What makes the European Union unique? The Single Market has made Europe one of the most attractive and prosperous places to live. The Common Foreign and Security Policy gives us a strong voice in the world. But what makes our Union truly unique is that we are a community of values. On this basis, the Union has succeeded in bringing countries, communities and people together, enabling Europe’s longest period of peace, and creating distinct features of a European way of life and identity.
At the center of European values stand the respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. These values are not listed somewhere in an annex hidden away in a long list of legal clauses. No, they are mentioned in Article 2, right after Article 1 which establishes the EU. This prominent place is well justified: it shows that these values are ingrained in our European identity and part of our common story. A story that we don’t only share with our more than 500 million citizens, but which also inspires millions beyond our European shores.
Of these values, the Rule of Law occupies a special place. Some have called it the guarantee of the guarantees: It operates as a safeguard that enables democracies to function properly, and it ensures that citizens and enterprises can invoke their rights before independent courts. Indeed: the Rule of Law is the bedrock of our societies. As John Locke succinctly put it: “Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.”
Therefore, we should do more in order to acknowledge the central role the Rule of Law within the EU deserves. We must render more attention to it. What is still lacking is a regular dialogue among Member States on the functioning of the Rule of Law is in our respective societies. We believe there is a need to set up a new mechanism which allows us to have inclusive and open discussions amongst peers. If we can discuss fishing quotas, CO2 emissions and data protection standards, we should be able to have similarly intensive discussions on the state of the Rule of Law in our countries.
This is why we propose establishing a Periodic Peer Review Mechanism on the Rule of Law. Concretely, such a mechanism should allow a substantive exchange of views on the way the rule of law is implemented, monitored, guaranteed and enhanced within the respective legal and political systems of each of us Member States. This is not about another corrective instrument or even the possibility of sanctions. As a starting point for the debate, we could take into account the views of experts and impartial information from sources, including national, European and international organisations that are specialized in the rule of law. We would review each other in a predetermined order so we will all take turns. In the end, we hope that the discussions could be summarized in a factual report. Of course we aim for a lean and effective mechanism without duplication of existing instruments. Such a mechanism would allow for a dialogue on the protection and promotion of Rule of Law in all our countries, on an equal footing and on a regular basis - it would thus fill an important gap in our EU tool box and give us the opportunity to share best practices. Our legal systems may vary and our national identities may differ, but the Rule of Law is a core value we all share.
At the margins of the General Affairs Council on 19 March, we discussed, together with our European colleagues, the general principles of such a mechanism and there was broad support to now elaborate the details and modalities. We have no illusions that this dialogue will be easy: it will require from all Member States the political spirit to learn from each other, take arguments from peers seriously and show a genuine commitment to strengthening the Rule of Law on our own soil. But it will send a clear signal to both our citizens and the European institutions that we, the Member States, take our responsibility to respect and protect the rule of law seriously and that we want to strengthen our Community of values. Two months before the European elections, we are convinced that this is an important signal to be sent. We owe it to our citizens.
- Didier Reynders is Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium
- Michael Roth is Minister of State for Europe of Germany
- Stef Blok is Minister of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands