Saturday

21st Sep 2019

Reynders is the new Timmermans on rule of law

EU Commission-president elect Ursula von der Leyen named two commissioners on Tuesday (10 September) who will focus on rule of law issues within the EU.

Policing the internal EU rule of law - such as defending judicial independence and independent institutions holding governments accountable, and cracking down on violations of EU rules - has become a toxic political issue that often reinforced perceptions that there is a deepening divide between western and eastern Europe.

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Von der Leyen, in an effort to bridge the gap, has named current justice commissioner Vera Jourova from the Czech Republic as executive vice president for "values and transparency".

But it will be mainly Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders's task, as new justice commissioner, to uphold the rule of law and crack down member states that infringe EU standards.

"It is important that with the topic of rule of law we show it matters for all of us in Europe," von der Leyen told reporters on Tuesday.

"Therefore we have Didier Reynders, as foreign minister, who was one of the first who developed the initiative to have a screening and monitoring throughout the whole of Europe, about any member state where the topic of rule of law concerned," she added.

"It is a topic that is not showing in any kind of geographical direction of the European Union, but we have a representative from the western part, a representative from the central and eastern part, both of them will work closely together in an independent way," von der Leyen argued.

Jourova could come under scrutiny by MEPs during her confirmation hearing in the European parliament as her country's prime minister and her party leader, Andrej Babis had been accused of misusing EU funds and is under investigation.

On Tuesday, von der Leyen defended her future vice-president.

"There is no doubt at all the competence and independence of Vera Jourova," the German president-elect said.

Jourova's liberal allies in the parliament also praised her.

"The strengthening of rule of law mechanisms and the protection of fundamental rights inside the union is critical and I have no doubt that Vera Jourova's is the right person for this job," group leader of Renew Europe, Dacian Ciolos, said in a statement.

Reynders 'will lead'

According to von der Leyen's mission letter, Jourova's tasks will include brokering "discussions between the European parliament and the council on improving the lead candidate system and on the issue of transnational lists" for the next European elections.

She will also have to focus on "addressing the threats of external intervention in our European elections", "countering disinformation and fake information, while preserving freedom of expression, freedom of the press and media pluralism".

Jourova will also "bring more transparency to the legislative process".

And while, Jourova will "coordinate the commission's work on upholding the rule of law, working closely with the commissioner for justice", it will be Reynders who will deal with individual cases.

"You will lead our work to ensure that the rule of law is upheld across our union," von der Leyen's instructions say to Reynders.

He will also be in charge of the commission's "European Rule of Law Mechanism", and will coordinate the EU executive's annual reports on rule of law developments in member states.

The commission's plans to monitor member states through an annual rule of law report still needs to come to force.

Reynders should use the commission's full toolbox to "prevent and identify breaches, and offer targeted support to resolve issues at an early stage", the mission letter states.

"At the same time, you will be ready to propose an effective, proportionate and dissuasive response as a last resort," it adds.

Von der Leyen also tasks Reynders with "tighter enforcement" on rule of law, using the European Court of Justice's judgments "showing the impact of rule of law breaches on EU law as a basis".

Struggle

The EU has struggled to deal with, what critics say is democratic backsliding in some member states, most notably in Hungary and Poland.

The commission and the parliament have launched the Article 7 sanctions procedure against Poland and Hungary respectively for breaches of EU rules and values.

The commission had also used so-called infringement procedures to tackle specific EU law violations and has taken member states to court, but the ECJ rulings can come too late to reverse measures already implemented.

Hungary's government, which opposes the commission's annual rule of law report, has argued that the EU executive is targeting the country because of its anti-migration policies.

Other member states have become increasingly frustrated by the lack of tools to discipline countries which break EU rules and challenge European values.

Reynders, who was initially expected to get the budget portfolio in the new commission, together with German EU state secretary Michael Roth, earlier this year tabled plans for a mechanism to monitor EU countries' rule of law.

Those proposals have fed into the commission's yearly review plans.

Von der Leyen will have to walk a fine line if she is to reach out to disgruntled central and eastern European member states while pursuing a "tighter enforcement" of the rule of law.

"We must defend our common values and uphold the rule of law. In the next 5 years all of the European institutions have to work together closely to allay fears and create opportunities," she said on Tuesday.

Sluggish procedure against Hungary back on table

EU probes into Hungary and Poland on rule of law and democracy are back on the agenda of EU affairs ministers - but with little guidance from the Romanian presidency, without a clear idea where the procedures are headed.

EU divided on how to protect rule of law

Poland and Hungary have argued that rule of law is purely a domestic matter and the EU should respect legal traditions, but Dutch foreign minister warned backsliding was a worry for all.

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