Set up in 2014, the EU Framework to Strengthen the Rule of Law aims to address the systemic deterioration of rule of law in any member state, not only in those countries like Romania and Bulgaria that are already being monitored under a special justice reform mechanism. A potentially major EU breakthrough—after many years of gradually paying more attention to democracy and rule of law issues within its borders—had almost been forgotten until the Polish case. Late last month, the European commission issued a recommendation in which Poland has three months to respond; basically, that amounts to restoring the Constitutional Tribunal to its pre-December 2015 modus operandi.
The commission is unlikely to trigger sanctions under Article 7 of the EU treaty, but the way it conducts this process is as important as the outcome. No one knows whether the EU will be able to use this mechanism to show its intransigence towards violations of democratic norms and the rule of law—as it had proclaimed in a previous attempt to bring a deviant member state to order—and effectively change any government’s negative course of action.
The implications reach beyond Polish borders. It reminds other EU member states that another level of accountability can be enforced, and that the core set of principles upon which the EU was founded is not up for discussion. For candidate countries like those in the Western Balkans, it should signal that reforms must extend beyond their admission into the club—and that new EU members cannot later go back to business as usual. For the EU’s neighbors, whether or not they aspire to EU membership, a successful rule of law mechanism means that illicit or undemocratic actions will not receive support within any EU country. For instance, that could mean that money won’t be laundered in London or Riga under the EU’s watch. And for the EU itself, an effective rule of law mechanism would restore the value and strength of its core principles, treaties and institutions, especially at a time when all of these seem to be in danger.
As the EU prepares for next month’s Bratislava summit, Brexit should not be the only crucial issue on the agenda. Relaunching the European integration project won’t be possible without, among other things, a clear redefinition of rule of law principles. That conversation might have to include tough topics that were not part of such conversations before, like illicit or corrupt business practices, the financing of political parties, populism and press freedom. Attacking the sore points that infuriate all Europeans would remind us of the predictability, transparency, freedom and opportunity the EU was supposed to embody In the first place. And it just might restore some of the confidence in the EU’s values for the lives of ordinary citizens.