At the beginning of September a petitionto the European Union under the European Citizens’ Initiative provision in the EU Treaty to call in the European Commission to act to monitor the rule of law in all member states. The petition is under the aegis of the EU treaty article allowing European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECIs), which requires such petitions to be signed in at least seven member states and to collect a million signatures to be acted on. The rule of law, which requires an independent judiciary, is a principle on which EU membership is supposed to be based, and which has been severely weakened over recent years in some east European countries, especially Poland and even more in Hungary. The rule of law, along with human rights could also be under threat in Western Europe, especially Italy. Despite the recent setback to the right wing Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, who has ridden high in opinion polls, by fomenting antagonism to immigrants and Roma. Although for the moment ousted from government, the Lega, either alone or with other far right parties, could win an outright majority in the next election, which could still take place soon, and then put into place plans to limit the independence of the judiciary in defending human rights, especially of migrants.
The initiative is promoted by Eumans, a citizens campaigning organization based in Italy, the European Movement, Science for Democracy and the Associazione Luca Coscioni, an Italian organization promoting human rights, especially of disabled people, and. These organisations and individuals, some with legal expertise, have held video conferences across different European cities, including London, to discuss the challenges to the rule of law and human rights in Europe.
From Warsaw, Malgorzata Szuleka, of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, has discussed a report on the threats to the independence of the judiciary in Poland and other contributors have pointed to the encroachment of the Hungarian state on many civil society institutions such as universities where dissident academics have been expelled. Contributions on Italy argued that some actions of previous mainstream parties showed less than full respect for the rule of law, and that underfunding and a failure to tackle long delays in legal cases had made the legal system more vulnerable to intrusive political interference. Ilse Morgensen of The3million (EU citizens in the UK) has expounded on the concerns over issues affecting EU citizens in the UK.
Eumans believes that, while still fragile, the ECI is a potentially powerful mechanism to bring together EU citizens and make their voice heard in the European Parliament. Specific campaigns on issues such as those mentioned above are also being planned across European countries and involving a range of organisations. Another proposal was for a request to the president of the European Parliament to take to task the European Peoples’ Party and Party of Conservatives and Reformers for including the governing parties of Hungary, Fidesz (in the EPP) and Poland, Law and Justice, which do not share the EU’s fundamental values regarding the rule of law. Fidesz members were in fact suspended from the EPP in March 2019 but this happened many years after the Hungarian governing party had acted to weaken the independence of the judiciary and they have not been expelled.
The battles to decide whether or to what extent EU countries uphold values such as rule of law, human and minority rights and fair elections, or for that matter whether to remain in the EU, have to be fought primarily in the countries themselves since the EU actually has little direct power. Article 7 of the EU Treaty in theory allows for the suspension of some of the rights of membership, including voting rights, if a country does not meet its founding values, as defined in Article 2: “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. However, to find a country in breach of these values requires unanimity apart from the country in question. Since at least two countries, Poland and Hungary are according to much legal opinion in breach of these values, notably the rule of law, it is near impossible that one of these would vote to condemn the other. Nevertheless, it is better to acknowledge the challenges to the EU’s values than to ignore them. Indeed it could be argued that countries remaining members of the EU while flouting its basic values, poses as great or even greater threat to the viability of the EU as a country deciding to leave the EU.