How to break the taboo about EU funding and the rule of law

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[European Parliament/Flickr]

The EU must stop treating the rule of law and democracy in its member countries as a taboo subject. It should be discussed openly and impartially, writes Michal Šimečka. [European Parliament/Flickr]

Democratic backsliding in Europe is evident and the EU must stop treating the rule of law and democracy in its member countries as a taboo subject. It should be discussed openly and impartially, writes Michal Šimečka.

Michal Šimečka is a Slovakian MEP for the Renew Europe group

There is now plenty of evidence that EU money aided the rise of authoritarian politics in places like Hungary. But cutting it off will not – by itself – contain democratic backsliding in Europe. It is time for the EU to finally stop playing defence and turn the protection of its values into a full-fledged policy agenda.

Linking EU funds to the rule of law is a necessity. For years, an implicit bargain between net contributors and net recipients – we pay for market access, you are free to abuse funds – has governed money flows in the EU. But with €1.7 trillion in the next MFF and the Recovery instrument, this perverse equilibrium must be broken.

The Commission must be given leeway to wrest control over EU money from the hands of corrupt governments – unless a qualified majority in the Council stands up to back them.

But the ad-hoc suspension of funds is but one element of a larger project needed to restore and protect the EU’s democratic identity.

It must start with admitting that abuse of democratic values is a European – rather than purely national – concern, and it is OK to talk about it openly and regularly among EU governments and institutions, beyond the dreaded and ineffective Article 7 TEU hearings.

Member States are hardly squeamish when controlling and castigating each other for excessive deficits, debts, or the lack of structural reforms. But whenever Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński attack the judiciary or independent media, it is deemed impolite and unduly intrusive for others to weigh in.

A lazy explanation is that one government’s economic choices affect others in the Eurozone and the single market, which makes it everyone’s business; whereas, by contrast, its handling of the judiciary does not.

This is myopic and plain wrong. A politically subjugated judiciary in Poland distorts the entire single market. When EU companies – or EU citizens – are constrained in their access to a fair trial in Poland, it is everyone’s business.

The same logic applies to other common EU projects, such as law enforcement cooperation. When EU members pool security assets and share sensitive data, it matters to everyone whether Hungarian prosecutors are independent, or whether Polish security chiefs operate under proper oversight.

The Commission should be quicker to enforce compliance with EU law through infringement proceedings when violations occur.

Then there is the broader issue of European democracy. The EU does not inspect nor care much about national electoral processes. Yet national elections bear crucially on the making of EU-wide legislation, by determining the composition of the EU’s key decision-making and legislative bodies – the European Council and the Council.

Hence, citizens in, say, Portugal, have an obvious stake in the integrity of the Finish electoral process, in as much as Finland’s representatives in the Council shape legislation that affects almost every aspect of Portuguese life.

The EU should stop treating the rule of law and democracy in its member states as a tabooed, hypersensitive subject that can only be whispered about or alluded to in vague diplomatic language. Rather, it must seek to bring the issues out into the open, by embedding them in a regularized and institutionalized process.

The best way to do it is through an annual, impartial and comprehensive monitoring of all Member States. The Commission’s Rule of Law Report, due next week, is a good step in this direction.

However, after years of dithering on values, EU institutions would send a much stronger signal if the Commission, the Parliament and the Council signed up to a legally binding interinstitutional agreement establishing a monitoring cycle akin to the European Semester.

This is what I proposed, in a report adopted by the Committee on Civil Liberties in the European Parliament on Tuesday.

The monitoring cycle should not be limited to the rule of law, but also cover democracy and fundamental rights. It should contain explicit links to enforcement measures – including Article 7 or suspension of funds.

Such objective screening would lay a much more credible foundation for a punitive measure than ad-hoc investigations.

It would also inject much-needed clarity into the chaotic and overcrowded field of EU’s rule-of-law instruments, replacing some (CVM for Romania and Bulgaria) while integrating others (Commission’s Rule of Law Framework, Council’s Rule of Law Dialogue).

For monitoring to be of real consequence, it requires a joint political and legal commitment of Council, Commission and Parliament. Their agreement would lend permanence to the exercise, as well as normalize the protection of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights as a proper EU agenda. This is long overdue.

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