The defense of the rule of law and of fundamental freedoms and values has become the new frontier of European integration. The European Union will begin this Tuesday the first review, country by country, on democratic quality, political plurality, judicial independence, respect for minorities and freedom of the press. This is an unprecedented audit exercise in the history of the Union. And Brussels wants to turn it into a surveillance framework similar to the so-called European semester, which obliges states to be accountable each year on their budgetary plans and allows the Union to prevent or punish accounting slippages that endanger the club’s financial stability. The new semester will try to avoid the illiberal drift or the regression of certain freedoms, tendencies already present in countries such as Hungary or Poland that may endanger the survival of the EU itself.
The scrutiny will start this Tuesday with five countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark and Estonia) in the first target. It will take place behind closed doors in the Council of Ministers of General Affairs of the EU, where the heads of Foreign Affairs or European Affairs of each of the 27 EU partners usually sit. In the coming months, the rest of the partners will be reviewed, normally in alphabetical order.
“The supervision of one another will be preventive and will allow the Commission to react much more immediately,” predicts a diplomatic source. And that source points to the recent precedent for the reform of the General Council of the Judiciary that led to a withering criticism of the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, which contributed to the Pedro Sánchez government temporarily putting the project on hold.
The review that is now starting part of the recent report prepared by the European Commission on the situation of the rule of law in each country, a document drawn up with great caution because it is the first time that Brussels has evaluated such internal and sensitive matters as, as detailed in the report, “the judicial system, the fight against corruption, pluralism of the media and other institutional issues in relation to checks and balances ”.
Despite its careful asepsis, the document provides enough ammunition for the scrutiny session to become a crossfire that highlights the gaps that, according to the Commission, the quality of the rule of law presents in all community partners. The scrutiny of each country will last for half an hour. The session will allow the minister on duty to contribute his arguments and then he will have to respond to the darts thrown by his colleagues from other countries.
The Commission is convinced that the periodic repetition of this audit, together with the new instrument that from 2021 will make it possible to suspend the structural funds when a risk of undemocratic drift is detected in a country that endangers the financial interests of the Union, will mean a before and after in the defense of the rule of law. “In two or three years we will be in a completely different situation”, predicted last Friday Renate Nikolay, chief of staff of the vice president of the European Commission, Vera Jourova, during a conference organized by the European Movement International.
The reinforced surveillance also responds to economic reasons. Brussels fears that the lack of legal certainty in some countries or attacks on judicial independence in others will jeopardize the integrity of the internal market. “Companies are beginning to operate with concern in some markets because they do not have guarantees of equitable and fair treatment,” says a community source.
Brussels’ decision to raise the bar on demands for respect for the rule of law has put Hungary and Poland on the warpath, who accuse the Commission of exceeding its powers and invading national sovereignty. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and the Polish, Mateusz Morawiecki, have threatened to block the EU budgets for 2021-2027, which would curb not only the cohesion funds but also the newly created recovery fund against the pandemic .
Brussels does not seem to have taken for granted with the order of Budapest and Warsaw. Last week the Commission raised the bar another notch with the approval, for the first time, of a European Strategy to guarantee the freedom, equality and security of the people of the LGTBIQ community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, non-binary, intersex Y queer). And in the coming months, the body chaired by Ursula von der Leyen plans to present initiatives to prevent and combat gender violence; to protect the rights of children; to guarantee equal treatment regardless of the gender, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation of each person; to improve transparency in the financing of political parties; or to prevent abusive litigation against journalists or human rights activists.
Commitment to the EU Treaty
“We are not invading the competitions of any country”, defends Nikolay. “We only want to ensure that they comply with what they have promised to sign the Treaty on the European Union,” adds the senior official.
Eulalia Rubio, researcher senior from the Delors Institute in Paris, believes that “respect for the rule of law is going to be the main issue of the EU because it is the most serious problem we have.” Rubio believes that the dialogue that begins this week in relation to the Commission’s reports “is important to change the narrative and demonstrate to public opinion in countries such as Hungary or Poland that there is no discrimination and that all partners are monitored ”.
Rubio cautions, however, that the scrutiny process alone is not enough. “The new mechanism that allows suspending funds is also key.” The researcher believes that the combination of both instruments will not be the definitive solution. “But at least it will allow the EU to stop financing a regime like Orban’s.”
Diplomatic sources point out that “the new European semester of the rule of law will mark a turning point in the monitoring of the fulfillment of fundamental values that until now were taken for granted among community partners, but which have been questioned by the drift illiberal in several countries ”. These sources predict that the growing demand will also affect the EU enlargement process and “will lead to a tougher examination of the Balkan countries aspiring to join.”