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EU Action on Member States Limited by Political Will, Not Tools

Letter to the Editor

Published in: Financial Times

Sir, the article “Romania illustrates limits of EU power” on July 15 asserts that the EU has few options when it comes to tackling individual member states who flout its rules. 

In fact there is a range of tools short of suspending voting rights that EU institutions can use to hold recalcitrant states to account. The European Commission can initiate infringement proceedings against members in breach of EU law, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights; the European Parliament can demand an official explanation of a member state's conduct; and the EU Council, meaning all 27 EU member states, can consider member state practice in its working group on fundamental rights and justice as well as in council meetings of member states ministers.

The real impediment is political will. Beyond barking, EU institutions rarely act. The Commission backed down over infringement proceedings when France deported Roma to Eastern Europe in 2010, and over Hungary's media law in 2011. The European Parliament is riven by factionalism, with political groups appearing willing to support condemnation only when the abusive government is of the opposite stripe. And the Council seems reluctant even formally to discuss human rights abuse by member states, let alone speak out against them. 

If the EU is to stand up for the values it supposedly embodies, it should recognize that member states that breach the rules on rights need to be held to account, in the same way as those who breach competition or fisheries law. That includes being prepared to suspend voting rights where warranted. The alternative is an EU whose entreaties to the rest of the world on human rights will sound increasingly hollow.

Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans Researcher, Human Rights Watch, Berlin, Germany. Follow me on Twitter: @LydsG

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