Petros Fassoulas / Feb 2016
Beata Szydlo, the prime minister of Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In an unprecedented move the European Commission on 13 January 2016 launched a structured dialogue with Poland under its rule of law framework, in place since March 2014. This move was triggered by the recent reforms in Poland, in particular concerning the composition of the Constitutional Tribunal and the governance of public media. It is the first step in a process that could lead to EU sanctions against Poland if it does not comply with the Commission’s findings.
After failing to take a determined stance on Hungary, the EU institutions are on high alert to react to any possible violations of the EU founding values, while trying not to create a too confrontational atmosphere with the largest new EU Member State.
The European Union is not just an economic venture but also a community of nations built on fundamental rights and common European values. All EU Member States have to be committed to these principles. However, the challenge for the EU is to ensure that observance of these values is monitored, enforced and followed up constantly even when the going gets tough.
Indeed, neither the rule of law nor other fundamental values can be taken for granted. Ensuring their respect is a constant challenge to which governments must live up to. This means that we must be ready to have open discussions about the best way to protect these values in times of change.
The current state of economic crisis coupled with an unprecedented refugee crisis, with racism, xenophobia and hate crime on the rise, has created precarious conditions for an atmosphere of fear and anxiety and for populism to flourish.
Recent developments have shown that our fundamental values are not immune to change and that the progress on democracy cannot be assumed to be irreversible, not even within the European Union. Orban’s attack to liberal democracy is a frightening example.
Unfortunately the means to address challenges to our European fundamental values are rather inadequate.
Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) has been termed the "nuclear" option and many agree that it will remain unused due to its complexity. The Commission has its own pre-Article 7 procedure which at best can be described as an internal understanding how to approach pre-Article 7 situations and it foresees no role for other institutions. The Council has only set up a light political dialogue, the first edition of which led to a series of unrelated monologues rather than a true debate and peer review. The European Parliament, while vocal and devoted to these European values, has held several debates and produced reports, including the 2013 Tavares Report but the recommendations have by and large been ignored by the other institutions.
It remains to be seen what the Commission structured dialogue would amount to in reality. The procedure foresees no immediate sanctions and could possibly only lead to recommendations to change laws. There are no deadlines attached and, most importantly, no certainty that the Polish authorities are willing to cooperate, if the letter of 11 January 2016 of the Minister of Justice of Poland is anything to go by, in which Commissioner Timmermans is accused of attempting "to exert pressure upon the democratically elected Parliament and Government of the sovereign Republic of Poland."
There is also the danger of additional controversial reforms, such as the draft law on the "re-Polonisation" and nationalisation of public media laying down priorities for public media and banning their financing by foreign investors.
The need to strengthen the foundations of our Union by defending fundamental values like the rule of law and democracy is greater than ever. The battle for Europe’s soul depends on our ability to rise above our current challenges. If we allow our values to be dragged through the mad in this time of strain, those that we seek to inspire will abandon us. A vision stripped of values is as hollow as the carcass of a sunken ship.