The opening of a new scenario: the first European Union rule of law crisis.

By Elena Alban.

The Article 2 of the European Union Treaty states: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail”.

Nowadays, democratic values seem to be in danger, even in Europe, where most of the times they have always been taken for granted. At the European Economic and Social Committee Conference on  “Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law – Trends in the EU from a civil society perspective”, held on the 5th of November 2019, in Brussels, the Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL) reported the perception (and the reality) of a general crisis within European democratic culture.

The Brexit and the rise of populism have been born in an unsatisfactory political and economic environment, that has not been able to provide answers toward the crisis Europe is still facing today.

Indeed, the European Union presents a strong and consistent lack, what is better known as “democratic deficit”.

The term “democratic deficit” is used to put in evidence the inaccessibility perceived by the EU ordinary citizens toward EU institutions and policies, due to their complexity. It reflects the absence of an effective European policy, able to provide appropriate answers to the new challenges of the recent years, such as the migration and refugee crisis and the recessionist economic crisis. Actually, the concept does not refer to the inability of European institutions on reacting to these phenomena, but it better concerns the fact that at EU level, citizens do not feel themselves involved. In this regard, populist movements and separationist movements are born as the expression of feelings of anger and disappointment in relation to a world that seems extraneous toward own’s ordinary life.

At the EESC Conference, the president of the LIBE Commission, Juan Fernando Lòpez Aguilar, emphasized the fact that “EU was never meant to be just a market, economic, financial project”.

It was destined at a political goal, that reached its first real turning point in 2009 with the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In particular, he pointed out the importance to link article 2 of the European Union Treaty with article 7, in order to solve the so-called “Copenhagen dilemma”. Indeed, with reference to article 7 the decision of suspension of some rights, as a consequence of the violation of article 2, is submitted only to the competence of the Council (a political body), as the role of the EU Court of Justice concerns only procedular prescriptions (article 269, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

Rule of law, democracy and the respect of fundamental rights are the basis of European Union and it must be imperative for States to respect them, as they are crucial for mutual trust, market and friendly environment.

In this context, the “Copenhagen dilemma” is an extremely high important problem EU institutions have to face, when talking about democracy, as it implies consequences for those Member States that do not respect the Treaty of Lisbon.

Thus, here is the problem: as EU governance cannot still be identified as attributable to the one of a State entity, but it is reflected in the form of “no government”, how can EU effectively act in order to prevent such democratic crisis within Member States?

How can EU manage to put in action more sever policies toward the unrespect of the fundamental values, without finding itself submitted to national self-interested policies?

CIVIL SOCIETY is the answer.

If top down actions cannot work, because of the strong power Member States have within the European context, there is the need to change direction. European Union approach needs to be bottom up. Even if all EU policies are integrated to own’s ordinary life through the State, it does not mean that EU institutions should be totally unlinked to citizenship. The key weapon to face such a global crisis of democracy is to look at where democracy effectively lies: to citizens.

Civil society plays a fundamental role, both for the Member States and for the European Union as it is the scenario in which all policies take place. Even if at the institutional level some EU organizations of civil society are already functioning (like the Conference of NGOs), there is evidence of the need to rethink a stronger cooperation, especially in these years of crisis.

A cooperation that can take life in different forms: through promoting a shared European culture, through the education of citizens on the functioning and the values of EU as an international organization, through the building of new bounds with the activity of the Council of Europe (that plays a vital role in the respect of human rights, by providing every year an annual report on the 47 Member States, and so on the 28 EU Member States too), through a collaboration with NGOs to organize more on-spot visits on countries or through the deepening of monitory mechanisms in Member States (such as the one promoted by the FRRL group on the annual rule of law cycle with a final report synthetizing positive and negative developments and trends that, consequently,  shall be discussed within the Parliament and the Council).

The democratic deficit is not a consequence of populist and separationist crisis, it is the cause and the cause does not lie within member states only, but firstly within EU.

The European Union must take actions: it must involve the direct recipients of its own policies in order to make citizens become aware of what a wonderful project it is aimed to be, if people first decide to stand for it.