Europe

If the Commission won’t act on rule of law, the Parliament will


Adrián Vázquez Lázara is chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs. Sergey Lagodinsky is vice chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs and its standing rapporteur for contentious matters of the European Parliament.

Our European Union was built step by step. No architect came up with a master plan. Instead, this unprecedented project evolved gradually over time, adapting to challenges but always pursuing its initial goal: preserving peace and stability in Europe.

We must admit, despite setbacks and imperfections, it has been a successful endeavor. Member countries have collectively mitigated a number of political and economic crises with a successful mix of determination and compromises. The results were not always perfect, but they were always acceptable to everyone. 

Today’s crisis is of a different kind.

It is a crisis of both European democracy and European effectiveness, and it has two consequences that must give us pause: First, foundational treaty obligations — the duty to uphold democracy, fundamental rights and rule of law — are being blatantly disregarded by some, at the expense of all. Second, and no less fundamental, the EU’s characteristic approach to settling disagreements through seeking compromise has proven itself at times powerless in the face of this alarming trend. 

Last week, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal rejected the primacy of EU law over its national legislation, and this is not the only example. We seem doomed to watch governments of member countries —once regarded models of democratization — sliding down the drain of authoritarianism and corruption. 

This trend is self-destructive for the respective governments and, unfortunately, for the EU as a whole. The EU needs its member nations and the member nations need their union. 

Brexit has demonstrated how populist propaganda and anti-European sentiment can lead to economic crisis. That’s why even as the governments of Poland and Hungary reject basic European values, the citizens of those countries remain committed to the EU and its core principles. After all, belonging to the EU implies not just freedom but also economic and social opportunities, as well as the necessary joint power to succeed in a globalized world.

Indeed, for the citizens of countries at risk of sliding into authoritarianism, the EU is more than a market; they count on it to protect their rights. And so, we need to act. 

The toolbox we have at our disposal is large but also largely ineffective: From regular reporting over the lengthy infringement procedures to the Article 7 procedures deadlocked in the Council — none of the instruments has shown enough teeth to ensure respect for the rule of law.

But there is hope, and it lies with the European Commission. The Commission has been designed to play the role of “guardian of the treaties,” and if it takes this role seriously, it can deliver. 

This is what we, in the European Parliament, expect and demand.

Last year, negotiations on the Union’s seven-year budget presented a window of opportunity for the protection of core European values. In a lengthy process, the EU finally adopted the rule of law conditionality mechanism, a brand-new tool linking respect for the rule of law to EU funds. This legislation has been in force since January 1, 2021, but regretfully, the Commission has made no use of it. 

The Commission has taken some steps in the right direction. It has requested the imposition of financial penalties on Poland for its misguided judicial reforms, and it has put the Polish and Hungarian recovery plans on hold. However, in the face of a challenge of such magnitude, these measures are not enough. Now is the time to put into action what might be the last hope for the many pro-European citizens of Hungary and Poland.

So far, the Commission has refused to apply this conditionality mechanism. But the European Parliament, as the most passionate supporter of the conditionality principle, will not ignore its own responsibility. 

If the Commission is not willing to act, we stand ready to take it to the Court of Justice for its failure. Even before the ruling in Poland, our Committee on Legal Affairs was and still is working on defining the grounds for this future legal action and is about to issue a recommendation to the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.

The time for action is now. The European Parliament must take the lead and use all available means to ensure that the EU remains a bloc of fully democratic countries. Only then shall we be able to save the democratic soul of the EU.




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