Article by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 6 September 2012.
The current debt crisis is putting the project of Europe to a critical test. Our currency is at stake and so too is our economic future. But even more than that is at stake. Trust in the political project of Europe has become fragile. In these difficult times, when the European debt crisis has unleashed previously unimagined centrifugal forces, the task at hand is to stay our course and preserve the fundamental achievements of European integration. This holds especially true in places where this foundation of shared culture and values is imperilled. Recent developments in some EU member states have unfortunately shown us that we cannot take for granted the inviolability of our common foundation.
Freedom and democracy, the rule of law and a culture of political fairness, tolerance and the preservation of human rights: these are the necessary foundations of our coexistence and shared political life in Europe. These are the foundations and defining features of the European way of life. All of the EU member states have pledged themselves to these values in the European treaties. Far more than a common currency, a single market or our common foreign and security policy, this shared way of life is the innermost bond holding us together. It is, ultimately, what makes a unified Europe attractive and credible, far beyond the borders of our continent.
Today, in light of the crisis, it is especially important for us to muster all our strength and resolve in protecting and, if necessary, defending our values. That is why Europe needs mechanisms to effectively rectify problems, whether it’s a matter of impingement of freedom of the press in Hungary or of threats to judiciary independence in Romania.
In both of these cases the existing instruments have proven insufficient. On one hand, the “big bludgeon” in Article 7 of the EU Treaty, originally intended to ensure respect for fundamental values, sets such a high threshold that it has never been applied in practice. On the other hand, while the traditional infringement proceedings punish concrete individual violations of EU rules, in many cases they miss the deeper essence of violations of democracy or the rule of law. They are also much too slow.
It will take a new mechanism to close this gap. This mechanism should be relatively easy to activate and immune to considerations of what may be politically opportune. It should include an escalation ladder with bite. It should also be applicable to all member states and should focus on concrete problems.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense to provide the European Commission – the guardian of the treaties and thus also of the values contained in the treaties – with a new procedure.
If the Commission saw indications of a violation of the EU’s basic principles in a member state, it would prepare a report on the issue and demand that the member state rectify the problem without delay.
If this did not succeed, the Commission could call upon the European Council to take suitable measures, including freezing or reducing funding from Brussels.
The procedure envisaged in Article 7 of the EU Treaty, including tough sanctions, would remain as a last resort.
In future, unlike to date, a European institution, the Commission, would be able to take initiative at an early stage and without having to overcome major obstacles. It would set in motion a process that would strike at the political core of the threat to our values. This in turn would build up considerable pressure from both the public and the other member states, which could ultimately bring grave consequences for the member state in question.
This is by no means a matter of creating a one-size-fits-all European supervisory super-institution. It is for good reason that the European treaties respect the constitutional traditions of the individual member states. Constitutional order is an essential part of national and cultural identity in Europe. Sanctions should thus remain a last resort in this area and should continue to require a majority in a Council vote.
Only when we are ourselves convinced of the force of our values and when we defend them against challenges within the shared destiny that is our own European community, only then do we merit the respect of our citizens and of our partners around the world. This is an important, indeed essential, contribution to building trust in the future of our European project. Trust is truly precious, and we must not squander it.