Sunday

21st Apr 2019

Opinion

Decline of institutions' moral standards threatens EU

  • Nothing infuriates the public more than the feeling that rules are bent to protect the interests of the European institution's members (or top bureaucrats) (Photo: European Commission)

In 1988, Ramsay MacMullen published an interesting analysis about the fall of the Roman Empire, entitled Corruption and Decline of Rome.

For him, the Empire had fallen because it was corrupt. Moral corruption was the essential concept. The rule of law was circumvented, or frankly ignored. All took care of their personal interest, and neglected utterly the general one.

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Those Romans wouldn't feel disoriented in the present European Union (or the USA, for that matter).

Rule of law is dismantled in Hungary and Poland.

Journalists are killed in Malta and Slovakia.

Far-right Interior ministers promote discrimination in various member states.

Violating European commitments seems to become a badge of honour for many persons in charge.

The European institutions are not spared, alas. So the recent European Parliament's 'democratic vote' about the rule of law's multiple violations in Hungary looks like a noisy somersault to camouflage a long inertia.

It is difficult to explain why it took two legislatures (and many billions of euros paid by the taxpayers) to discover that there were evident violations.

It is also difficult to justify why Poland was immediately criticised while Hungary was long left in peace – apart from the fact that Fidesz was a member of the dominant party, and PIS was not.

Selmayr case

Martin Selmayr's appointment as the European Commission's secretary general reveals the same hypocrisy (and the same dominant party's support).

It was obtained through (a) the fusion of two promotions in one single decision, (b) the absence of publicity, (c) the organisation of a fake competition with Selmayr's own adjunct, (d) Selmayr's direct participation to the process, and (e) the absence of preliminary information of the commission's members, in spite of the decision's collegial nature. (The fact that not a single of them protested reveals the extent of this generation's spinelessness).

In spite of five procedural defects and the total absence of precedent, the Juncker protege's appointment was declared "perfectly legal" in an enormous mobilisation of the commission's press department.

Critics were presented as 'defenders of fake news', 'anti-European' or even 'opponents of women's promotion' (sic).

Still more interesting was the deafening silence that welcomed this appointment in various circles.

Apart from journalists, nothing was heard – in any direction - from the academics, think tanks, and multiple specialists of good administration.

The European Parliament meekly concluded there was a problem but did not impose anything.

The difference with the Jacques Santer commission's fall is striking. So is the difference between Pascal Lamy and Selmayr.

Lamy left the commission after 10 years, went to other ventures, and came back as commissioner in 1999.

Selmayr tricked his appointment for life. Nothing illustrates better than all this the moral degeneration of the commission's presidency, and generally the institutions', between Delors and Juncker.

Freedom of Information denials

Then there is the slow evisceration of transparency.

Integrated in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the public's access to administrative documents is an essential component of a better European democracy. This right is steadily more contested.

Recently, the parliament refused access to documents concerning the expenses paid to its members, to allow its members "a frank and open discussion".

So, when opinions have been honestly and clearly expressed, citizens may not know them.

Members are allowed to pursue their own objectives (in a matter where they have an evident personal interest) and voters will never know it. This adds to a regime concerning the members' external activities which is already exceptionally opaque.

Last week, an EU Court approved the parliament's refusal to communicate other expenses documents because they contained personal data, or blackening elements would be too costly, or the general interest invoked was not precise enough.

There is thus always a good reason not to communicate documents, unless citizens can make some kind of probatio diabolica (a legal requirement of an impossible proof).

In theory, transparency exists ; in fact, this fundamental right is less equal than others and becomes inapplicable. The principle has become the (reduced) exception.

This is extremely dangerous. It could incite the commission that made (rightly) public the commissioners' trips paid by the taxpayer to abandon this practice.

In a recent overlooked change, the Court of Justice also modified its ethical rules to forbid its members to discuss publicly all administrative matters dealt by the institution, though they have absolutely nothing to do with judicial proceedings.

This unprecedented provision is the best protection one could imagine for bad administration.

The court has simultaneously refused to provide essential documents it sent to parliament and council in the legislative process aiming to double the number of European judges in the General Court, and other documents linked to various appointments, ICT projects, and responses to journalists. (These decisions, like many others, brought this author to introduce a complaint in front of the ombudsman.)

The latest events in parliament, commission and court are very important.

Nothing infuriates more the public than the feeling that rules are bent to protect the interests of the European institution's members (or top bureaucrats). This provokes fury and disinterest in equal parts.

Such "fatal disunities" were at the core of the Roman Empire's fall. If we want to prevent the repetition of the past, it is high time that the institutions' members begin to do correctly their job.

Franklin Dehousse is a former judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union, a former special representative of Belgium and currently professor at the University of Liege

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