The threat to veto EU financing arrangements if tied to the rule of law is gone—but the elephant is still in the room.
There is little doubt that this month’s European Council meeting was a historic moment. Hungary and Poland lifted their threatened veto over final approval of the recovery plan (Next Generation EU) and the budget (the Multiannual Financial Framework), allowing the European Union to cross the Rubicon in its crisis management.
Yet there are few reasons to relax. The recent standoff is just a symptom of an unresolved underlying problem—a worrying divergence on the fundamental values on which the EU is founded. Nor is this new: there have been troubling manifestations, when it comes to European values, in some member states for some years.
What is unprecedented is how the connection between Next Generation EU and the MFF put this divergence in the spotlight. While the veto may be gone, the elephant is still in the room—and it is no longer possible to pretend not to see it.
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This is all the more relevant when so much political capital is being spent to promote the EU’s geopolitical ‘strategic autonomy’, to protect its interests and values. How is it possible to foster fundamental values abroad without an effective regulatory framework safeguarding them at home?
In the long term, the only way to counter the drift on values within the union is by amending the treaties. A bare minimum would be to reform the famous article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, to scrap the unanimity required to sanction violations of EU values. It is precisely unanimity which makes these sanctions, in the words of the former justice commissioner Viviane Reding, ‘in practice almost impossible to use’.
A more ambitious reform, however, should include more structural measures to create a coherent framework. Here, macroeconomic governance could be a source of inspiration. The procedure put in place with the ‘two pack’ and the ‘six pack’—even if questionable in its emphasis on the consolidation of public finances—cleverly mixes the real-time monitoring achieved by the European Semester with peer pressure and a system of ex-post sanctions. Similarly, one could imagine a mechanism for monitoring in real time compliance with fundamental values, based on a scoreboard and a sanctioning procedure.
But a reform programme of this kind does not happen overnight. In the meantime, the union needs an interim arrangement to avoid further crises. Here, we think reputation could play a role. A coalition of willing member states could agree to adhere to operative principles to put EU values back centre-stage.
The European Parliament has already proposed the creation of a ‘comprehensive, preventive and evidence-based monitoring’ through an ‘EU mechanism on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights’. Willing member states could take inspiration from this proposal. Through enhanced co-operation, they could voluntarily commit to setting up a monitoring mechanism covering fundamental values and agree to make their own ‘scoreboard’ public.
This would be a way to reverse the perspective. While the current institutional flaws make it virtually impossible to act when some countries move backwards on values, others could take a step forward by accepting public scrutiny of the very same values. While awaiting treaty change to allow for applicable sanctions, exploiting the reputational effects on those who would refuse to submit to such scrutiny could be the most effective enforcement mechanism.
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On the one hand, this would make it possible to put pressure on violating countries. On the other, member states in a grey zone—Poland and Hungary may be extreme cases but they are certainly not the only ones with problems—would be pressed as well to practise what they preach.
This value-based coalition could build on existing EU efforts, such as the work of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights. In this way, a transparent and structured European monitoring process would be created.
This, in turn, would help to build a framework for dialogue among countries and institutions on the values of the union. The protection and promotion of values would remain a priority and would always be on the agenda.
Realising such enhanced co-operation would be a strong political statement and a basis upon which to build a more structured mechanism when revising the treaties. It would be a way to look the elephant right in the eyes.
This is no easy task. Values are a very sensitive topic in the age of identity politics. Yet keeping on pretending that there is no problem will not make it disappear. If there is one thing recent European history has taught us, it is that looking the other way only makes things worse.