BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s executive on Tuesday agreed new measures to better police democracy across the bloc, tightening scrutiny of nationalist rulers in the east who stand accused of attacking judicial independence and media freedom.
The latest proposal from the European Commission to promote the rule of law, prevent violations and respond to any deficiencies was described by diplomatic sources to Reuters before its official release on Wednesday.
It shows how the bloc is trying to protect itself from the likes of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who have in recent years put pressure on courts and judges, journalists and media, academics and advocacy groups.
The German nominee to take over at the helm of the European Commission from November, Ursula von der Leyen, also promised to introduce an annual rule of law review for each member state.
She backed making EU aid conditional on adhering to key democratic principles in the bloc’s next joint budget from 2021.
The Commission’s proposal would introduce a regular review akin to the one that Brussels already runs for all EU member states’ budgets, their fiscal deficits and national debt.
It would also envisage the Commission hosting an annual rule of law conference with academics and rights groups among other ideas to put the theme more prominently on the EU’s agenda.
It would add to the bloc’s current toolbox of court cases for violating EU rules and the special punitive procedure, the so-called Article 7, which could theoretically lead to suspending a national government’s vote in the EU for infringing democratic principles.
But any such punishment requires unanimity from all the other EU states, and Budapest has vowed to block its use against Warsaw.
EU ministers in Brussels on Thursday are due to discuss again their concerns over the PiS rowing back on democratic standards in the bloc’s largest ex-communist member.
While pressure from the EU has forced the PiS – in power since late 2015 – to drop some of its broad changes to the judiciary, the party has achieved a sweeping overhaul of Polish courts that rights groups say undermines democratic checks and balances.
Orban’s Fidesz party has been suspended from the EU’s biggest political umbrella group, the centre-right European People’s Party, because of criticism of his democratic record.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by William Maclean)