by Mariana Canotilho, Editor
Democracy at the crossroads
A little over one month ago, the European Commission advanced its disciplinary procedure against Poland, after accusing Warsaw of failing to address concerns over democracy and the rule of law in the country. The Polish government reacted harshly, stating that this is not the kind of presence in the EU they have agreed on, and affirming that the procedure goes beyond the Treaties and the Commission’s competences.
The situation in Poland is serious but it is not unique. Hungary was the precursor in the authoritarian drift. The Tavares report on the country, published in 2013, denounces the weakening of checks and balances, especially the actions against the Constitutional Court, the Parliament and the Data Protection Authority, the undermining of the independence of the judiciary, the restrictions to the rights of persons belonging to minorities and the interference with the media and the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
The Union has strong reasons to fear the dissolution of the rule of law in the East. But the process of re-engagement with it is long, difficult and complex. One of the more obvious difficulties, from a constitutional law point of view, is that the EU’s own track record concerning democracy and the rule of law during the last ‘crisis years’ is at least fuzzy.
The ongoing crisis has been used to contest the steps taken during the last 15 years towards the parliamentarisation of the EU. In fact, there is a remarkable institutional change within the Union – both at national and European levels – promoted in the framework of an ‘emergency politics’ that tends to enhance the powers of executive authorities and of informal, non-accountable, decision mechanisms, in detriment of democratic representative institutions.
Furthermore, the EU has promoted necessity over democratic consent and effectiveness over deliberative reason as decision’s criteria. It has allowed, justified and sometimes even actively furthered the weakening of constitutional mechanisms that control and limit the exercise of power. This has clearly limited the space for well-minded critics, for alternative proposals, for self-reflection and correction of mistakes. Paradoxically, it has also, as the cases of Hungary and Poland sadly demonstrate, opened the floor for the true enemies of European integration and European democratic values. Will the Union still be able – and willing – to save them?
Picture credits: Pepper Police by MonteCruz Foto.