Missing from the State of the Union speech: How can the rule of law be guaranteed in the EU institutions?

The President of the European Commission devoted special attention to the issue of the rule of law in her State of the Union speech on the 16th of September, 2020. Ursula von der Leyen confirmed that the European Union would further expand its rule of law toolkit in order to monitor compliance in the Member States. However, it seems that mechanisms to monitor the compliance of the EU institutions themselves with the rule of law are still not envisioned.

In her speech held in the plenary session of the European Parliament, the German President of the Commission emphasized the importance of the rule of law. She underlined that the rule of law prevents the “powerful” from deciding everything, and guarantees freedom of the press and expression, therefore it is a priority for the Commission. She confirmed that later this month the Commission would adopt its first annual report on the rule of law, a historic step, as the Union has never examined the Member States so extensively from this perspective.

Over the last decade, the European institutions have gradually expanded the range of tools by which they can monitor compliance in the Member States. In 2014, the Commission published its Communication on a new EU Framework to strengthen the Rule of Law. It introduced the possibility of a structured dialogue between the Commission and the Member States for the cases where traditional infringement proceedings were not applicable due to a lack of EU competence. As an alternative, the Council, critical of the Commission's initiative at the time, introduced an annual rule of law dialogue between the Member States. In 2016, the European Parliament proposed an annual global monitoring mechanism regularly examining all EU Member States. At the time, the Commission rejected the proposal considering it excessive, and instead encouraged the use of existing instruments.

However, in the wake of the European election campaign, the outgoing Juncker Commission has pushed the issue of the rule of law towards a new general mechanism. It initiated consultation with NGOs before the 2019 elections. In the post-election transition period, the Commission announced that, as a result of the consultation, starting next year, it would introduce the system of the annual rule of law report as a new, more comprehensive tool. In her speech, Ursula Von der Leyen referred to the implementation of this particular system. Frans Timmermans, who was in charge of the rule of law as First Vice-President of the former Commission, successfully passed on his initiative to the new mandate.

The EU is continuously developing its tools aiming at monitoring the Member States. However, there is still no prospect of a mechanism that would be able to control effectively if the European institutions themselves comply with the rule of law criteria. Institutional anomalies witnessed during the coronavirus epidemic have also highlighted the fact that legal problems can appear in the functioning of EU institutions themselves. A previous article of EUSTRAT has already reported on legal chaos and contradictions in the European Parliament. Yet, the President of the Commission did not address these issues in the recent debate with MEPs. The question arises: until when will the leaders of the European Union, who put so much emphasis on the rule law, forgo delaying the introduction of appropriate mechanisms that can give comforting answers to rule of law concerns related to the EU institutions?

16-09-2020. Ákos Bence Gát

Photo: European Parliament.