The European Commission’s Activation of Article 7: Better Late than Never?

ORIGINAL PUBLISHED ON EU LAW ANALYSIS 

by Dimitry Kochenov, Professor of EU Constitutional Law at the University of Groningen; Laurent Pech, Professor of European Law at Middlesex University London; and Kim Lane Scheppele, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University
‘The European Union is first and foremost a Union of values and of the rule of law. The conquest of these values is the result of our history. They are the hard core of the Union’s identity and enable every citizen to identify with it. The Commission is convinced that in this Union of values it will not be necessary to apply penalties pursuant to Article 7 of the Union Treaty’ European Commission, 15 October 2003
1. What has just happened?
On Wednesday, the European Commission reacted to the continuing deterioration of the rule of law situation in Poland by (i) issuing a fourth Rule of Law Recommendation, which complements three previous Recommendations, adopted on 27 July 2016, 21 December 2016 and 27 July 2017; (ii) submitting a Reasoned Proposal for a Decision of the Council on the determination of a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law by Poland under Article 7(1) TEU and (iii) referring the Polish Law on the Ordinary Courts Organisation to the Court of Justice of the EU under Article 258 TFEU and in the context of which the Commission is raising for the first time (to the best of our knowledge) a violation of Article 19(1) TEU in combination with Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by Poland to the extent that the Minister of Justice has been given a discretionary power to prolong the mandate of judges which have reached retirement age (a similar combination was raised in the first stage of an infringement action against Hungary in December 2015 with regard to immigration issues but this language was dropped by the time it got to the Court of Justice).
Should the Polish authorities finally decide to implement the Commission’s recommendations within three months, the Commission has indicated its readiness to ‘reconsider’ its Article 7(1) proposal (para 50 of the Commission’s fourth rule of law recommendation).
The intensity and repeated nature of Poland’s ruling party attacks on the most basic tenets of the rule of law are unprecedentedly aggressive and in obvious breach of the Polish Constitution, which in our view warrants the Commission’s action (this is not to say that Article 7(1) should not also be activated against Hungary as two of the present authors previously argued in this 2016 article). Indeed, as rightly noted by the Commission, the Polish authorities have adopted over a period of two years no less ‘than 13 laws affecting the entire structure of the justice system in Poland, impacting the Constitutional Tribunal, Supreme Court, ordinary courts, National Council for the Judiciary, prosecution service and National School of Judiciary’. It was time therefore for the Commission to defend the independence of Member State judiciaries and the rule of law (as nicely put by Maximilian Steinbeis, ‘Polish courts are our courts’, that is, ‘if the legal system in a Member State is broken, the legal system in the whole of the EU is broken’).
The media have so far only almost exclusively focused on the first ever invocation of what is often described as the EU’s ‘nuclear option’, which, however, as correctly pointed out by Frans Timmermans in his press conference announcing the Commission’s actions, is a misnomer (as we previously argued here). To put it briefly, Article 7 TEU provides for two main mechanisms: a preventive one in case of a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the values common to the EU and its Member States and a sanctioning one where ‘a serious and persistent breach’ of the same values has materialised (for more detailed commentaries on the mechanics of Article 7 see hereand here).
The Commission merely initiated the preventive mechanism on Wednesday when one could however reasonably argue that we are already way beyond the stage of a ‘clear risk’ and entered ‘serious and persistent breach’ territory following the capture of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in obvious breach both of the Polish Constitution and the Commission’s first and second rule of law recommendations (see Pech and Scheppele, January 2017). Before however offering further details on the situation in Poland, however, it may be worth offering a brief overview of Article 7’s genesis.

 

2. Genesis of Article 7

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