West shares blame for East’s rule-of-law problems: Belgian EU minister

Koen Geens, Belgium's minister for justice and EU affairs | Pool photo by Frederic Sierakowski/EPA

West shares blame for East’s rule-of-law problems: Belgian EU minister

Peer review is best way to judge justice systems, Koen Geens says.

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Western Europe bears some responsibility for problems with rule of law in the East of the Continent, according to Koen Geens, Belgium’s minister for justice and EU affairs.

In an interview with POLITICO, Geens backed efforts to link payouts of EU funds to governments’ respect for the rule of law. But he proposed a nuanced approach to evaluating member countries.

Rule of law has become an increasingly contentious issue for the European Union in recent years. Both Poland and Hungary are currently subject to so-called Article 7 disciplinary proceedings, accused of putting the EU’s core values at risk.

Western European states have argued that governments that undermine the EU’s values should not benefit from EU cash, and the previous European Commission proposed a measure linking the rule of law to budget payouts.

That plan remains under discussion among EU governments and the issue has become even more acute now that the new Commission has proposed a huge boost in spending as part of a coronavirus recovery package. EU leaders will discuss the package in a videoconference on Friday.

Geens, who is also a law professor, said there should be a link between rule of law and EU cash but he cautioned against the West judging the East too harshly. He said that if the rule of law has failed to take root in Eastern European countries, that is partly the fault of Western governments in failing to help implant it after the end of the Cold War.

“It’s too easy to blame these countries. The guilt is heavily shared if things aren’t running as smoothly there as we’d wish,” he said, adding that rule-of-law troubles are hardly unique to Eastern Europe.

“It’s becoming a global problem. Judges are under attack in a range of countries, and there are fights between judges and politicians all over the world, even in Belgium,” he said.

The new European Commission has proposed a modified approach to assessing the rule of law, to include an annual report looking at the situation in every country in the EU.

But Geens argued a peer-review approach championed by Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands — under which EU countries would take it in turns to review each others’ track records — would bring better results.

“A peer review allows a look at the real situation on the ground, not just the one that’s in the books. So I believe experts from peer countries should look on a regular basis into the functioning of the judicial institutions of the other countries and the relationship of such institutions with the executive and legislative powers,” he said.

The Commission appears to be pursuing a different strategy, carrying out its own assessment for the new annual report while soliciting input from a variety of other sources.

But Geens should at least be able to rely on a sympathetic ear inside the Commission in his push for peer reviews — the original proposal was signed by Didier Reynders, then Belgium’s foreign minister and now Europe’s justice commissioner.

This article is part of POLITICO’s coverage of the EU budget, tracking the development of the seven-year Multiannual Financial Framework. For a complimentary trial, email pro@politico.eu mentioning Budget.

Authors:
Barbara Moens 

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