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(Opinion article in Politico)
There is a hidden crisis in the European Union — a crisis about the rule of law.
Like climate change, it is an invisible, creeping crisis, slowly eroding the very foundations of our societies. And very much like with climate change, our response has been sluggish and inadequate, even as we slowly destroy the values on which our safety, freedom and prosperity depend. When it comes to the rule of law, Europe has an emergency on its hands.
The number of EU countries where democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights are being trampled is growing. Ordinary citizens are responding: They are mobilizing and organizing — demanding that governments clean up their acts and respect fundamental rights and freedoms. But so far, Europe’s leaders have been slow to respond.
At first glance, the European Council family photo looks like a gathering of impeccably respectable gentlemen (and a very few gentlewomen). But have a closer look: You’ll see that their ranks include politicians accused of conflicts of interest and the misuse of EU funds, authoritarian leaders shamelessly replacing judges with loyalists and gagging the independent media, and government officials under dark clouds of scandal — regarding corruption, organized crime, and, when it comes to Malta, even murder.
It’s time to acknowledge that cozy small talk among leaders will never solve problems like what’s going on in Malta.
It’s little wonder the Council has been so ineffective in tackling the erosion of the rule of law and democracy. Look at the images that emerge from any EU summit; it’s very difficult to have drinks and crack jokes with someone while at the same time attempting to hold them to account over serious violations of the law.
Malta is a case in point. It may be a small member state, but it’s a big test case. The situation there is beyond alarming. Corruption has pervaded many sectors of society and politics. Money laundering, the illegal trade in oil, the sale of EU citizenship to dodgy billionaires — all of these have become huge industries in the Mediterranean island. And two years ago, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist seeking to expose corruption in the country, was brutally silenced by a car bomb.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has promised to step down early next year, after a police investigation revealed close connections between his top team and suspects in the journalist’s murder. His chief of staff and two members of his Cabinet have already resigned over the matter.
In Brussels, however, it’s been business as usual. That needs to change. It’s time to acknowledge that cozy small talk among leaders will never solve problems like what’s going on in Malta. The EU must act now.
The European Parliament has already called for the establishment of an EU mechanism on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. It’s time for the European Commission and the Council to work with Parliament to put that proposal into action so that we can guarantee that all EU countries are monitored in an independent and even-handed manner.
The Commission has also said it will issue a report on the rule of law in 2020. That document must include a thorough and comprehensive review, with specific recommendations for all member states. We’ve had enough diplomatic statements. It’s important that we start to call a spade a spade.
The new Commission also needs to tackle violations of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights vigorously, the same way it tackles illegal state aid, cartels or fraud with fisheries quotas. That means starting more infringement procedures and starting them much faster.
In the case of Malta, it also means starting a dialogue about the rule of law with Maltese authorities, which might, in a next phase, lead to the triggering of an Article 7 procedure. The current tepid approach is not “political” — it is pernicious to everything the EU stands for.
The defense of our values does not require reticence, but determination. We need to make sure Malta is where we draw the line: This week’s European Council must put the safeguarding of the rule of law in Malta squarely on its agenda by addressing it at the highest level and asking tough questions of Muscat.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said she wants to run a “geopolitical Commission.” Well, you can't be geopolitical if you are not credible. If the EU is to remain a compelling political project based on democracy and the rule of law, we need to live up to our commitments.