Debates on the state of democracy in EU Member States have been intensifying. In a debate organized by the CEU Democracy Institute, chaired by Professor Dimitry Kochenov and moderated by Professor R. Daniel Kelemen, Vera Jourova, Vice-President of the European Commission, Clement Beaune, Secretary of State for European affairs in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and MEP Michal Simecka addressed the question how to strengthen democracy at the national level.
By Michal Matlak
After numerous rule of law crises in the European Union, there is a visible development in this area of European integration. It’s not only about the well-known Article 7, but for example the regulation on the rule of law conditionality adopted in December 2020. This new legislation aims to sanction rule of law violations linked to EU funds, in order to ensure effective protection of the EU budget and the interests of its end beneficiaries.
In the meantime it became clear that concentrating solely on the rule of law is not enough if one wants to make sure the EU Member States are fully democratic. This is the reason why the Commission came up with the European Democracy Action Plan aimed at strengthening the free and fair elections, the freedom of media and countering disinformation. A similar idea was at the basis of the report by Michal Simecka on the EU Mechanism on Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights.
The virtual event of the CEU Democracy Institute, chaired by Dimitry Kochenov, Senior Research Fellow at the DI, brought together three distinguished speakers, Vice-President of the European Commission Vera Jourova, French Secretary of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune and Member of the European Parliament Michal Simecka, to present their views on the role of the EU in the Member States. The debate was moderated by Professor R. Daniel Kelemen (Rutgers University), one of the leading voices in the ongoing rule of law debate.
Watch the discussion:
Vice-President Jourova who opened the debate underlined the importance of trust among the Member States. This is, according to her the rationale behind the need to strengthen the EU actions against the rule of law breaches in Member States. But in order to establish trust between Member States, one also needs to ensure that a broader democratic framework is in place, like free and fair elections or the freedom of speech. She talked about disinformation underlining that a freedom of speech clause couldn’t be used to defend it, as the aim of those employing fake news is not to win an argument, but rather to undermine trust.
Minister Clement Beaune said that there’s definitely a problem with the rule of law in some Member States, but it’s not entirely the case with democracy as such, as it is clear that in the Member States where there are problems with the rule of law, the democracy is still in place. He also said that there’s a need to see the European democracy in the broader light: he said that the EU should join efforts in creating clear rules when it comes to financing of the political parties from the outside. He expressed his optimism when it comes to the role of the rule of law in the EU, saying that a crisis of the rule of law in one member state awakens interest in an another - which is a good sign.
Michal Simecka was more pessimistic about the actions of the EU in the area of the rule of law, saying that not much has happened since the rule of law crisis started in Poland and Hungary. He also disagreed with minister Beaune about the status of Hungary saying that according to him this is no longer a democracy (Vera Jourova later used the term “ill democracy” with respect to Hungary, supporting Simecka’s line and referring to the term “illiberal democracy” that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used). He made a point about the importance of democratic legitimacy of European leaders sitting in the European Council and the Council of Ministers - the lack of democracy in one of the Member States could lead to the lack of legitimacy for the whole Council, according to Simecka.
Professor Dimitry Kochenov asked Vice-President Jourova about the Commission’s reaction, as the guardian of the Treaties to the breach of the Treaties by Member States resulting in the unlawful composition of the Court of Justice of the European Union after the lawless dismissal of British Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston and the questionable appointment of a Greek AG in the absence of a vacancy established by primary law. According to Kochenov, the supranational adherence to the Rule of Law is of crucial importance, yet the Commission does nothing to prevent the lawless conduct of the Member States. Vice-President Jourova acknowledged that she is aware of the situation, but didn’t make further comments about it, stating only that “the Court has to be regarded as the highest authority when it comes to the EU Law”.
R. Daniel Kelemen, pulling together questions from the audience, asked about Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2). Minister Beaune agreed that it didn’t manage to stop the rule of law breaches, but, according to him, thanks to this article, Member States can show their concern about serious problems in another country.
Another question was directed at Commissioner Jourova: why is it always too little, too late when it comes to the infringement procedures against Member States breaking the EU law? She replied that European Commission can’t be aggressive in its actions and has to play by the rules. She pointed out that the Commission has won all the cases regarding infringement procedures in the European Court of Justice. She made it clear that part of the problem with the rule of law and democracy in the EU is not only legal, but also political - and the latter can’t be cured with legal instruments. And that was the most important conclusion of the debate.