Brussels unveils new measures to fight rule of law backsliding

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans.
European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans. Copyright REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
By Alice Tidey
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Over the past two years, the EU has threatened legal steps against Romania and launched Article 7 procedures — dubbed the "nuclear option" — against Poland and Hungary over reforms to their judiciary systems.


Brussels unveiled new measures on Wednesday intended to toughen its response to backsliding concerning rule of law in some EU countries.

The European Union (EU) has clashed with Romania, Poland and Hungary in recent years over alleged breaches.

The core measure will be annual reports on the state of the rule of law in each state, which the European Commission says will help identify problems earlier.

In a similar vein, it will further develop the EU Justice Scoreboard — a tool measuring the independence, quality and efficiency of national justice systems.

To toughen its response against breaches, Brussels warned that it will bring cases to the Court of Justice and "request interim measures and expedited procedures" if necessary.

'Strengthen our toolbox'

Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in a statement that the rule of law "has come under attack in several ways in the past five years".

"The European Commission has been fighting hard to resist these attacks with the tools available to us and will continue to do so. Today, we have decided to further strengthen our toolbox, to promote, protect and enforce the rule of law," he added.

Over the past two years, the EU has threatened Romania with legal steps and launched Article 7 proceedings against Poland and Hungary over reforms that the bloc said endangered judicial independence.

Dubbed the "nuclear option," the measure is the bloc's punishment clause, which can lead to sanctions including suspension of voting rights. The Commission has also been trying to link access to EU funds to respect for the rule of law.

'The problem lies with the Council'

For Israel Butler, head of advocacy at the Liberties EU NGO, the measures are broadly positive and will enable the European Commission to monitor and prevent problems as they arise and "before they get on the agenda".

This, in turn, will allow it to "be a lot quicker off the mark to then use legal cases and infringements proceedings".

Still, Butler said the commission's measures are "a bit late" and also criticised the limited scope of the annual report, which he said should be broadened to include the whole range of civil liberties, instead of just looking at government interference with the judiciary, media and grassroots democracy groups.

"Governments that have a problem with the rule of law are often engaging in hate speech and systemic discrimination against certain groups as a way of gaining popularity. Those kinds of issues will not be part of this rule of law report," he told Euronews.

Additionally, he deplored that the reports will not be drawn up by independent experts but by the commission itself, highlighting that anti-corruption reports have in the past been "watered-down" by the Commission.

However, when it comes to enforcement mechanisms, the Commission went as far as it could by signalling it will request interim measures from the Court of Justice more strategically, Butler said.

"The problem lies with the [European] Council, he clarified. The Article 7 procedures against Hungary and Poland have stalled at the Council level, as has the legislation — backed by the EU Parliament — to tie in EU funds to respect for the rule of law.

"These governments who are tampering with their judiciaries while benefiting from EU funds are quite opposed to this conditionality," he stressed.

"You could imagine that it might become victim to political horse-trading at some point as governments argue how much money should go into different parts of the budget," he added.

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