Tuesday

22nd Jan 2019

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.

... or 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.

What is fate of non-euro EU states after Brexit?

The UK's withdrawal from the EU will heighten fears of marginalisation among the eight member states - Bulgaria, Denmark, Croatia, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Czech Republic and Hungary - that have not adopted the euro.

Salvini and Kaczynski - the new 'axis' powers?

Populists and Eurosceptics are slowly realising that the goal of dismantling the EU is not only unrealistic, costly and unpopular - but also deprives them of valuable opportunities to accumulate political capital and exert influence.

News in Brief

  1. EU hits Mastercard with €570m fine
  2. Romanian minister prepares to cancel corruption cases
  3. Sefcovic: no gas supply problems this winter
  4. Report: Commission warning on passport-sale schemes
  5. France summons Italian ambassador over colonial remark
  6. May U-turn on fee for EU nationals in UK
  7. French data watchdog gives Google €50m fine
  8. EU hits Russians with sanctions over Salisbury attack

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. France and Germany hope to revive EU with Aachen treaty
  2. May pushes defeated Brexit deal, offers no Plan B
  3. European Parliament targets 'fake' political groups
  4. What is fate of non-euro EU states after Brexit?
  5. Turkish NBA star takes on Erdogan
  6. 'Meme ban' still on table in EU copyright bill, says MEP
  7. Brexit power grab by MPs hangs over May's 'Plan B'
  8. Polish mayor's funeral marred by Tusk TV dispute

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us