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European Commission Lacks Tenacity on the Rule of Law

Rule of Law Report Lacks Consequences for Law Breaking

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 28, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The European Commission annual Rule of Law Report, which includes recommendations for strengthening democracy in all EU-member states, falls short of its stated goal to “identify trends and drive reforms.” Consequently, it fails to help protect the rule of law across the European Union. 

The report focuses on four key areas: justice systems, anti-corruption, media freedom, and checks and balances. For the first time, it includes recommendations for each member state. Yet despite mounting evidence, including from the EU’s own Fundamental Rights Agency, of intimidation and interference with the work of civil society, the report fails to identify civil society space as a core issue.

This is especially clear when it comes to Hungary and Poland, both under investigation through the Article 7 process, designed to hold countries accountable for violating the rule of law and human rights.

Hungary and Poland received the most recommendations. But unfortunately, most of the recommendations are vague and lack the specificity required to ensure effective implementation. For example, despite widespread attacks against civil society organizations in Hungary and an important but only partially implemented judgment from the European Court of Justice on freedom of association, the recommendation simply urges Hungary to “remove obstacles affecting civil society organizations.” There is more detail on the changes required to reinstate judicial independence in the country – but the recommendations are still weaker than the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s four succinct recommendations on the judiciary.

The primary concern, however, is that there is no timeline or process for implementation of the recommendations. There is no system of monitoring and no detail given on the consequences of non-implementation.

In autumn, the European Council will hold a hearing about the findings of the report. Also, Article 7 hearings are expected for Hungary and Poland. Member states should take these recommendations as a baseline, build on them, and provide a clear timeline for implementation. Without these steps, the report will remain informative but toothless. These steps should also be incorporated into next year’s report, alongside a presentation and analysis of the issues that allow for trends to be identified.

Coincidentally, the 2022 Rule of Law report was published on the ten-year anniversary of the Russian “foreign agents” law, a stark reminder of the consequences of leaving repression unchecked. The European Commission should take steps to identify warning signs and act when repression takes hold in EU member states.

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