Under the radar, an EU institution flexes its muscles
All one hears about the European Union these days are the travails of the never-ending Brexit saga or the organization’s angst about migration.
The roots of the EU date to the aftermath of the Second World War and the establishment of the Council of Europe. It is built on a foundation of shared values such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the press and human rights. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the EU made it possible for former Warsaw Pact members in the Baltic and Central Europe to become integrated into the European family of nations — and this without much conflict.
There is a case to be made that the organization needs reform. Its institutions also need to become more accessible. Discontent with the unwieldy bureaucracy is widespread throughout its (still) 28 member countries. Brexit pioneer Nigel Farage is not alone when he accuses the EU of being out of touch with what ordinary European citizens need and want. Right-wing populist parties have achieved power, influence or both in former eastern-bloc countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic; and in the “old West” in Austria, Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands.
Populists have been in charge of the political agenda in Poland since Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party gained an absolute majority in parliament in 2015. Brussels and several EU member governments grew concerned when the Polish government took de facto control of the state-run television station. Mainstream EU politicians were further disconcerted when President Andrzej Duda sent several Supreme Court judges into early retirement and replaced them with 27 new ones who held views more to his liking. Not only did this create outrage among the political and legal elite in the EU, it also provoked the president of the Polish Supreme Court to file a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The ECJ ruled last week that the Polish executive branch did not have the right to break the term of office of the existing justices, and that they must be reinstated to the Supreme Court with immediate effect and their replacements withdrawn.
There is no doubt that the EU and its institutions need reform to be fit for the challenges of the 21st century.
The ECJ ruling was big news in Poland as it curbed the powers of the ruling party in favor of due legal process. The timing was particularly pertinent as the Poles vote on Sunday in the first round of local government elections. In other European countries the news barely made it on to the front pages, and the world’s media ignored it amid all the developments in North America and the Middle East.
The ruling was nonetheless significant; it proved that while the EU and its institutions need reform, they are indispensable to safeguard the value system on which the organization is built. The ECJ ruling did more than set boundaries to the Polish executive branch. It set a precedent, which ensures that the rule of law will prevail in Poland, and in the other EU member states. The ruling’s relevance goes beyond the narrow confines of jurisprudence, and reaches into the worlds of politics and the economy.
Democracies are built on due process and trust in citizens’ right to go to court and be heard by impartial judges. This means the executive branch cannot be permitted undue influence over courts or the legal process. In the same vein, prosperous economies are built on frameworks that give investors the certainty that the rule of law will protect their investments; and that they have legal recourse if things go wrong. The rule of law also protects workers and other stakeholders, and makes society as a whole more stable. This gives the ECJ ruling importance beyond Poland’s borders. It signals to governments, people and investors that the rule of law matters in the European Union, and cannot easily be tampered with.
There is no doubt that the EU and its institutions need reform to be fit for the challenges of the 21st century. That said, the ECJ proved last week that, when it really matters, some of these institutions can be relied upon.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources