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Henriikka Leppo and Kaisa Männistö: What next for the rule of law in the EU? Parting thoughts from the Finnish Presidency

EU2019FI 19.12.2019 11.43
Column

In its Presidency Programme, Finland promised to affirm common values and the rule of law as cornerstones of the Union. During our six months in charge, we did our best to honour this commitment.

Taking the bull by the horns in the General Affairs Council, we organized a public debate on enhancing respect for the rule of law in September, then tabled a set of Presidency conclusions in November, when a large majority—26 out of 28 member states—gave its backing to the reform of the general annual rule of law debate. We also organized two hearings of Hungary in the Council as part of the process triggered by the European Parliament under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, in accordance with rules agreed by the Council in the summer.

Looking ahead

So how do things look as the Presidency nears its end? We think there is cause for optimism. The EU’s rule of law toolbox has been strengthened and the member states have clearly expressed their determination to defend the EU’s common values, in line with the new strategic agenda 2019-2024 adopted by the European Council, which states that “the rule of law, with its crucial role in all our democracies, is a key guarantor that these values are well protected; it must be fully respected by all the Member States and the EU.” 

The incoming Croatian, German and Portuguese Presidencies, and indeed the EU as a whole, can benefit from the improved tools that are now in place. Next year, the Commission will start a new rule of law cycle, which will include monitoring of the situation in all member states and the publication of an annual report. It would be useful for the Council to engage actively in this process. The rule of law is important for us all and a joint effort will bring the best results.

Always keep talking

Throughout our Presidency, we have avoided the blame game and encouraged constructive exchanges and a climate of respect. Preventing problems from occurring in the first place is easier than fixing them afterwards. As the work continues, one thing is crucial: dialogue. Open communication is the only way to heal a situation where member states disagree and appear to operate under different interpretations of EU law. On the other hand, candid dialogue is also a way of engaging ordinary people and encouraging informed public debate. The rule of law exists for the benefit of Europe’s democratic citizens, and at the end of the day, it is up to those citizens to defend it—at the ballot box, in civil society and through the free media. For this reason, we are glad for the publicity that the rule of law debate has attracted over the past six months.

Democracy is at stake

According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, 80% of EU citizens recognise the importance of the key principles of the rule of law. This is encouraging. It shows that the fabric of European democracy is strong. Yet respect for the rule of law cannot be taken for granted. Our loftiest values mean nothing unless they find expression in the way that the courts, politicians and states behave. In the struggle to uphold the rule of law, it is democracy itself that is ultimately being tested—and, let us hope, strengthened and renewed. In Europe, we are lucky to have robust institutions that underpin democratic society and its values. Perhaps the meaning of those values is best appreciated by people who experience their absence at first hand or who see them come under threat, and are spurred into action to defend them.

In unsettled times, it is more important than ever to look after our democratic system, which rests on the principle of the rule of law. The very foundation of European democracy is at stake. In the words of Barack Obama, “One of the challenges of a democratic government is making sure that even in the midst of emergencies and passions, we make sure that rule of law and the basic precepts of justice and liberty prevail.”

Henriikka Leppo, Counsellor in EU Affairs, and Kaisa Männistö, Counsellor

rule of law
values