After 20 years in ministerial roles in Belgium Didier Reynders has been serving as European Commissioner for Justice since 2019. The first year of his mandate has been shaped by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as by key milestones, such as the publication of the first EU report on rule of law. We met with Commissioner Reynders to hear his insights on Europe’s determination to protect democracy in this challenging time, including what all of us can do to uphold rule of law in our daily lives.
This interview was originally published in the ALDE Party Liberal Bulletin in November 2020.
How is the European Union fighting back to protect democracy and uphold rule of law, currently under threat in a number of EU member states?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for resilience in all EU member states, and it is crucial that we are able to show that it is possible for member states to emerge from this crisis as democratic as they were before the crisis. With the extreme emergency measures put in place in a number of countries, citizens have seen and experienced their freedoms being limited in ways that enter democratic ‘grey areas’. For this reason, it is of utmost importance that we use all the tools at our disposal and act if we come across alarming developments in some member states. For example, in Hungary we have witnessed the government making it possible to criminalise dissemination of false news during the crisis. However, we needed to investigate this decision to make sure it really was about spreading false information related to the virus, such as information about potential vaccines, and not about preventing criticisms against the government, which would seriously limit the freedom of expression. In such a case, we monitor the situation to ensure there is a balanced approach: while protected against the pandemic, citizens still maintain their rights.
The European Commission recently published its first annual Rule of Law Report. Why is this report such a milestone?
It is time that we install a real ‘rule of law culture’ in the European Union. To achieve this goal, you need to show that you pay equal attention to the situation in all 27 member states and use the same kind of approach and practices when it comes to evaluating the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption, media pluralism and the checks and balances in the constitutional or- der. The new report published by the Commission creates and pro- motes dialogue about the rule of law in all member states and the European Union as a whole. It is key to show that you can dis- cuss the rule of law not just at the EU level but also with national parliaments and citizens.
In addition to topics such as bud- gets, structural reforms and pension schemes, the rule of law is also central to the daily lives of citizens. If you have a problem with the authority, you need to be able to go to a qualified and independent judge. If the judge is linked with the authorities, it makes no sense to try to get justice.
Speaking of a ‘rule of law culture’, what can European citizens do to promote and uphold it as part of their everyday lives?
Two things come to my mind. First, try to understand the implications and consequences of the rule of law on your daily life. Continuing on my previous example of having a problem with the authorities, the independence of the judiciary plays a key role in our daily lives. Or, if you are a small business owner who wants to take part in a public procurement, you need to be sure there is a framework to fight corruption put in place, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to take part. When it comes to your daily news, you need to be able to choose between different kinds of newspapers. This is the first thing: to try establishing concrete links between the rule of law and our daily lives. Second, if possible, everyone should take part in public debates about the rule of law. This way, citizens can express their concerns about the situation in their own country or the situation in another member state.
From your perspective, given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, what is the question we should be asking but are not?
The most important question to ask is: what can I do, as an individual, to fight the pandemic? Of course, we should all follow the general rules such as wearing a mask and washing our hands. However, it might also be important to balance the necessity of limiting one’s own freedoms and the fight to help improve the overall situation in your country. Therefore, sometimes it is better to stay at home and limit contacts than to continue to live our lives as if nothing was going on. We all need to think about what we can do, not only to protect ourselves but also to protect others.
In my role as Commissioner, I work towards establishing a greater coordinated approach at the EU level. This was very difficult to achieve in March and April. Now we have made some progress, but we still need to show citizens that there is real action and that such an action is protecting your freedoms. For example, if you down- load a coronavirus tracing app to your smartphone, you need to be able to trust the people who have created the app as well as those who regulate these kinds of apps. When it comes to the COVID-19, the balanced approach of protecting both citizens’ health and their fundamental rights is truly key.
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