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Strengthening the rule of law

The rule of law is the cornerstone of all modern constitutional democracies. It is also one of the key values on which the Union is founded, and all the member states agreed to be bound by it when joining the EU.

Violations of the principle of the rule of law undermine the reliance of citizens and companies on their rights and also diminish member states’ trust in each other’s legal systems. Failure to fully implement this principle within the EU calls into question not only the public acceptance and unity of the EU, but also its external credibility.

Strengthening the rule of law is one of the key themes of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Finland is promoting a comprehensive approach, meaning that the EU’s rule of law instruments will be regarded as mutually complementary.

Enhancing dialogue in the Council

Since 2014, the Council has conducted a dialogue on how to promote and ensure respect of the rule of law principle under the EU treaties. At the time of the previous evaluation of the rule of law dialogue, the Council agreed that a new evaluation should be made by the end of 2019.

The evaluation will be made by the General Affairs Council during the Finnish Presidency. The Presidency will work to obtain Council conclusions providing more precise guidelines on how the rule of law dialogue should be prepared, conducted and followed up, and specifying the purpose and objective of the dialogue. The current format for discussions focusing on a specific theme should be replaced by a more general annual debate on the state of rule of law within the EU.

New mechanism for peer review

Finland’s Presidency will follow up on the initiative of Belgium and Germany to set up a peer review mechanism for the rule of law. The mechanism would enable monitoring of how the rule of law is implemented, secured and strengthened in the member states. Designed as a positive and inclusive mechanism, it would serve to enhance mutual understanding and unity between member states.

Commission communications on strengthening the rule of law

On 17 July 2019, the Commission adopted a communication on further strengthening the rule of law within the EU. In its communication, the Commission sets out a number of concrete initiatives to improve compliance with the rule of law. During its Presidency, Finland will advance the Council’s commitment to the Commission’s plans to strengthen the rule of law.

Serious breaches of common values

In case of serious breaches of the Union’s values, the EU can resort to the procedure under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. The procedure consists of a pre-emptive phase that may be followed by sanctions and a suspension of the rights of the member state concerned, including its voting rights in the Council.

At present, Article 7 procedures have been triggered against Poland and Hungary. Finland will take forward these procedures in the General Affairs Council as required by the situation.

Linking EU funding to observance of the rule of law

On 2 May 2018, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a Regulation on the protection of the Union’s budget in case of generalised deficiencies as regards the rule of law in the member states. The objective is to establish conditionality between receipt of EU funds and respect for the rule of law. This proposal is closely related to the Commission proposal for the 2021–2027 multiannual financial framework.

Finland’s Presidency will actively promote work on this proposal and any other proposals on strengthening the rule of law to be dealt with in the financial framework negotiations.

EU external relations and other areas of interest

Respect for the rule of law across the Union has particular relevance for justice and home affairs, and it is a common theme in several ongoing projects in this field.

Finland also intends to promote mainstreaming of the rule of law in EU external relations. Key areas include enlargement policy, implementation of the sustainable development goals of the 2030 Agenda, and the ongoing negotiations for a post-Cotonou agreement with the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

Rule of law will also be addressed in the context of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) for Romania and Bulgaria and in the fight against corruption and fraud. Respect for the rule of law is also closely associated with the capacity of our societies to protect themselves from hybrid threats.

What does the ‘rule of law’ mean?

Rule of law is confirmed as one of the fundamental values of the EU in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. Under the rule of law, all public powers always act within the constraints set out by law, in accordance with the values of democracy and fundamental rights, and under the control of independent and impartial courts.

The following principles are recognised by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights as components of the rule of law:

  • the principle of legality
  • legal certainty
  • prohibition on arbitrary exercise of executive power
  • effective judicial protection by independent and impartial courts
  • effective judicial review, including respect for fundamental rights
  • separation of powers, and
  • equality before the law.

European Commission: Rule of law framework

Inquiries

Henriikka Leppo, Counsellor in EU Affairs, Prime Minister’s Office, tel. +358 2951 6001, henriikka.leppo(at)vnk.fi