Last night the European Parliament delegation walked out of talks on the EU budget. Although the main dispute is over MEPs’ demands for extra cash for some projects, lawmakers and some EU governments also insist that there must be a strong link between the rule of law and the disbursement of EU funds.
The ‘rule of law’ discussion is as divisive as it is elusive. It exposes the still deep differences in political culture between central and eastern Europe, and ‘old’ western Europe; elusive because the concept is hard to pin down and means different things to different people.
In broad-brush terms, the charge of the west European liberal democracies is that the likes of Hungary, Poland and others are guilty of political interference in the judiciary, arbitrary constitutional changes, crackdowns on media freedom and civil society. These charges, in the eyes of this reporter, look fair.
Yet, as the row over the preamble to the European Constitutional treaty demonstrated, few agree on what ‘EU values’ really are, what is ‘the rule of law’?
Viktor Orbán has (to his critics at least) the inconvenient habit of winning elections by large majorities. His governments then use these majorities to pass political reforms by law. That may be unpopular abroad but it’s hardly undemocratic or illegal. If you don’t like the laws they make, vote them out. That is how parliamentary democracy works.
Which is why their standard retort is that the ‘rule of law’ accusations are ideologically motivated.
Quintin Hogg, a British cabinet minister, coined the phrase ‘elective dictatorship’ back in the 1970s and that accurately sums up the regimes in a number of the European countries under accusation. But is that really breaking the rule of law?
The rule of law matters because abuse of democratic values is not just a national concern when dealing with pan-European markets, legal frameworks and many billions of euros in public money.
The state of a national judiciary has a major impact on the implementation of EU-wide legislation. Media, educational, civic freedom and the integrity of elections matter because they produce the lawmakers who decide on EU laws and finance.
We all have a stake in each other’s society. In a supra-national union, rule of law is not only national.
The trouble is that EU leaders never use such simple and accessible explanations. Instead, we have the triumph of jargon: Article 7 procedures that last for years but deliver nothing, “preventive” and monitoring mechanisms – meaningless to all but the most engaged EU-watcher.
MEPs may be right to push national governments to bind rule of law conditions to EU spending, but in the court of public opinion, they are not in a strong place. Many millions of Europeans depend on the €750 billion recovery fund being agreed and dispersed immediately.
Any delays or derailment of the Recovery Fund because of a fight over what looks like a debate in an undergraduate jurisprudence or philosophy class will just look like self-indulgence.
Upholding and protecting the rule of law is one of the building blocks of Europe. But EU leaders have done a dismal job in explaining what it is and why it matters. Until they do, this debate will remain futile and unresolved.
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Look out for…
- Foreign Affairs Council on Monday
- EU summit on Thursday-Friday
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]