The Brief, powered by CEN-CENELEC – The triumph of the jargon

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

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.


A message from CEN and CENELEC: Standards power the Green Deal. On 14 October, CEN and CENELEC will celebrate World Standards Day 2020, dedicated to “Protecting the planet through standards”. Europe is at the forefront of the green transition. Read how European standards support and power the Green Deal’s ambitions.


The Roundup

Before you head into your well-deserved weekend, have a read through our latest editions of the Global Europe Brief, the Digital Brief and the AgriFood Brief.

European Parliament budget negotiators walked out on Thursday night from negotiations with member states and suspended all further talks until next week, saying they “will come back to the table once there is a real will from the Council’s side to find an agreement”.

The European Parliament is to test a biometric attendance register for MEPs taking part in meetings at its Brussels premises, internal documents seen by EURACTIV reveal. The move has provoked worry among privacy-conscious members of Parliament, who oppose the move to capture MEP fingerprint data.

A leaked version of the EU-Mercosur treaty negotiation text, published by Greenpeace Germany, has no provisions to ensure the Paris climate agreement is enforced, leaving the door open to further deforestation in the Amazon, campaigners say.

EU nationals will not be able to travel to the UK using their identity cards from October 2021 under new measures announced by the UK government.

Look out for…

  • Foreign Affairs Council on Monday
  • EU summit on  Thursday-Friday

Views are the author’s

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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