Now that we know the portfolio distribution of the future EU executive led by Ursula von der Leyen, one of the biggest eyebrows-raising surprises was finding the rule of law portfolio shattered between the Czech (and incumbent Commissioner) Věra Jourová and the Belgian Didier Reynders. Assigning “Democracy” together with Demography – Dubravka Šuica’s job now – instead of the rule of law called for another big round of eye-rolling among the Brussels crowd, and especially CSOs.
Let’s first see what is under whose competence. Věra Jourová is Vice-President, but with no DG directly under her supervision: she reports and coordinate with the SG on Values and Transparency. Then is Didier Reynders, Commissioner designate for Justice. He refers to Jourová but he has DG Justice on his watch. Rule of Law is mentioned in his Mission Letter, only vaguely in Jourová’s.
Rule of Law has been in the eye of the storm for last three years-or-so because for the first time in the EU history, the infringement procedure foreseen by article 7 TEU has been first discussed and eventually activated against Hungary and Poland. Not only this has made the debate about the very meaning of rule of law a fundamental one ahead of the European elections, but on a more essentialist level, it has fueled a wide and oftentimes deep debate about what the EU is for, what’s its limits to act in a Member State and what’s the limits that a Member State really cannot cross without calling for a EU-driven action in an area, the preservation and protection of the rule of law, where national competence is considered untouchable. Or almost, until April 2019.
And until Timmermans. Besides the current and very concrete concerns, eyebrows started rising among CSOs – and, honestly, any person vaguely concerned by what’s going on in Hungary and Poland – because over this term the competence for rule of law has been on the watch of the first vice-president of the Commission, Frans Timmermans.
Now, why should this President of the Commission decide to lower the visibility given – and thus the importance assigned – to the matters related to the rule of law at times when we witness an increase of the number of Member states where the civic space is shrinking or the independence of the media is threatened, solidarity is criminalised and the very independence of the judiciary system is questioned?
It is impossible not to mention that President von der Leyen was selected in the Council first and then elected in the Parliament with the fundamental contribution of the Visegrad countries, an area where the intensity of attacks against the rule of law is particularly high.
Shall we think that the decision is due to the willingness of Von der Leyen to please Orban and his team of rule-of-law breachers? Shall we suppose that the preservation, protection and advancement of the rule of law will not be a priority over the next 5 years?
The choice is peculiarly striking because it is unmistakably an attempt to shift the attentions given to the matter by the MEPs, the civil society organisations and the political parties onto other matters. It cannot but be interpreted in this sense the idea of drawing indignation over the portfolio dedicated to Protecting the European Way of Life. Energies for attacking the shattering and downgrading reserved to the rule of law will be dispersed, making it easier to get away with it.
President-elect Ursula von der Leyen said: “This team will shape the European Way: we will take bold action against climate change, build our partnership with the United States, define our relations with a more self-assertive China and be a reliable neighbour, for example to Africa. This team will have to stand up for our values and world-class standards. I want a Commission that is led with determination, that is clearly focused on the issues at hand and that provides answers. I want it to be a well-balanced, agile and modern Commission. This team will now have to gain the Parliament’s confidence. My Commission will be a geopolitical Commission committed to sustainable policies. And I want the European Union to be the guardian of multilateralism. Because we know that we are stronger by doing together what we cannot do alone.”
What is the world-class standard that this Commission is going to set for the rule of law and democracy? Looking forward to the hearings.