Tuesday

21st Aug 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.

... 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.

Building a Europe more resilient to terrorism

One year to the day since the terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, the commissioner for home affairs spells out what action the EU is taking now to protect against further attacks.

News in Brief

  1. Italy allows boat with migrants to dock
  2. France's Total pulls out of Iran due to US sanctions
  3. Trump accuses EU and China of currency manipulation
  4. Swedish conservatives regret unsuccessful integration policies
  5. Record high measles cases hit Europe
  6. Swedish politician declares war on media
  7. Italy threatens to return migrants to Libya
  8. MEP accuses Maltese government of 'hate campaign'

EU's moment of truth in Khan al-Ahmar

EU states have spoken out in strident terms against the Israeli demolition of another Palestinian community - but what are they prepared to do to stop the war crime?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  2. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  3. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  4. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  5. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  6. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  8. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  12. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma

Latest News

  1. UK sanctions appeal risks highlighting EU divisions
  2. Wind delays launch of European wind-mapping satellite
  3. Greece 'normal' again after end of crisis, EU says
  4. Putin strikes blow against Russia's isolation by Europe
  5. EU-China cooperation on CO2 storage lost in limbo
  6. Greece exits bailouts, but difficult path ahead
  7. EU gets record response on 'summertime' consultation
  8. 'Nativism' and the upcoming Swedish and Bavarian elections

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  4. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  6. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  8. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  9. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  11. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  12. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us