Analysis: New EU tools to prevent backsliding on the rule of law within the bloc
Europe has seen various attacks on the rule of law in recent years in Malta, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic; from allegations of corruption and assassinations to squeezing out the opposition and testing the independence of judges.
Holding authorities to account, however, is a central principle of the EU. Just last week, MEPs condemned Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis over concerns that the premier’s company Agrofert was misusing EU funds.
So far, the EU’s response to assaults on the rule of law was based on infringement procedures, European Court of Justice rulings, and – in the case of Hungary and Poland – the so-called Article 7 process that could lead to the suspension of their voting rights in the EU Council.
Now, the European Parliament is calling for a change.
Sándor Rónai, a Hungarian MEP, is arguing that, with negotiations underway on the future EU budget, there should be some thought of tying funding to respect of the rule of law.
Rónai said he would also like to see all member states join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office due to open later this year (so far, Hungary, Poland and Sweden are yet to join).
The European Commission is looking at introducing new tools, including an annual rule of law report, conditions linked to receiving EU budget funding and the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. These three measures together will make a difference, according to EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders.
“We want to stop or suspend some funding if there is a generalised breach to the rule of law in one member state,” says Reynders. He says that it must be possible to suspend or stop funding if there is a loss of trust in the ‘functioning of one member state’.
The commissioner said there should be also a wider public debate in those member states about democracy and the rule of law.
“The process of rule of law back backsliding in countries like Hungary and Poland poses a huge threat to the EU as a legal order,” says Federico Fabbrini, Professor of European Law, Dublin City University.
He adds that if courts are not independent in its member states, the enforcement of EU laws – including internal market regulations – can no longer be taken for granted, threatening the EU’s very foundations. It is not surprising, he says, that the EU wants to prioritise the respect of the rule of law.