Monday

18th Jun 2018

Opinion

Securing 'rule of law' with economic power

  • Guenther Oettinger, the EU’s budget commissioner, is set to reveal on 2 May a draft for the next seven-year EU budget, that runs from 2021 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Negotiations on the next seven-year spending plan give the EU the chance to harness its economic power to protect the rule of law.

Faced with a smaller EU budget after Brexit, some capitals have argued that governments that violate the rule of law should lose their entitlement to EU financial support, in particular access to 'structural funds'.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... our join as a group

Some insist that making receipt of these funds conditional on respect for the rule of law is neither feasible nor desirable.

I disagree.

It is legally sound, fair and can benefit the public. And in contrast to the slow and uncertain process behind Article 7, which for Hungary is gently meandering its way through the European Parliament and for Poland seems to have fallen down the back of the Council's sofa, conditionality can lead to swift and tangible consequences.

According to the Treaty on European Union, the EU's "aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples." Every policy, law and power of the EU is supposed to serve this goal.

Financing governments that undermine the rule of law, like those in Poland and Hungary runs against the core goals of the EU.

Some argue that economic sanctions are inherently discriminatory because they will be felt much more acutely by less prosperous countries in central and eastern Europe.

The argument is akin to saying that police should never run after suspects because it's not fair on criminals with short legs.

EU funds can already be cut off as a sanction on governments when they fail to comply with EU public spending limits, or when they violate rules on how they should spend EU funds.

The relevant laws require the EU to take the given country's economic situation into account to ensure that sanctions aren't disproportionately harsh.

The fact that richer countries can resist economic sanctions more easily is surely reason to expand the toolbox rather than throw away the hammer. Different countries have different pressure points.

Countries with a genuinely free press will be more sensitive to international political pressure.

Countries with an independent judiciary will be more sensitive to legal challenges.

And less prosperous countries with neither will be more sensitive to economic sanctions.

Civil liberty

Some have argued that conditioning funds on respect for the rule of law is unworkable because the notion can't be measured. This simply isn't true.

At its core the rule of law is a requirement that individuals should have access to impartial, independent and effective courts to protect their freedoms.

This is a very old civil liberty with a very precise legal definition built on sixty years of case law from European and international courts.

EU rules on structural funds already contain requirements for governments to set up bodies according to certain criteria to administer and monitor how those funds are spent.

The EU can simply add another requirement, that as a backup to these bodies, individuals must have prompt access to an effective remedy before an independent national court.

Technically, this is already part of EU law, following a case by the EU's Court of Justice, but the commission department responsible for structural funds (the directorate general for regional and urban policy) hasn't been enforcing it.

Commission officials are already equipped with guidelines to help them decide when governments have broken the rules and when funds should be cut. A requirement for independent courts can simply be slotted into existing procedures, with one proviso.

The commission currently relies on national authorities to self-report about compliance. To make the new requirement effective, that practice has to change, and the commission has to independently check the health of national courts.

Stoking scepticism

Some have argued that conditionality could backfire by harming the general public and allowing targeted governments to stoke euroscepticism.

This is only a realistic danger if the EU wields the tool clumsily.

The commission could be given discretion to take over the selection and management of projects from national authorities, rather than cutting off funds completely, in cases where stopping funds would have a direct negative impact on the public.

Management could then be handed over to an executive agency - the commission has power to set up such bodies to administer EU funding programmes for fixed periods of time.

This would allow the EU to do some awareness-raising of its own and advertise that funding for the public benefit is coming from Brussels, and also minimise the risk of funding being misused through government corruption or cronyism.

Authoritarian populists continue enjoy increasing electoral success across the EU and to pursue policies that undermine the rule of law.

As they grow in strength, the EU's room for manoeuvre will become more limited. Current negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework may be the last opportunity for the EU to use its economic muscle to preserve its values.

Israel Butler is head of advocacy at Civil Liberties Union for Europe

EU leaders to kick off post-Brexit budget debate

EU-27 leaders will meet on Friday to draw up battle lines and possible fields of compromise over the EU's next seven-year budget - the first one after the UK leaves the bloc.

Poland defends judicial reforms, warns against EU pressure

Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki presented the Commission with 94-pages of arguments backing Warsaw's controversial judicial reforms - while his EU minister warns that constant conflict with Brussels could stoke anti-European sentiment.

Column / Brussels Bytes

The EU cannot shape the future of AI with regulation

If the EU continues to over-regulate AI, its AI systems will fail to compete on a global scale and the technology's long-term future, for better or worse, will be shaped by the United States and China.

Long-distance animal transport: unthinkable still happening

A complete overhaul of animal products' supply chains is needed, privileging local food chains including local slaughtering which is proven to benefit the environment, the resilience of our economy, food safety and animal welfare.

News in Brief

  1. Schroeder and Sarkozy appear with Putin at World Cup
  2. Tennis champ and 'EU diplomat' claims immunity
  3. Italy threatens to ditch EU-Canada free trade deal
  4. EU institutions agree EU-wide rights for asylum seekers
  5. EU free wifi portal hit by 'technical issue'
  6. EU ambassadors approve plan to fight antimicrobial resistance
  7. Leak: World will fail on Paris climate goal by 2040
  8. Greek PM to face confidence vote over Macedonia deal

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  2. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  4. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  7. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  8. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  11. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model

Latest News

  1. Progressive regulation needed now for 21st century finance
  2. Greece and Merkel's fate top This WEEK
  3. How Italy's government might hijack EU migration policy
  4. The EU cannot shape the future of AI with regulation
  5. Long-distance animal transport: unthinkable still happening
  6. EU to phase out most harmful biofuels
  7. Bavaria rebels could unseat Merkel over migration
  8. European People's Party faces moment of truth over Hungary

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  2. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  3. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  4. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  6. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  7. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  8. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  9. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries
  11. European Jewish CongressEU Leaders to Cease Contact with Mahmoud Abbas Until He Apologizes for Antisemitic Comments
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual Report celebrates organization’s tenth anniversary

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us