Europe’s Lack of Vision on Rule of Law

Europe’s Lack of Vision on Rule of Law!!Reporting Not Matched by Action to Protect Democratic Institutions. European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders delivers the opening statements during a plenary session on the Commissions 2020 Rule of law report at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium on June 23, 2021.

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The launch of the European Commission’s latest report on the state of rule of law in the European Union should be a milestone. It contains dozens of pages of analysis for each EU country on threats to democratic institutions, covering judicial independence, media freedom, and attacks on civil society.

But beyond the depth of the analysis, the report demonstrates the Commission’s lack of vision on how to end the erosion it exposes.

In the Commission’s own words, a key goal of the report is to “raise awareness and promote an open discussion.” But when a house is burning, what is needed is action.

Such a report should at the very least include measurable recommendations to states, with set deadlines, so that it can truly serve as a “preventive tool.” It should also make it clear that some European governments have moved or are moving away from the EU’s founding principles and its laws. Pretending that all EU states are at the same level gives a false picture of reality. Finally, attacks on fundamental rights and the rule of law by member states should lead to serious political and institutional consequences. It’s disappointing that all of this is missing from the report.

If they take this report seriously, the EU Commission and member states should intensify proceedings on Poland and Hungary under Article 7 – the treaty mechanism to deal with countries at odds with the bloc’s democratic principles. They should move toward adopting rule-of-law recommendations and voting to determine that there is a “clear risk of serious breach” of EU values in both countries. The Commission too should be more active in steering Article 7 forward.

The Commission should also use legal infringement proceedings in a faster and more strategic way, to ensure the EU Court can effectively block policies that erode rights. It should end its foot-dragging and use a new tool conditioning access to EU funds on respect for the rule of law.

The Commission’s rule of law report shows the institution is clear-eyed about the risks to the EU’s core principles. But without a clear strategy to translate that commitment into action, abusive governments will simply ignore it. It’s time for the Commission to take that crucial next step.

The 2021 Rule of Law Report, including its 27 country chapters, presents positive and negative developments across the Member States in four key areas for the rule of law: the justice system, the anti-corruption framework, media pluralism and other institutional issues related to checks and balances. This year’s report consolidates the exercise started by the 2020 report, deepening the Commission’s assessment and further developing on the impact and challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country chapters, which rely on a qualitative assessment carried out by the Commission, analyse new developments since the first report and the follow-up to the challenges and developments identified in the 2020 Report.

The Report is part of broader EU efforts to promote and defend its founding values. This work includes the European Democracy Action Plan and the renewed Strategy for the Implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as targeted strategies to progress towards a “Union of Equality”. Another related aspect is monitoring the application of EU law and the protection of fundamental rights under the Charter, including through the use of infringement proceedings.

Methodology

The assessment contained in the 27 country chapters has been prepared in line with the methodology discussed with the Member States. The country chapters do not purport to give an exhaustive description of all rule of law issues in every Member State, but to present significant developments. The assessment refers to EU law requirements, including those resulting from the case-law of the CJEU. In addition, the recommendations and opinions of the Council of Europe provide a useful frame of reference for relevant standards and best practices.

The Rule of Law Report is the result of close collaboration with Member States and relies on a variety of sources. All Member States participated in the process, providing written contributions and joining in dedicated country visits held between March and May. For these country visits, the Commission organised more than 400 virtual meetings with national authorities, independent bodies and stakeholders, including civil society A targeted stakeholder consultation also provided valuable horizontal and country-specific contributions. The Council of Europe also provided an overview of its recent opinions and reports concerning EU Member States. Prior to the adoption of this report, Member States have been given the opportunity to provide factual updates on their country chapter.

The network of national rule of law contact points established in 2020 to help setting up the mechanism, has continued to function as an ongoing channel of communication with Member States for the preparation of the Report as well as to exchange best practices.

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