EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The leaders of the three main European institutions on Wednesday (12 December) signed a charter of fundamental rights that will be annexed to the EU's new treaty - but the ceremony faced vocal protests by eurosceptic MEPs demanding a referendum on the document.
The rights charter was signed in the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament by parliament president Hans-Gert Pottering, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Portuguese prime minister Jose Socrates, the current head of the Council of the EU representing member states.
Calling the signature of the document "one of the most important events of my political career", Mr Socrates also said the event was certainly "a fundamental date in the history of Europe".
However, a standing ovation by a majority of parliamentarians clashed with jeers by eurosceptic MEPs brandishing banners in protest and wearing black t-shirts with a white "referendum" sign on them, delaying and interrupting the premier's speech several times.
The parliamentarians were indicating their opposition to the Lisbon treaty and calling for it to be submitted to popular voting.
An "anti-European" incident
After calling on them to let their "guest" speak, the parliament's president angrily asked them to leave the hemicycle. The protesters stayed however, and after the Portuguese prime minister's speech, they booed the commission president as well.
"This is the new EU in action, showing the world a united face as they steam-roll towards their own super-state while totally refusing to allow anyone to see a different point of view", UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who was one of the initiators of the protest, said.
Mr Farage's party accused the parliament's television channel of biased coverage and said it was trying to "avoid showing a serious protest in the debating chamber".
The incident came as a PR blow to the Group of the European United Left - Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), which does not view itself as eurosceptic but which had initiated the protest, purely because it demands referendums on the treaty.
The booing eurosceptic MEPs subsequently joined the protest and hijacked it.
Francis Wuertz, president of the GUE/NGL group, distanced himself from the incident saying: "I would like on my personal behalf, and I hope - after what we have seen - on behalf of my group, to absolutely condemn the anti-European, chauvinistic and unworthy incident that took place this morning".
"Of course, we are in favour of a referendum on the Treaty and certainly, we have issues with certain points of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, but this occurrence today was about something completely different (_) There is no space in our vision for chauvinism and for unworthiness", he stated in a press release.
A fundamental date for Europe
The text of the Charter of fundamental rights of the EU lays out six categories of rights for all EU citizens and residents - dignity, freedoms, equality, solidarity, citizens' rights and justice.
It will be annexed as a separate declaration to the new treaty that EU leaders will sign in Lisbon on Thursday (13 December) and will be legally binding as soon as the treaty itself enters into force.
"No matter how loud people yell to prevent [other] people from speaking, this is a date of fundamental importance for the history of Europe", Mr Socrates said, addressing the jeering MEPs.
"This is a charter for equality and solidarity, for fighting against any form of discrimination", he added.
Although the document will only apply to EU institutions and member states only as far as implementing European laws is concerned, and is not aimed at establishing new EU powers, two member states have decided to opt out from the charter.
The UK and Poland are worried that the European Court of Justice could use the document as a basis to impose certain rights in their countries - London fears the charter may give too many rights to trade unions, while Polish politicians are cautious about the charter's supposed liberalism on moral issues.