Officially the European Union may be a union of sovereign states. But its Commission increasingly has the air of an imperial chancellery, or perhaps the headquarters of some vast conglomerate giving instructions to the directors of its far-flung subsidiaries. The Commission’s annual Rule of Law report, published last week, is a case in point. It is well worth reading if you want to understand the EU mindset.
Nominally a report to the European parliament and a number of central institutions, essentially it is a 30-page memo reminding the EU27 that the rule of law is part of the EU brand — and ordering member states to uphold it without any backsliding. Each country also gets its own report card: ‘good effort’ for Germany, for example, but ‘serious problems: must try much harder’ for Poland and Hungary.
For the EU the rule of law means four things: impartial courts, anti-corruption measures, media pluralism and freedom, and constitutional checks and balances. Of course there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. But the way they are being pushed by the Commission ought still to leave us, and a number of European governments, feeling uneasy.
First, the demands are strikingly detailed. Brussels could have accepted that these matters are a core function of the nation state and — consistently with its vaunted principle of subsidiarity — left member states to get on with the job as they thought best. It hasn’t. On the contrary, the whole exercise is a study in micromanagement and insistence that things be done in the EU-approved way.
There are lots of ways of appointing judges, for example. But Brussels wants it done through specific judiciary councils, as recommended by the Council of Europe. It has also made detailed calls for lobbyist registration rules based on the Brussels model.