Clash Between Member States And EU As EU Looks To Boost Rule Of Law

The European Union (EU) has announced it is in favor of tying funding to a level of observance rule of law in member states, according to the AP. The measures discussed in a European Commission meeting on April 25 would cut certain EU funding to states where judicial independence is under fire, writes the Financial Times. Poland is the first to voice opposition to this proposal, arguing that the new rule would apply “unfair political pressure” to a state whose institutions are already struggling and are rejecting the power of the EU to impose such restrictions on its member states.

This proposal comes as the conservative government in Poland is under increasing pressure after its move last year to overhaul the judiciary, giving the government more control over the judicial branch. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party  has argued this move was necessary to curb corruption and inefficiency in the judiciary itself, writes Radio Poland. The EU, however, viewed the move with trepidation, going so far in December 2017 as to use article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland. This article allows EU member states to sanction states that are in a “clear risk of a serious breach” of  EU’s stated values.

Poland has argued that both the triggering of Article 7 and the proposed rule of law mechanism are a sign of bad faith on behalf of the EU, and that Brussels has ignored other, similar reforms to the judicial branch in other EU states. EU officials, however, have said that Warsaw’s changes go above and beyond other states’ judicial reforms, creating a system where the independence of the judiciary is impeded.

The EU has long considered itself, and sought to act, as a values-based body, yet, as the Centre for European Reform notes, has struggled with how to promote and protect its values in member states. The  attempt to tie adherence to rule of law to funding is the EU’s most recent attempt at protecting these values. Despite push back, the EU’s desire to protect the rule of law is sound. States with a weak institution of rule of law are less likely to be effective spenders of EU funds, and may face situations where corruption or inefficiency damage the ability to properly manage their government and finances. Taken from this perspective, the EU’s attempt to tie the two together can be seen not only as a way to protect the rule of law and the union but also to shore up a states’s stability to the benefit of all. There is also a concern, however, that increased pressure from the EU might caught member states to more firmly retrench themselves against reform, leading to increased political conflict.

Poland currently stands at the centre of the battle over the ability of sovereign states’s to change their rules of law, but recent alterations to the rule of law in Hungary are also likely to come under fire with the new proposal. Hungary has already stated that it would stand with Poland against what it considers unjust and coercive measures by the EU. In a climate that has already produced various tests of strength for the EU, including the 2016 Brexit vote and push back against the EU by right-wing political parties across Europe, anti-EU stances by Poland and Hungary sparked by this new measure may prove detrimental the stability of Europe’s foremost institution at a time when EU leadership and global participation are needed most.

As of May 14th, the European Commission has given Poland until late June to settle this dispute, putting a tangible timeline on an issue that has been brewing for some time. In a news conference given by Frans Timmermans, the EU’s executive deputy chief, he said,  “I hope the Polish government will see that it has to take a few more steps for us to be able to declare that the systemic threat to the rule of law is no longer there.”

Such statements are a large shift from statements made in mid-April, where Timmermans stated, “We are making progress, […] we will need to continue this dialogue to achieve more concrete progress.” Where before the EU and Poland appeared to be collaborating, the pressure now seems to lie on Poland to fulfill the standards set by the EU whether they wish to or not. However, by moving away from this collaborative attitude, the EU makes it difficult for Poland to reach a conclusion that will leave both parties satisfied. Until the EU works with Poland again, openly discussing the situations and providing the necessary support, it seems unlikely that a resolution will be reached by the late June deadline.