26th Oct 2016


EU political pressure alone cannot save the rule of law

  • Protest by the Polish opposition movement KOD. Democracy, the rule of law and human rights do not speak for themselves (Photo: Jaap Arriens)

On Wednesday (27 July), the European Commission issued the Polish government with recommendations on how to restore the rule of law. The government now has three months to comply, failing which the commission could activate the Article 7 procedure, which can lead to sanctions such as a loss of voting rights.

This is an unprecedented display of support by the EU for its fundamental values. But international pressure alone is not enough to save the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Europe. If the Union wants to preserve progressive ideals forged in the aftermath of World War II, it needs to convince the general public they’re worth holding on to.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Commission vice president Frans Timmermans meets with Polish PM Beata Szydlo, who now has three months to comply with commission recommendations (Photo: Polish Prime Minister's Office)

Attacks on the fundamentals of the democratic state – independent courts, parliamentary scrutiny, a depoliticised civil service and a neutral public broadcaster – are not confined to Poland.

Orban has already turned Hungary into the EU’s first "illiberal" democracy, and Croatia and Slovakia show signs of following suit. Other EU governments have attacked particular rights guarantees: Spain’s previous government effectively outlawed spontaneous public protest and severely curtailed access to the courts; the British government has been touting abolition of its Human Rights Act.

Two other trends are common to most EU countries: governments engaging in large-scale invasions of privacy through mass surveillance and weakening media freedom and independence.

Rollback of European values

The EU’s institutions have come under pressure to monitor EU countries and punish governments flouting European standards. The commission created, and is now using, its rule of law framework.

Some capitals have called for governments to assess each other in the EU’s Council through annual dialogues’ on the rule of law, but these so far have been weak. The European Parliament wants more, but the commission - which has the power to propose new legislation - is likely to refuse parliamentarians’ calls for a new mechanism that assesses all governments regularly.

Giving the Union more powers to pressure backsliding governments will help to protect the Union’s values. But it is only part of the answer.

Even if there is enough political will to create and use new powers, international pressure by itself is insufficient to make governments reverse their retrogressive reforms.

The rollback of European values is being carried out not by dictatorships, but by democratically elected governments that enjoy broad public support. In the face of large-scale approval from their electorates, governments are unlikely to bow to international pressure. This much is clear from the intransigence of the Hungarian and Polish governments, despite widespread condemnation.

Feed efforts of existing movements

Democracy, the rule of law and human rights do not speak for themselves. The fact that these values are designed to protect the general public from abuses of power has not been enough to convince many people that they are worth defending. If the Union wants to safeguard its fundamental values, it must create support for them among Europeans.

Pressure from the EU will only be effective if it feeds efforts of an existing national movement.

The EU has a well-established practice of promoting its values in countries outside the Union. The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance have been used to support civic education, civil society organisations and media freedom, globally.

However, inside the Union funding to promote human rights and the rule of law tends to be focused on narrow goals like training judges, lawyers and civil servants on EU law.

The EU should identify successful examples of when and where it has sown grassroots support for its fundamental values outside Europe and replicate these inside Europe.

Public support is needed

If the Union is to reach the general public, then it will need to support civic education – arguably the values taught through the education system are one reason why the German population has been relatively generous towards asylum seekers. The EU should also support media independence, so that Europeans are less easily manipulated by biased reporting. And finally, the EU should support civil society organisations to learn new ways of working.

Rights NGOs have traditionally concentrated on litigation and lobbying politicians. But this has left them out of touch with the general public. The Union could fund rights NGOs to develop new tools, so that they can convince the public to protect human rights in the same way that Greenpeace has convinced the public to protect the environment.

Legally, this would just require the EU to tweak programmes it already has in place that support the rule of law and human rights the inside the EU. The Union could also make the most of its efforts by coordinating with other governments (like Iceland and Norway) and private donors that already fund this kind of work inside Europe.

As the EU institutions wrangle over whether to create and use new powers, the rule of law, democracy and human rights are running out of time. The Union has no reason to delay in deploying funding – a less politically controversial tool – to create public support for European values.

Dr. Israel Butler is advocacy consultant to the European Liberties Platform, a network of European human rights watchdog non–governmental organisations (NGOs).


Europe ready to tackle Greek debt relief

The Greek government has built and broadened alliances in EU institutions and member-states that acknowledge the need to restructure the debt and deliver another economic model for the eurozone.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFADraft Bill for a 2nd Scottish Independence Referendum
  2. UNICEFCalls on European Council to Address Plight of Refugee and Migrant Children
  3. ECTAJoin us on 9-10 November in Brussels and Discover the new EU Digital Landscape
  4. Access NowCan you Hear me now? Verizon’s Opportunity to Stand for Global Users
  5. Belgrade Security ForumMeaningful Dialogue Missing Not Only in the Balkans, but Throughout Europe
  6. EuropecheEU Fishing Sector Celebrates Sustainably Sourced Seafood in EU Parliament
  7. World VisionWomen and Girls Urge EU Leadership to Help end Gender-based Violence
  8. Dialogue PlatformIs Jihadism Blind Spot of Western Intellectuals ? Wednesday 26 October
  9. Belgrade Security ForumGet the Latest News and Updates on the Belgrade Security Forum @BelSecForum
  10. Crowdsourcing Week EuropeMaster Crowdsourcing, Crowdfunding and Innovation! Conference 21 November - 10% Discount Code CSWEU16
  11. EJCEU Parliament's Roadmap for Relations with Iran a Massive Missed Opportunity
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersFish Skin on Bare Skin: Turning Fish Waste into Sustainable Fashion

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. CEDECOpportunities From the Creation of Synergies at Local Level in the Energy Transition
  2. ACCAFinTech Boom Needs Strong Guidance to Navigate Regulatory Hurdles
  3. Counter BalanceWhy the Investment Plan for Europe Does not Drive the Sustainable Energy Transition
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region Seeks to Make Its Voice Heard in the World
  5. Taipei EU OfficeCountries Voice Support for Taiwan's Participation in ICAO
  6. GoogleDid You Know Europe's Largest Dinosaur Gallery Is in Brussels? Check It Out Now
  7. IPHRHuman Rights in Uzbekistan After Karimov - Joint Statement
  8. CISPECloud Infrastructure Providers Unveil Data Protection Code of Conduct
  9. EFAMessages of Hope From the Basque Country and Galicia
  10. Access NowDigital Rights Heroes & Villains. Who Protects Your Rights, Who Wants to Take Them Away