Wednesday

20th Nov 2019

EU proposes yearly rule of law 'reports'

  • Dutch EU commissioner Frans Timmermans has spearheaded EU sanctions on Hungary and Poland so far (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

EU states ought to undergo a yearly "Rule of Law Review Cycle" to help stop countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania from backsliding on EU norms, the European Commission has said.

The process would see EU officials take information from national institutions, international watchdogs such as the Council of Europe, as well as NGOs and EU agencies, to produce "an annual rule of law report summarising the situation in the member states".

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Those countries "where risks of regression, or particular weaknesses, have been identified" could then be subject to "more intense" monitoring by the EU.

The commission would "pursue a strategic approach to infringement proceedings" against failing administrations, referring to EU lawsuits at its court in Luxembourg, which can levy fines.

The EU executive would also hold a yearly conference with NGOs and academics on the subject and "develop a dedicated communication strategy on rule of law" to raise awareness among the general public.

Those were the main points of the commission's recommendation, adopted in Strasbourg on Wednesday (17 July), with a first discussion due by EU affairs ministers and Dutch EU commissioner Frans Timmermans in Brussels on Thursday.

The initiative came after ruling parties in Hungary and Poland began a crackdown on courts, media, and NGOs triggering EU sanctions procedures.

The EU also warned authorities in Romania they were heading down the same path, and have voiced concern on Malta.

"Political developments in several member states have led to cases where principles such as the separation of powers, loyal cooperation amongst institutions, and respect for the opposition or judicial independence seem to have been undermined - sometimes as the result of deliberate policy choices," the commission proposal noted.

The clash with Hungary and Poland has seen them protest that judicial affairs are purely internal matters under EU law.

But the commission disagreed with that.

"The court has established that although the organisation of justice in the member states falls within national competence, member states must comply with EU law obligations when exercising that competence," it said, referring to a verdict earlier this month by the EU Court of Justice on Poland.

Other new ideas included creating a dedicated "working group" of member states' officials in the EU Council to prepare regular rule of law talks by ministers.

They also included potential "new mechanisms" by 2020 to prevent lawless administrations from abusing EU subsidies.

The Hungary and Poland sanctions process, known as 'Article 7' by reference to the EU treaty clause which underpins it, is unlikely to end in punitive measures because Hungary, Poland, or their friends, such as Lithuania, could veto action.

It has created a wider political backlash in which central European states accused the EU mainstream of trying to bully them into submission.

It also became a factor in the commission presidency race, with Poland and others letting it be known they would not support Timmermans, who has spearheaded previous rule of law efforts at commission-level.

Wednesday's proposal took a conciliatory approach.

The idea was "to ensure a swift de-escalation or exit perspective from the formal rule of law process, as soon as the member state concerned has taken the steps required to restore respect for the rule of law", the commission said.

Enhanced monitoring would also have "the objective of finding cooperative solutions to problems before they escalate", it added.

The text came out one day after Poland's ruling party agreed to back Germany's candidate, Ursula von der Leyen, for the commission top post in a vote in Strasbourg.

A commission spokesman said the proposal had been held back to make sure its publication did not interfere with the vote.

Asked by EUobserver if the vote had interfered with the document, for instance, by watering down language to make Poland happy, another EU official said no - "the text has been stable for quite a while now".

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