The EU is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. During the past years, there have been several violations of these values, in particular the rule of law principle. The procedure of Article 7 of the EU Treaty has been launched against the governments of Hungary and Poland. In the first phase of the procedure the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of such values. This seminar addresses how EU policies and mechanisms can best protect the rule of law. What are the main tools the EU should employ and expand to tackle the breaches against its values? How effective might they be? What might be the main shortcomings in political and legal terms? What is the way forward?
Summary of the seminar:
Director Teija Tiilikainen of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs acted as the chair and opened the seminar. In the opening words she brought up the issue in the core of the EU; how to protect the EU’s key values. Tiilikainen questioned whether the current mechanisms for the protection of the values are strong enough. She also mentioned the current political circumstances and the upcoming Finnish EU presidency in relation to this.
The first presentation of the seminar was given by Mr. Christophe Hillion, a professor of EU law in the universities of Leiden and Oslo. He started his presentation by giving a reminder about how crucial rule of law is in the EU, being a founding value in the EU. To become a member, a state must respect all the values listed in Article 2 of the Treaty of European Union and promote them. Article 7 of the treaty states that if the actions of a member state are not in accordance with the values of Article 2, temporary suspension of membership or certain rights of the membership may be enacted. Respect for the rule of law is a functional imperative to ensure that the EU legal order operates on a daily basis and all member states must comply.
Professor Hillion talked about the tasks the EU has to assume and the means that are available for the union to make sure all member states comply with the tasks. In Article 3 the very first task is for the union to promote its values and the same is stated in Article 13, which establishes the institutional framework. Article 13 also obliges the institutions to practice mutual sincere cooperation. Article 7 states that breaches of Article 2 can be sanctioned. Furthermore, Article 258 establishes an enforcement mechanism by which the commission can sue a state that breaches Article 2. Hence, Article 7 is a preventive mechanism that allows dialogue between institutions and member states. It also allows the institutions to start a dialogue with a member state when there is a risk of a serious breach of the rule of law.
The European Union has been enacting an enlargement policy for potential member states since the 1990s. During the enlargement process, the EU Commission helps the countries willing to become members to meet the necessary criteria for membership. According to professor Hillion, in order to guarantee the EU’s power to reprimand a member state, the enlargement know-how should be a part of the procedures against member states.
The second speaker of the seminar was Mr. Paul d’Auchamp, Deputy Regional Representative for Europe in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In his presentation, he talked about how the rule of law is under threat in some EU states to the extent that human right defenders are too scared to do their jobs. In the 2018 World Justice Project the top three performers were Denmark, Norway and Finland. However, the last EU member state, Hungary, was ranked at 93, right above Iran and Afghanistan. Also, in 2017 the EU Commission decided that Poland ran a serious risk of breach of rule of law and therefore utilized the Article 7 preventive mechanism.
According to Mr. d’Auchamp, the EU budget rules can be used to support the EU’s values. For example, stopping funding for countries where the rule of law is breached, or strengthening the conditions that must be met for funding to be provided is a way to further enforce the rule of law. The EU Commission has also proposed ways to support human rights, such as setting up a fund solely for this purpose. Mr. d’Auchamp also mentioned the Helsinki accords (Helsinki Final Act of the OSCE), which were written to ensure human rights in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
The Senior Advisor for Legislative Affairs in the Government Secretariat for EU Affairs, Prime Minister’s Office, Ms. Heidi Kaila gave the final presentation of seminar, in which she focused on the means, tools and mechanisms which can be utilized by the EU to ensure that all member states follow the rule of law. These means include for example Council Dialogue, Commission’s rule of law framework, Article 7 and budgetary aspects. Ms. Kaila also talked about how the rule of law pertains to Finland’s upcoming EU presidency.
Director Heather Grabbe of the Open Society European Policy Institute gave the closing remarks of the seminar. The first point she made was that public discussion regarding these issues is very important. The problems are not new and action has been taken to counter them, but the stakes are constantly getting higher. The EU’s legal order and single market strongly depend on having a working, functioning system with mutual trust. One of the great challenges in the upcoming Finnish EU presidency is to keep the conversation on these particular issues going. Rule of law is fundamental to the entire society and a basis for the prosperity of the Union.
In addition to the need for public debate and dialogue, another important point director Grabbe raised, was the EU institutions’ concern in regards to how money is spent in the member states. The current system needs to be reinforced in order to follow up on corruption cases and ensure that money isn’t being wasted, it would be viable to have a more integrated system for tracking the way the Union’s budget is being used.