Rule of law key focus of European Commission measures

Move aims to complement article 7 as lever against Hungary and Poland interference

Minister for EU Affairs Helen McEntee: has welcomed the Finnish prioritisation of rule of law in its presidency. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for EU Affairs Helen McEntee: has welcomed the Finnish prioritisation of rule of law in its presidency. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

A new package of measures from the European Commission to strengthen EU-wide supervision and enforcement of rule-of-law standards was given its first airing to a largely sympathetic Europe ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

Ireland’s Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee, giving the proposals a broad welcome, also welcomed the Finnish prioritisation of the issue in its presidency, and said it was crucial the EU was perceived to treat all member states equally.

The package from commission vice-president Frans Timmermans is part of efforts to complement unwieldy article 7 treaty provisions, which are being used against Hungary and Poland over concerns about political interference in the judiciary and threats to press and academic freedom. Ministers agreed the article 7 procedure against Hungary would be formally launched at their meeting in September.

The commission is concerned to strengthen its enforcement armoury in a way that does not appear to target individual states, and the new mechanism, involving an annual EU-wide rule-of-law review, closely mirrors recent proposals from Belgium and Germany for the establishment of a peer-review system run between member states.

Supervision mechanism

The commission’s plan, which in some ways mimics its economic supervision mechanism in the European “semester”, centres on a “Rule of Law Review Cycle”, which will include a new annual report on the rule of law in all member states as well as a follow-up on this report with the European Parliament and the European Council. The commission, Mr Timmermans says, will continue to use the European courts as back-up.

The EU executive is also proposing rule-of-law “conditionality” provisions for the next budget cycle (MFF) to ensure the union can claw back misspent EU funds. Ms McEntee said the highly contentious issue would be on the table at the ministers’ meeting in October. Ireland had yet to decide its position, she said.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Timmermans said the purpose of his new mechanism was to be preventive in forestalling problems before they arose in member states, and that it was entirely appropriate that as “guardian of the treaties” the commission took a central role.

Clarification of reform

He said the commission had written to Poland recently to get a further clarification of its intentions following a ruling against its “reform” of the courts in the Court of Justice of the European Union. “We are not convinced by their reply [on disciplinary proceeding against judges] and if we are not satisfied in two months we will take them to court again,” he said.

He said he was completely convinced the new commission under Ursula von der Leyen would be as determined on the rule-of-law issue as the current one. “I couldn’t be part of a commission that relinquished the fight,” he said.

Speaking on Wednesday to journalists in Strasbourg, Finnish prime minister Annti Rinne insisted the Finnish presidency was determined to press hard for conditionality in the MFF over three issues – the rule of law, migration solidarity and climate measures.

It is an ambitious agenda that will complicate the task of reconciling and reaching unanimity between net contributors and net recipients of EU funding on a budget likely to face a €7 billion Brexit hole. Agreement by year-end seems unlikely.