The EU’s Rule of Law Agenda at a Crossroads

The rule of law in the European Union is threatened by democratic backsliding. A grim milestone was reached in May when Hungary became the first EU member state to no longer be considered a democracy in rankings published by Freedom House. As the EU grapples with the covid-19 pandemic, rule of law has come under further pressure.

On June 12, CEPA hosted a panel discussing how the EU continues driving rule of law reforms in Europe and the U.S role in these efforts. Moderated by Corina Rebegea, Director of the Democratic Resilience Program, it comprised Susan Corke, Director of the Transatlantic Democracy Working Group at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Tom Firestone, Partner at Baker & McKenzie LLP, and Ramona Strugariu, a Member of the European Parliament.

Key takeaways from the discussion (condensed and paraphrased for clarity):

EU institutions and member states show renewed interest in rule of law issues. This is correlated with the erosion of rule of law in some EU member states where governments have used the covid-19 pandemic to consolidate authoritarian power. Hungary was and remains an example of such behavior. The government instituted emergency powers, allegedly in response to the covid-19 pandemic. These powers contained no sunset clauses and were contrary to EU rule of law policies and values.

A silver lining of the pandemic is that it has prompted EU institutions and member states to criticize illiberal actions. A further discussion centers on rule of law conditionality and EU funds, focused on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). Governments that would be subject to such conditionality oppose any linkage.

The EU’s rule of law agenda is the first line of defense against dismantling democracy and is therefore a U.S. government interest. The EU and U.S. agree on the importance of upholding the rule of law. But two obstacles exist to a transatlantic rule of law partnership. One is easily created and opaque U.S. based corporate structures. The second is the high legal standard to prove money laundering in American courts. The U.S. government should recognize that challenges to the rule of law in the EU embolden organized crime. Rule of law erosion is therefore a political as well as a law enforcement issue.

More broadly, the EU and the U.S. government must meet the challenges facing liberal democracy. The covid-19 pandemic, democratic backsliding in the EU, and reckoning with racial inequality in the U.S. have led to a system altering moment. Liberal democracy must demonstrate it can effectively address these challenges, working to rebuild itself through government and civil society actions.

James Colligan is an intern at CEPA. 

Photo: By Martin Krchnacek on Unsplash.     

James Colligan16 June 2020

Common Crisis is a CEPA analytical series on the implications of COVID-19 for the transatlantic relationship. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.