EU Nations Give Push to Plan for Tougher Rule-of-Law Oversight

(Bloomberg) -- Germany and Belgium claimed widespread support in the European Union for a proposal to strengthen oversight of EU governments’ respect for democratic standards, highlighting the growing political sensitivity of the issue.

An idea floated three years ago to create a “peer-review mechanism” on the rule of law gained momentum on Tuesday when most general-affairs ministers from the 28-nation EU signaled backing at a meeting in Brussels, according to the German and Belgian participants.

“We have a very broad majority -- more than 20 member states -- on the same line,” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told reporters in the Belgian capital. Germany’s state minister for Europe, Michael Roth, said: “It was a long and bumpy road, but today it was a really, really, really huge step forward in order to make clear that the European Union is first and foremost a union of common values, not just a single market.”

Scrutiny of democratic standards within the EU has moved up the bloc’s agenda steadily for two decades as policy makers have sought to tackle a discrepancy between the norms demanded of aspiring members and those enforced on existing ones.

The issue has gained urgency in recent years as pushes in Hungary, Poland and Romania for greater political control over state institutions have sparked fears in the EU of a shift toward authoritarian rule that communism’s collapse in eastern Europe more than a quarter century ago was deemed to have ended.

Hungary and Poland have been forced by the rest of the EU into a special oversight process that, in the worst-case scenario, could lead to the suspension of their voting rights in the bloc. Separately, the EU has drafted legislation that would create a link between future payments from the European budget to member countries and their respect for the rule of law.

Furthermore, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party is facing a possible expulsion or suspension from Europe’s Christian Democratic political family as a result of the erosion of democratic standards in Hungary.

Reynders said the proposed peer-review mechanism would complement existing EU tools for upholding democratic norms in member countries -- including lawsuits at the European court -- and the ultimate goal is to help resolve disputes before they come to a head. He said Finland has vowed to advance the work on the plan in the second half of 2019 when the country holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

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