19 November 2020

A health check for democracy & rule of law in Europe: What is the role of the EU, businesses & civil society?

The 15th Brussels Wednesday Social

On 13 November, METRO, the European Movement International (EMI) and ForumEurope brought together different stakeholders from the European Commission, business, and civil society to discuss the current status of the rule of law in Europe. The speakers were Renate Nikolay, Head of Cabinet of Commission’s Vice-President Vera Jourova, Carl Dolan, Deputy Director & Head of Advocacy of the Open Society (European Policy Institute), Claire Fourcans, Policy & Campaigns Director at the European Women´s Lobby as well as Mark Alexander Friedrich, Head of International Affairs at METRO’s Corporate Public Policy.

Rule of Law

For some it may sound strange that we still need to talk about the status of democracy and rule of law in Europe. But the reality is that 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we are witnessing a worsening of the rule of law situation and, consequently, of the quality of democracy in several EU Member States. With such a striking statement the 15th Wednesday Social opened.

Carl Dolan quote

This development took place despite the efforts by the European Commission in the last few years to keep nondemocratic trends at bay, increase public institution’s accountability, and ensure the respect of human rights. In a nutshell, what we call “rule of law”. In this regard, Open Society Foundation’s Carl Dolan welcomed the recent agreement to link the access to EU funds to the respect of the rule of law – an agreement since then blocked in the Council due to the veto of Poland and Hungary. According to Dolan, this mechanism, together with the possibility contemplated to suspend membership in case of severe violations of EU’s principles, provides the European Commission with all instruments needed to ensure the implementation of rule of law in the Member States. Now, the focus should be on enforcement.

Renate Nikolay, Head of Cabinet of Commission’s Vice-President Vera Jourova stated that the rule of law is not only the fundamental pillar of the European Union, but also the cornerstone of an effective single market. Both factors are fundamental for the welfare of European citizens. Nikolay described 2020 as a game changing year for the rule of law in Europe. The report on the rule of law in the EU-27 analyses the democratic quality of our societies by focusing on key developments related to the justice system, media pluralism, institutional issues, and respect for human rights. Concerning the veto on the rule of law mechanism linked to the EU budget, Renate Nikolay recognized that further efforts will be needed to find a compromise with Poland and Hungary.

 

Renate Nikolay quote
Claire Fourcans quote

NGOs and social movements usually make the headlines, but they are also under enormous pressure in some European countries. European Women’s Lobby’s Claire Fourcans referred to the conditional of EU funds to the respect of the rule of law. She expressed a clear warning: The Commission should make sure that reducing funding to Member States for violating rule of law criteria does not impact NGOs depending on such funds negatively.

Mark Alexander Friedrich made clear why rule of law matters for business: stability and predictability are crucial for investments and respect for the rule of law also makes countries more attractive for educated people, having a positive impact on labour markets. Furthermore, trust in the judicial system and having meaningful consultation procedures in legislative processes are essential for long-term investments. Companies such as METRO, operating in many countries, experience the dilemma to have responsibility for shareholders and employees while also facing expectations to be a driver of change by civil society. This was a fine balancing act, as companies increasingly were “corporate citizens”, which need to take a stance for human rights and the rule of law. He further explained that, in the past, interventions of the European Commission helped to ensure fair competition in certain Member States. However, Member States have become much more experienced, smarter, and creative to circumvent EU rules, to discriminate against foreign businesses. According to him, the Commission has become somewhat toothless, something that needed to be changed.

Mark Alexander Friedrich quote

In a final statement, Renate Nikolay welcomed the role of companies as corporate citizens and agreed that companies need a secure investment environment. She encouraged businesses to actively support the rule of law and human rights in countries in which they are operating by using their economic leverage: “Rule of law is not only a legal but also an economic matter”. We could not agree more!

We already look forward to the next Wednesday Social in 2021.

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