This Wednesday 22 January 2020 in Brussels by DRI and the European Policy Centre’s Connecting Europe programme.
EU Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová answered this question in a keynote address to the more than 150 attendees.
This was followed by a panel discussion that brought together Emmanuel Crabit from the Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, MEP Terry Reintke, Ralph Kaessner from the European Council Secretariat and Joelle Grogan, a Senior Lecturer and legal academic at Middlesex University London.
DRI Executive Director Michael Meyer-Resende moderated the panel discussion, from which Christoph Reinke shares some of the highlights.
“Yes, but we have to work hard to keep it”
This was Commissioner Jourová’s answer to the event’s question, stressing that the EU consists of more than institutions in Brussels or Strasbourg. She emphasized that all member states, civil society and citizens play an important role when it comes to protecting the rule of law across the union.
All too often the rule of law is taken for granted and seen as a technical issue that doesn’t directly link to the lives of citizens, but Jourová stated that “if not all these actors want to protect the rule of law, we will fail”. A special effort must be made to reach European citizens, raising awareness on the practical relevance of the rule of law for the daily life of everyone in the EU.
To prevent the rule of law backsliding, she outlined the importance of a rule of law culture across the EU’s institutions and member states. One way to do this will be through annual reporting on the state of the rule of law, which will provide comparative information on all EU countries and their constitutional systems.
Finally, she discussed the idea of tying EU funding to the rule of law, stating that “money will not go to autocrats”.
“No, not at the moment”
This was MEP Terry Reintke’s blunt answer to the question, criticising the EU’s approach and describing it as inflexible with decisions taken too late. She argued that the EU should instead take a strong stance against rule of law violations as observed not only in Poland and Hungary but also in Slovakia, Romania, Malta and other countries. “We will have to show teeth in this” pointing again to the idea of withdrawing EU funds from “authoritarian regimes”.
The EU needs to step up its game since in recent years “attacks [on the rule of law] have become blunter and more open… we need to have a sense of urgency” she warned.
“It is a highly sensitive matter”
Was Ralph Kaessner’s personal take. The European Council Secretariat official had reservations about calls for more EU interventions on breaches to the rule of law. Highlighting on several occasion the delicacy of the topic and the number of actors involved, he argued that sanctions are hard to implement in practice. He also stressed that a lot has happened on the rule of law in recent years, a long way from the relative anonymity of the topic just a few years ago.
Instead, he suggested focusing on capacity building measures that help prevent the rule of law backsliding. In this context, he welcomed the Commission’s new rule of law review cycle, which should make concrete operational suggestions on how to strengthen the rule of law.
“The problem can’t be solved from the top-down”
Said Emmanuel Crabit from the Commission’s DG Justice, speaking on the importance of engaging national governments. He identified three needs: promoting a rule of law culture, supporting reforms and responding to concrete challenges. He sees a need for dialogue and regular exchange between the Commission and national parliaments on a level playing field, bringing these “two different planets” together.
Starting a dialogue within the Council and within EU member states represents, in his view, the added value of the new rule of law reports, which will also highlight positive developments and advocate for good reforms that comply with EU obligations.
The diversity of legal systems is not the problem, in his view, and different legal traditions should be respected. However, EU treaty provisions and the ECJ’s interpretation of them define red lines that cannot be negotiated.
In addition, even though he detected fatigue towards the Article 7 process, Crabit noted that we “should not underestimate the positive impact” it has had. The Hungarian government, for example, withdrew a controversial reform of its administrative courts.
“This is not a normal situation that will be resolved in the next elections”
The last panellist, Joelle Grogan emphasised that the rule of law affects everyone in the EU. She argued that “if nothing is done, we are going to break our mutual trust”, which would entirely endanger cooperation within the EU.
In her view, the necessary tools for a stronger reaction by the EU to rule of law breaches are available, but this will ultimately all depend on political will in the EU.
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