The EU’s Real Rule-of-Law Crisis


Frustration with uneven application of EU law is a feature of the domestic politics of all member states. It has become accepted wisdom to talk of the European Union being afflicted by a rule-of-law crisis. This is often portrayed as the latest threat to the EU’s cohesion, following hard on the heels of the eurozone debt crisis and the migration crisis. The focus of this new crisis is central and Eastern Europe, where authoritarian governments are alleged to be driving through reforms that undermine important democratic safeguards including the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. This perceived assault on core liberal democratic values has fueled talk of an emerging East-West split that could lead to further EU fragmentation. One problem with this narrative is that it seeks to draw a link between unrelated situations. It may be appropriate to talk of a crisis with respect to Poland given that the European Commission has launched a formal process that could lead to Warsaw being sanctioned over its judicial reforms. But while this threatens to create tensions between member states who must now decide which side to back, no one believes this process will end in Poland being stripped of its EU voting rights.

Indeed, frustration with the uneven application of EU law is now a feature of the domestic politics of all EU member states. Italian politicians, for example, complain that Hungary and Poland are defying EU law by refusing to take their share of asylum seekers. Dutch officials complain that Italy is also defying EU law by failing to send back asylum seekers whose claims are obviously bogus. German politicians complain that Brussels has made a mockery of EU fiscal rules with what they consider its excessively flexible treatment of France, Italy and Spain. Southern European governments accuse Brussels of ignoring EU rules by failing to take action against Germany and the Netherlands for running excessive trade surpluses.

The European Commission accuses Poland of undermining the rule of law; Warsaw says its new system for appointing judges closely resembles that used in Spain, which hasn’t been criticized. Alongside this belief in double standards is a wider concern that some countries are either unwilling or unable to live up to their wider responsibilities as EU members.

The origins of the euro crisis, for example, lay in part in the failure of some countries to undertake the overhauls of their economies to make them sufficiently competitive to cope with membership of a single currency. Governments have been too slow to cut public deficits and debts, overhaul inflexible labor and product markets and overhaul inefficient public administrations.




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