In this op-ed published on the European Day of Justice, Adrián Vázquez Lázara MEP (Ciudadanos, Spain), Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs at the European Parliament, explains why we must match upholding the rule of law with a twofold political strategy.
Former US President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin”. The post-war history of Europe is evidence of the truthfulness of this observation. For decades, citizens have relied on the robustness of the European project to uphold the pillars of every healthy democracy: a solid set of rights and freedoms guaranteed and protected by the rule of law, for which a strong and independent judiciary is a key element.
Regrettably, on this European Day of Justice, we are looking with concern at the recent judgement of the Polish Constitutional Court declaring two essential articles of the EU treaties to be incompatible with the country’s Constitution instead of celebrating the great improvements EU Member States have achieved. Such judgment is a de facto rejection of the applicability of European law in Poland and a huge threat to the rule of law, as it leaves a gateway for Polish judges and tribunals to turn a deaf ear on the decisions of the European Court of Justice.
This concerning event – of which the consequences are still unknown – is only the last of a chain of decisions taken by different European governments, including Warsaw and Budapest, to get rid of the legal structure that protects the fundamentals of our democracies. Attempts to undermine judicial independence by removing judges, interfering in the way they are appointed for high responsibilities within the judiciary, the establishment of burdens to prevent opposition voices and the embarrassing creation of so-called “LGBT-free zones” are just a few examples of this.
That is why the time for words is over for the European Union. The seriousness of the situation requires immediate action from the European institutions, and the European Parliament is stepping up to the task. Earlier this month, the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs delivered a recommendation to sue the European Commission for failure to act before the Court of Justice of the European Union, unless the conditionality regulation is triggered. This regulation allows the suspension of EU funds to Member States where breaches of the rule of law ‘affect or seriously risk affecting’ the management of those funds.
This, together with all the tools provided by the European legal framework, including EU soft power and influence on the different national governments, needs to be taken into consideration and put in place to send a clear message: EU membership does not allow for cherry-picking. Member States cannot be allowed to benefit from EU funds, centralised purchase of vaccines and freedom of movement while rejecting basic democratic principles recognised not only by the EU treaties, but also by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This being said, we should also be honest with ourselves. If the strong defence of democratic principles by the European Union is perceived by citizens as a unilateral imposition on their country, we are more than likely to fail in our attempt, no matter how noble or needed it may be.
Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the application of measures to uphold the rule of law go hand in hand with a twofold political strategy:
First, keeping an open channel of communication with governments whose actions are putting our core principles and values at stake. Nothing could be worse than a political leader feeling that they does not have anything to lose. Being aware that respecting red lines can pave the way for affected countries to regain full access of the advantages and privileges of EU membership will be of outmost importance, not only for the negotiation itself, but to preserve the relationship of citizens to our European project.
Second, the EU needs to engage with civil society in countries at risk of a drift towards authoritarianism. Political parties, minority groups, NGOs and relevant stakeholders such as judges, journalists, artists and academics are the most adversely affected by authoritarian policies. Providing them with support, listening to their views and taking them into account before taking any action will decisively contribute to making the EU’s message resonate at a larger scale, even in the most complicated areas.
The task is huge, but we stand for a deserving cause. On this important day, I call on all liberals to stand up for European justice so that we can preserve European peace.
Photo credit: Dominique Hommel, European Parliament 2020.