, most constituency work had to be conducted by email.

Baroness Nicholson was appointed to the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) and became Rapporteur for the accession of Romania. The Committee Chair, Elmar Brok, suggested that she was assigned this critical position because she was the Committee’s First Vice President, and Romania was thought to be an especially difficult case.

The situation of Romanian children attracted global coverage in the years after 1989. Baroness Nicholson, who had long been active in child welfare charities, had previously visited orphanages in Romania. Returning as EP Rapporteur, she was shocked to discover that conditions had changed little, despite enormous amounts donated from abroad. She took the view that Romania would not meet the criteria for EU membership unless conditions improved.

However, it was hard to point to a any Community level legislation that set standards for child protection. Social policy in general was (and is) primarily a matter of member state rather than EU competence. The Romanian authorities could have cited subsidiarity as an argument for delaying reform in this area.

5:39 – 5:49
“Child welfare was not a part of the acquis communautaire. Essentially, I was out of line in raising child welfare at all.”

Baroness Nicholson therefore focussed on first principles, and in particular on the Copenhagen criteria adopted by the European Council in June 1993. These stipulated that a candidate country must have the institutions needed to establish and maintain the respect of human rights and must accept the obligations and objectives of the European Union.

In Bucharest, the Commission Ambassador Fotiadis was well aware of the dimensions of the child welfare problem and was enormously helpful. Baroness Nicholson set up a High-Level Group for Children which included the Prime Minister, the Commissioner, the World Bank, herself, and a couple of others. This helped bring the necessary change. One key was to show that the core of the problem went beyond child welfare to child trafficking – selling children on an international market.

20:30 – 20:45
“None of these children were orphans. They all had families. They were the victims of corrupt officials who had taken them away from their families and were selling them on the web.”

Some remained sceptical about the reforms which were introduced.

“A number of colleagues in Brussels said, ‘why are you bringing a law in? They won’t follow it in any case.’ In my experience, in any nation, most people want to follow a good law.”

Indeed, there was a knock-on effect in other areas needing reform.

“Once you tackle one really bad issue in a situation, people start to understand – oh, well the other bits and pieces could be changed as well.”

“For Romania, getting standards into one key element of their work meant that they started to think about other elements. ... But it was in Child Welfare that we raised the standards. It made the whole acquis easier to swallow.”

The joint effort to bring reform was crowned with success when Romania joined the EU on 1 January 2007.

During her terms as MEP, Baroness Nicholson also worked on other human rights issues, including Kashmir and Afghanistan. As she put it,

37:45 – 38:21
“One of the key benefits or beauties of the European Union, in my time anyway, was the question of the fundamental freedoms. The fundamental freedoms to worship, to travel and so on and so forth. And that seemed to me to be the base of the whole European Union rationale. I loved that. I think we all did. We knew where we. We were promoting the fundamental freedoms, the rule of law and human rights.”

On Kashmir, she used her role as rapporteur to work for a common view across the EU institutions.

41:11 – 41:48
“I think the report formula is very effective indeed; the way to bring issues up, the way to effect change, the way to pay tribute to hard working and effective people, to find the heroes and to be able tell the parliament. It is a very effective mechanism, I found.

But I think it is absolutely essential to dovetail with the Commission, and then to dovetail, if you possibly can, with the Council. So that is what I did with both Romania, and with Kashmir.”

She pushed for a coherent policy, rather than ad hoc approach.

“We wished to alter policies, in that sense, and not just make comments, not just make reports.”

On Afghanistan, one challenge was to find budget resources for rehabilitation and reconstruction that could be distributed quickly, above and beyond what was available though the usual humanitarian channels. She is highly complimentary of the work of ECHO.

“The EU was one of the best and finest spenders of humanitarian aid money I knew.

Based on her involvement in other cases, and especially in election monitoring, Baroness Nicholson felt that the European Parliament’s work on human rights in other countries was immensely beneficial.

“The impact of the EP was enormous, and the European Commission and the EU as a whole.”

In her view, human rights work has to complement and be in balance with the rest of the EU agenda.

“I do not think human rights should stand alone. … It had to fit foreign policy. It should not go off into the blue.”

Human rights expenditure should also be monitored in exactly the same way as other EU funding. In cases, problems emerged because the EU was not financing its own investigatory side well enough.

As the interview came to an end, the Baroness considered the future.

“The offerings of entry to Ukraine and Moldova shows the strength of the EU.

These are two big problems. Since Romania has come in (not 100% effectively, but Romania is European), those two nations will be able to make it.”

“That really is the far-reaching vision of the EU, that is so magnificent. Such a gift to the globe.”

Summing up her time as an MEP, Baroness Nicholson stated:

52.20 – 36
“I found it enormously beneficial to work as a parliamentarian in Brussels. It gave me many opportunities to help others raise their standards, get better lives for their citizens, and perhaps treat each other better. For me, the EP is a wonderful institution.”


Eamonn Noonan

Oxford, 19 March 2023

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