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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.  © 2021 Aris Oikonomou/Pool Photo via AP

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.

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