Tuesday

18th Jun 2019

EU commission plans bolstering rule of law toolbox

  • Timmermans said the commission is politically 'neutral' when it comes to examining EU member states' respect for the rule of law, be those governments left-wing or right-wing (Photo: European Commission)

EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans on Wednesday (3 April) called for a public debate ahead of plans to reinforce the EU's toolbox for dealing with member states that infringe the rule of law.

The move comes after European institutions came under criticism for being unable to rein in bellicose governments in Hungary, Poland and, more recently, Romania, which have been accused of rolling back democratic freedoms and judicial independence.

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

"The EU's capacity to uphold rule of law is essential, it is an issue of fundamental values, a matter of who we are," Timmermans told reporters, adding: "It is essential for the internal market, for investments, for judicial cooperation across the EU."

"A problem in one member states is a problem for the union as a whole," he said.

Timmermans announced a public consultation on the issue.

"There is a growing consensus that further action on the protection of rule of law is needed, and to that end we need a debate," the Dutch politician said.

The commission's own plans on "how to further develop the rule of law framework" will only come at the end of June.

The EU has struggled to deal with governments that put political pressure on the judiciary, target civil society and the media and challenge EU values.

The bloc can use targeted probes into specific national legislation, called infringement procedures, that take years to conclude and often don't produce substantial results.

A so-called "rule of law framework" organises those probes if there are a series of EU law violations.

The other option is the Article 7 sanctions procedure in the EU treaty, which can be triggered if there is a clear risk of a serious breach of EU values, that - ultimately - can result in the suspension of that EU country's voting rights.

The commission in December 2017 launched an Article 7 procedure against Poland, while the European Parliament triggered the same process against Hungary last September.

Both procedures are stuck in the council of member states, as EU countries are reluctant to sanctioning each other.

Meanwhile, Budapest and Warsaw argue the moves are a politically-motivated campaign against their governments.

The commission also called for a debate on the Article 7 procedure.

'Unanimity' stays

Timmermans, however, ruled out the commission proposing a treaty change to tweak Article 7, so that it would only require a majority of member states to sanction a specific EU country, and not unanimity.

Timmermans told reporters a bigger role could be envisaged for the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, and the Council of Europe's law experts, the Venice Commission.

There are parallel proposals, aimed to reinforce the protection of the rule of law in the EU.

In its long-term EU budget proposal the EU commission has proposed tying respect of the rule of law to EU funds, so-called "conditionality", something Poland and Hungary have protested against.

The German and Belgian foreign and EU affairs ministers have also been lobbying colleagues to agree on a regular "peer review" of EU member states to check on the health of the judiciary and respect for the rule of law.

Rule of law has emerged as a campaign issue in the European elections for the lead candidates seeking the EU commission presidency.

Centre-right lead candidate Manfred Weber has been criticised for being soft on Hungary's premier Viktor Orban, a European People's Party ally.

In response, Weber recently published his own initiative in an op-ed for EUobserver for dealing with countries that challenge the rule of law.

Socialist lead candidate Timmermans has been criticised for not doing enough to pressure his party ally, Romania's ruling Social Democrats, to stop backtracking on fighting corruption and increasingly putting the judiciary under political control.

Politically 'colour blind'

Timmermans said on Wednesday said he is politically "colour blind", and added that the commission's decisions are not party political measures, and that the EU executive has been "absolutely neutral".

On Wednesday, Timmermans warned Romania to act on those concerns raised.

"Romania urgently needs to put the reform process back on track," he said, adding that includes "refraining from any steps which reverse the progress achieved in the past years."

He warned against the government passing an "amnesty law" that could let convicted politicians off the hook for corruption crimes.

"I want to warn against any governmental action that would disrupt the Romanian judicial system, by creating a systemic and de facto impunity for high office holders who were sentenced for corruption," he said, warning that the commission will act "within days" if Bucharest adopts such legislation.

"We need results urgently," Timmermans said.

New Polish measure

The Dutch politicians also announced a new infringement procedure against Poland over a new disciplinary regime for judges.

Timmermans said judges have been scrutinised for participating in public debates on judicial reform, or referring requests for preliminary rulings from the European Court of Justice.

"The main aim [of the law] is to systematically subject judges to the political control of the executive," he said, adding: "This has an obvious chilling effect on the activities of judges, and it constitutes violation EU rules."

The Polish government has two months to respond.

Opinion

EU foot-dragging puts rule of law at risk in Hungary, Poland

The European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, has yet to be heard on the forced eviction of the Central European University from Budapest to Vienna. Just months before crucial European parliament elections, EU leaders should not shy away from this debate.

Poland to face EU top court on rule of law

The EU commission is expected to refer Poland to the EU's top court over firing supreme court judges, but Warsaw refused to commit on Tuesday that it will implement future EU court rulings.

EU is not a 'cash cow', commission tells Poland

At more than €100bn, Poland has received more EU funding that any other member state since 2004. The European Commission now wants Warsaw to contribute more to EU cohesion funds, join the euro, and stop backsliding on rule of law.

News in Brief

  1. New socialist group leader to push for Timmermans
  2. Romanian ex-PM frontrunner to head new liberal group
  3. France, Germany and Spain in fighter jet deal
  4. Tusk grilled in Poland over role as PM
  5. Italy is 'most credible' US partner in EU, says Salvini
  6. EU blames Sudan junta for killings and rapes
  7. Report: EU may suspend Turkey customs union talks
  8. Swiss stock exchange could lose EU access in July

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  3. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  5. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  6. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  7. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  8. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody

Latest News

  1. EU urges Swiss to move on talks or face sanction
  2. Frontex transparency dispute goes to EU court
  3. Commission goes easy on scant national climate plans
  4. Macron and Mogherini decline to back US accusation on Iran
  5. EU summit must give effective answer on migration
  6. Spain's Garcia set to be next Socialist leader in parliament
  7. Erdogan mocks Macron amid EU sanctions threat
  8. The most dangerous pesticide you've never heard of

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  2. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  5. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  10. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  11. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  12. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us