Keeping democracy alive: Following the current increase in populist and far-right governments, exemplified by the recent elections in Italy, what legal stance should the EU take on protecting the rule of law for all European citizens?

Committee on Legal Affairs

Chaired by Izzy van Bemmel (NL)

About the Chairperson

Hello, my name is Izzy, I am from Amsterdam, Netherlands and I love EYP. I have recently finished  my last session as a delegate, and will now continue my journey within EYP as (hopefully your) chair at Haarlem. As I love international politics and diplomacy, I look forward to learning more about our topic together and am confident we will find a solution. But most of all I am excited to meet you all and introduce you to the wonderful organisation of EYP, as this will be the first session for most of you. Until then!

The Topic at a Glance

In order for the European Union (EU) to function properly, it is required that all member states operate under the same, or at least similar set of values. Only if these values are respected in all member states can the EU undertake unilateral action and achieve other goals, while respecting democracy and rights of EU citizens.

The values of the EU are agreed upon under Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union: ‘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.’

However, the values stated above are, while agreed upon by all, not always respected by every member state. With the rising cost of living and the current energy crisis, many of the citizens across the EU are growing dissatisfied with the, in their eyes failing, liberal EU. Due to this, far-right leaders like Meloni are on the rise as they are seen as the answer in their opposition to the governments of the last decade.

Questions were already arising around this issue with the more and more open criticism of the EU by countries such as Hungary and Poland. However, with similar leaders in countries such as Italy, Sweden and France gaining popularity, this issue is becoming more and more pressing. The leaders of these movements are taking firm stands against the current EU measures surrounding the war in Ukraine and the economic crisis. Criticism which may prove harmful to these vital measures, since they require unilateral action to be most effective. It is therefore most urgent that these incursions upon the EU values are dealt with swiftly, to protect democracy and the European Union.

Key terms

  • Rule of Law is one of the values stated in Art. 2.  The European Commission defines it as follows; ‘Rule of law guarantees fundamental rights and values, allows the application of EU law, and supports an investment-friendly business environment. It is one of the fundamental values upon which the EU is based on.’ In practice, this means that all laws should apply to all individuals and organisations. Every year a report on the quality of rule of law in every member state is released, according to four pillars; the justice system, the anti-corruption framework, media pluralism, and other institutional issues related to checks and balances.
  • The rule of law mechanism refers to the entire process of checking and reinforcing the rule of law in all EU member states.
  • Populism is the appeal to the common people. With the recent crises in and around the EU, many feel their voices fall on deaf ears. Populist leaders grow in popularity in the face of this dissatisfaction as they, sometimes falsely, point out the EU as the cause of all these problems and pose themselves as the solution.
  • Misinformation is often a key-factor in the rise of far-right movements. Conspiracy theories for example, often promote the far-right as the answer to the often already debunked problem they deal with.
  • Article 7 dictates the course of action to be followed in the case of large breaks in the rule of law in any member state. Art. 7 can be invoked by both the European Parliament and the European Commission, and is carried out by the European Council. The European Council will hold a vote on any measure, which may include, but is not limited to, the suspension of the voting rights of a member state, if the vote is unanimously agreed upon, it is carried out.
    This poses a problem, since multiple member states are in a position where art. 7 can be invoked, causing them to block the vote for art. 7 for each other.
  • The cohesion fund is a fund to encourage economic infrastructure and growth in the lesser developed countries of the EU. It was already ruled that Poland and Hungary would be excluded from them, which has crippled their economies. Other countries with nativist movements on the rise however, like Italy and Sweden, are not included in the cohesion fund and therefore are not as dependent on the EU for their economy, making drastic anti-EU action more accessible to them.

Key Stakeholders

Far-right movements advocate politics further to the right than typical movements and parties on the right. These movements typically place high value on nativism and ultra-nationalism, which interferes with the unilateral, international objectives of the EU. Most of these stakeholders are also typically uninclusive to LGBTQIA+ people and religious and ethnical diversity, which is contradictory to the values of the EU as stated in Art. 2. Far-right leaders often make use of populist strategies to promote their aims. We see these parties already ruling in Poland, Hungary and now Italy, while gaining power in countries like Sweden and France.

It is the task of the European Commission to review the current state of rule of law and produce the annual rule of law report. They then, following the procedure of the rule of law mechanism, discuss this report with the European Council and the European Parliament. If the European Commission finds an emerging threat to the rule of law, they can invoke the rule of law framework.

The European Court of Justice is tasked with the moderation of EU member states, and can impose restrictions when these member states act in a way that does not align with European law.

Key Conflicts

EU unity VS Sovereignty of individual states

The leaders of the movements which oppose the EU often call upon their sovereignty, and that they should operate for the citizens of their countries. This nativist view often gains most popularity during times of economic crisis. However, all member states have agreed on the binding treaty of european unity, these treaties bind member states to a commitment towards all EU citizens, and therefore opposition of these nativists often argue it is not a choice to cooperate with the EU. 

Freedom of expression VS Protection against misinformation

Often nativist movements ground their anti-EU views in misconceptions and misinformation about the EU. For example, during the Brexit referendum it was argued that the EU was harming British trade, while studies from both before and after Brexit showed the opposite. These misconceptions and -informations are seen by many as an obstacle to rule of law and democracy. But at the same time, according to art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights every EU citizen has the right to freedom of expression. The writing even includes the following statement: ‘This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’ It is often argued therefore the EU has no right to interfere with the flow of information in the political process.

Punishment of wrongdoing governments VS Protection of all citizens

Since member states are breaking the European laws, it is seen as logical to punish these nations for it. This is currently being done by the withholding of funding to Poland and Hungary during this time of crisis. However, this is causing crisis and a decline in economic wellbeing for a lot of citizens which do not support these governments. Others therefor argue a different route should be taken to fight these governments. 

Current measures

The rule of law framework is a framework of experts assembled by order of the European Commission with the task of protecting rule of law in member states. They do this according to three phases. The framework will first assess the current state of rule of law and inform the European Commission, then they will make recommendations to both the commission and the member states in question to restore the rule of law, once these recommendations are made they will monitor their implementation and report to the European Commission. The goal of the framework is to prevent threats from growing to a level where Art. 7 has to be invoked.

Countries with prevalent anti-EU movements are, as mentioned before, often most affected by economic downfall. These countries are therefore also the countries most dependent on EU financial aid. It was already ruled in February 2022 that Poland and Hungary would loose access to over €36 billion of funding, and be possibly left out of further recovery aid. This has however only been used by the leaders of these countries to instigate further mistrust and hate towards the EU, which according to them is suppressing the political discourse of Poland and Hungary. Critics also argue that since Poland and Hungary are still receiving other EU funding, this will not sway them off-course and more economic action needs to be taken.

The European Commission has already undertaken a media campaign during the COVID crisis to avoid misinformation, but has not yet tried to tackle any other big initiatives.

Food for thought

  • How can the EU find a way to tackle these problems without enacting article 7?
  • Should the EU condemn populist and nativist leaders for their counter-productive rhetoric, or is this not the place of the EU?
  • How can the EU combat misinformation as a non-state actor without any direct control over the platforms on which this misinformation is spread?
  • How can the EU promote EU values to citizens in a state which suppresses them?
  • How can the EU reinforce EU values to newly nativist countries like Italy?