EU to address rule of law issues

New powers will allow Brussels to intervene

 Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. His country is under increased scrutiny after his  government introduced constitutional amendments limiting the powers of Hungary’s top court. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. His country is under increased scrutiny after his government introduced constitutional amendments limiting the powers of Hungary’s top court. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

Tue, Mar 11, 2014, 07:15

The European Commission will today unveil new powers to intervene in countries where there is a threat to the rule of law, in a bid to take a tough line with member states in breach of EU principles.

Concerns about the abuse of judicial and legal frameworks in countries including Romania and Hungary have surfaced in recent years, with Hungary coming under increased scrutiny after Viktor Orbán’s government introduced constitutional amendments limiting the powers of Hungary’s top court.

Justice commissioner Viviane Reding will today announce a three-stage process that will allow the European Commission to intervene if it perceives a systemic threat to the rule of law in member states. But the rules will stop short of invoking article 7 of the EU treaties, which could suspend countries’ voting rights.


‘Systemic problems’
“What we want to do is to identify systemic problems in the system, and engage with countries before article 7 is invoked. Of course, if the problem is still not solved, article 7 will be there as a last resort. But nobody wants this,” Ms Reding said.

Pressure has been growing on the commission to act since Hungary pushed through reforms, including a law that allows the surveillance of senior public officials without court approval. Another change curtailed the power of the constitutional court.


Critic of Hungary
Ms Reding has been one of the harshest critics of the Hungarian government, previously warning the commission could launch infringement proceedings, but other figures in the commission are wary of adopting a harsh stance on Hungary. The new framework sets out a “pre-article 7 procedure” – if the European Commission identifies “clear indications” of a systemic threat to the rule of law in a member state, it will undertake an assessment, and enter discussions. If the situation is not resolved, article 7 can be sanctioned.

“This is not designed to respond to individuals or specific cases. It is designed to tackle systemic risks. Independent justice, procedural rights, the working of the constitutional court and judicial reviews. These are the basis of the law,” Ms Reding said.

Mr Orbán addressed the European People’s Party congress in Dublin last week. His Fidesz party has been in the centre-right grouping since 2000.

Ms Reding said the Ukraine crisis has underlined the need for a strong stance: “Respect for the rule of law is a prerequisite for the protection of all other fundamental values upon which the union is founded. The new tools will help protect our citizens from threats to the rule of law in the EU,” she said.