Remarks by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans on further strengthening of the rule of law in the EU

I will talk to you about the rule of law today. The Union’s capacity to uphold the Union’s capacity is essential. First because it is an issue of fundamental values, a matter of ‘who we are’. I salute the fact that we have young people committing to the noble art of journalism for their careers in this room. Part of the fundamental values we share is also independence of the media and free press. Usually, when you see problems with the rule of law in Member States, you will also see problems with the independence of the media and free press. This is something that this institution will stand firm on and will fight for. I think this is of great importance.

Also, the functioning of the EU as a whole depends on the rule of law in all Member States. Member States, economic operators and citizens need to be able to trust each other’s legal systems, because it is essential for the Internal Market, for investments, and for judicial cooperation across the EU. A problem in one member state is a problem for the Union as a whole.

Unfortunately, Rule of Law concerns have multiplied around the Union over the past years. Some of them have left the Commission no choice but to activate the Rule of Law Framework and even trigger Article 7, which was a historic first. In fact, there are currently two Article 7 procedures open in the Council. I think there is a growing consensus that further action to protect the Rule of Law in the whole of the Union is needed. And to that end we need to have a debate.

The Communication we present today serves to take stock and initiate such a debate with all those involved: other institutions, Member States and wider society. Because the Rule of Law is a responsibility for all of us. Then, as a follow up in June, we will present our own views on how to further develop the Rule of Law Framework. A Eurobarometer will accompany the release of this second Communication.

The Communication takes stock of the available tools to monitor, assess, and protect the rule of law in the Union. This includes:

  • the Rule of Law Framework;
  • the Article 7(1) TEU proceedings;
  • infringement procedures;
  • as well as the European Semester, the EU Justice Scoreboard and the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

Finally, the Communication outlines three strands to contribute to the effective enforcement of the rule of law:

  • First, a better promotion of existing rule of law standards and jurisprudence at the national level.
  • Second, an early prevention of rule of law concerns to prevent them from developing into grave and serious situations.
  • Third, a tailored response to serious situations.

Again, all these are avenues for reflection, and not, at this stage, concrete proposals. I can only express my sincere wish that this debate will not just take place in Brussels, but also, and particularly, at the national level, in national institutions, in academia and within the European civil society.

The College also agreed today on a new infringement against the Polish government. The Polish authorities adopted a new law on the Supreme Court in December 2017, which, among other things, established a completely new disciplinary regime for judges. The main objective of this new disciplinary regime is, as with the rest of judicial reform, to systemically subject judges to the political control of the executive.

We know that disciplinary officers appointed by the Minister of Justice have initiated preliminary disciplinary investigations and opened disciplinary procedures against judges who participated in public debates or provided public statements about the ongoing judicial reform. They also targeted judges who referred requests for preliminary rulings to the European Court of Justice.

All this has an obvious chilling effect on the activities of judges. And this is incompatible with the requirements of judicial independence as detailed by the European Court of Justice. It constitutes a violation of Article 19(1) TEU and of Article 267 TFEU.

It is important that we act now on this matter, for several reasons. First, of course because judicial independence and effective judicial protection are essential for the functioning of the Union and of any democratic system. Second, because we need to preserve the system of referrals for preliminary ruling as the backbone of the Union’s legal order. You need a uniform application of EU law across the European Union, and to ensure that you need unfettered access of national judges to the European Court of Justice. Third, because the position of individual judges is at risk, with their careers and means of living being endangered for the mere fact of trying to do their jobs independently. In view of the urgency of the situation, the Commission will send a letter of formal notice to the Polish authorities on the matter, and a reply should be given within two months.

Now let me refer to the situation in Romania. I also updated the College about the developments in Romania. Romania urgently needs to put the reform process back on track. This means going forward, not backwards, and refraining from any steps which reverse the progress accomplished over the past years. In particular I want to warn against any governmental action that would disrupt the Romanian judicial system by creating a systemic, de facto impunity for high office holders who were sentenced for corruption. Such a move would compel the Commission to act swiftly.

I have had several meetings and a couple of phone calls with Prime Minister Dăncilă during the past two months. We have handed over more than forty issues to the Romanian Prime Minister. We have also restarted technical discussions on implementing the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism recommendations and the additional issues. We need results urgently.

But I have always made clear that talking for the sake of talking will not be enough and concrete actions from the Romanian side will be needed and will be needed sooner rather than later. The current technical discussions cover all issues: the CVM recommendations, the Emergency ordinances, the transposition of the PIF directive, the victims’ rights directive, the presumption of innocence directive and on freezing and confiscation of assets, as well as the special prosecution section to investigate judges and prosecutors.

While we have managed to restart a discussion at the technical level – and it is a constructive discussion – and a dialogue between Romania and the Commission – which is also a constructive dialogue – regrettably we have not yet been able to conclude that Romania is back on the right track. If these concerns are not met, the Commission will have to act, and use the means at its disposal.

Finally, allow me to briefly mention the latest European Citizens’ Initiative ‘Respect for the Rule of Law in the European Union’. It asks the Commission, amongst other things, for – and I quote: “general legislation making it possible to verify in an objective manner the practical application of national provisions relating to the rule of law in order to strengthen mutual trust between the Member States and to facilitate the implementation of the provisions of Article 7 TEU concerning possible breaches of the Union’s values.”

The Commission has the power to propose legal acts in these areas. We have thus decided to register this Citizens’ Initiative in full. I want to recall that our decision to register this initiative does not prejudge the position of the Commission on the content of the initiative. We will come back to that once one million citizens have signed.

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