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19th Jan 2020

EU officials seek new powers to protect rule of law

  • 'The European Commission has a crucial role in upholding the rule of law as the Guardian of the Treaties,' says Barroso (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The European Commission on Tuesday (11 March) announced a new measure to challenge member states in breach of EU rule of law.

The proposal would allow the European Union to intervene at an early stage in case of “serious and systemic threats” to the rule of law in member states. Isolated cases of breaches of fundamental rights or miscarriages of justice are excluded from its scope.

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Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in Strasbourg that the Brussels executive in recent years has been confronted by a number of cases from member states which posed a threat or potential threat.

“All the institutions have turned to the commission and asked us to react,” he said.

The plan is described as a missing element between a standard infringement procedure and the 'nuclear option' of Article 7, which withdraws a member state’s voting rights at the EU level.

Article 7 has proven difficult to use in practice. There were discussions about invoking it when Austria's centre-right party went into government with the far-right Freedom Party in 2000.

More recently there was some informal discussion about using the clause against Hungary after its government introduced controversial new laws. However, it was seen as too strong.

“Something is missing and this is what we are presenting now,” said Barroso.

Speaking alongside Barroso, EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said the new system is needed because the commission has been forced to react on an ad-hoc basis whenever member states misbehaved.

“We have to have a system, which is set in stone, which is institutionalised,” noted Reding.

The proposed new system is a three-step process.

The first step is a commission assessment of the problem. If a problem is identified, then the commission issues a warning in a “rule of law opinion”.

If the problem is not resolved, then the commission will issue a “rule of law recommendation”, which says what needs to be done and by when.

The commission will then follow-up the recommendation in the third step.

If the member state does not implement the recommendation and misses the deadline, then the commission can invoke Article 7.

“The new tool to safeguard the rule of law will be applicable under the same threshold of a serious and systemic threat to the rule of law to all member states, big or small, North, South, East or West,” said Reding.

The article was corrected at 11h50 CET on Wednesday 12 March as it previously said that Article 7 had been invoked against Austria in 2000. This was not the case. Member states imposed sanctions on Austria but did not use Article 7

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