Unveiling the report on Wednesday, the Commission said the aim is to “enlarge the existing EU toolbox” with a “new preventive tool” and kick-start an inclusive debate and rule of law culture across the EU.
The report cites examples of judges who have been dismissed for trying to keep the judiciary independent; journalists being abused and harassed and fraud and corruption at the “highest levels” of government.
It also mentions “worrying developments” in other countries like Bulgaria and Slovenia.
Many MEPs, however, want the EU to go further by linking payouts from the EU budget to respect for the rule of law. Hungary and Poland reject the idea of linking payments to rule of law criteria.
The issue may be discussed at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
Speaking at the report's launch, Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, herself the subject of an attack by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán this week, said the report “fills an important gap in our rule of law toolbox.”
Jourová, who faced calls by Orbán to quit after she criticised his flouting of the rule of law in Hungary, told reporters the report “for the first time looks at all Member States equally to identify rule of law trends and help to prevent serious problems from arising.”
“Each citizen deserves to have access to independent judges, to benefit from free and pluralistic media and to trust that their fundamental rights are respected. Only then, can we call ourselves a true Union of democracies” Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice-President
“Each citizen deserves to have access to independent judges, to benefit from free and pluralistic media and to trust that their fundamental rights are respected. Only then, can we call ourselves a true Union of democracies,” she said.
“Democracy and the rule of law are the foundations on which everything in Europe is based and this report has three main aims: to identify potential breaches of the rule of law; promote dialogue; and increase a rule of law culture.”
The commissioner, who has won the backing of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her spat with Orbán, said attacks on media freedom and the judiciary, along with corruption, amounted to an “undrinkable cocktail.”
She said, “I know about these things and have first-hand experience of them because I grew up living under an authoritarian regime. This was where equality in law was an illusion, politically-appointed judges did not serve justice and I had to listen to radio free Europe in order to get a different perspective to the one presented by the media where I lived.”
“The aim is to detect rule of law issues early on and prevent them from happening.”
She told reporters, “My message to those who wish to flout the rule of law is we will not shy away from launching infringement procedures or Article 7.”
Without mentioning Viktor Orbán, she said, “We have listened to those in Hungary and Poland saying that we should compare all systems and I agree on the need for a broader and bigger picture of the rule of law situation in all Member States.”
“As Parliament, we have been asking for a much broader EU Mechanism for years already, which is not only focusing on rule of law, but also takes into consideration the protection of fundamental rights” Birgit Sippel, S&D spokesperson on civil liberties, justice and home affairs
Her comments were shared by Commissioner for Justice and Consumers, Didier Reynders, who, speaking at the same news conference in Brussels, said the aim is to “share good practices and pre-empt challenges before they become entrenched.”
“The goal is to instil a real rule of law culture across the EU and trigger a genuine debate at national and EU level.”
The governments in Hungary and, more recently, Poland have long been at loggerheads with the EU over accusations that they undercut democratic standards.
While both post-communist states benefit from generous EU funds, their rulers have come under pressure for putting courts and judges, media and academics, non-governmental organisations and rights groups under direct government control.
Poland and Hungary are currently being investigated by the EU for allegedly undermining the independence of the judiciary, media and non-governmental organisations.
Reaction to the rule of law report was swift with Maltese member Roberta Metsola, EPP spokeswoman for Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee, demanding, “It now needs to be backed up with action and consequences to effectively prevent breaches.”
The report, she said, “raises serious issues that cannot be ignored.”
In a statement, the Socialists and Democrats Group said the report was “an additional tool to detect deficiencies at the earliest possible stage,” but added, “Nevertheless, we reiterate our call for an efficient tool to defend democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in Europe, given that despite the article 7 procedure that was launched against Poland and Hungary, the Polish and Hungarian governments are ruthlessly continuing their anti-democratic ways.”
Further comment came from Birgit Sippel, S&D spokesperson on civil liberties, justice and home affairs, who said the report “ is a good first step in order to put forward an effective tool to stop the spread of an undemocratic disease throughout Europe.”
But she added, “Yet, as Parliament, we have been asking for a much broader EU Mechanism for years already, which is not only focusing on rule of law, but also takes into consideration the protection of fundamental rights.”
“A yearly Commission report limited to institutional aspects will serve no purpose, especially when the reports do not lead to concrete recommendations per Member State.”
For this new preventative tool to be credible in the eyes of the citizens whose fundamental rights we are trying to protect. They need to know that the EU has the courage to act if there is a systemic and persistent breach of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights.”