On 17 February 2014, the Party of European Socialists (PES) organised an expert meeting ‘Promoting a culture of rule of law in Europe’ in the Humanity House in The Hague. The day started with a welcome by Marije Laffeber, PES deputy secretary general. She raised concerns about the Copenhagen criteria, which are very strict for candidate member states, but once they are an EU member sanctions, criticism and pressure are very limited. Laffeber named the current political situation in Hungary as an example.
Speech Minister Timmermans
After the introduction, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans, held a speech on protection and promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe.
It seems that (western) EU countries are more than willing to tell others about their shortcomings, but when it is the other way around an almost allergic reaction occurs. According to Timmermans, a society cannot function this way: “We cannot draw on solidarity on the one hand, but on the other not provide for it. We need to stand up for the rule of law.” Because of this trend Minister Timmermans made a proposal together with different parties regarding this topic. They are currently waiting for a proposal from the European Commission. Ideas about the West telling the East how to implement rules after enlargement are outdated. It is not a one way street: the West may also be criticized. With dialogue and discussion all parties together can accomplish the best outcomes, Timmermans argued.
Next to his proposal, Timmermans talked about the importance of EU institutions working together and clarify their key priorities. The institutions are often seen as looking for a stronger position for themselves, instead of for European inhabitants. In this process of taking away distrust is also a role for the social democrats: “to make sure that no part of society is left behind.”
After Timmermans’ inspiring speech the audience could ask questions. Laffeber was curious whether an increase in the rule of law promotes trust and interest in the EU. Timmermans said that this is true to some extent because it is only a small part of the challenge of the current one way street solidarity. There is a lot of anger at the moment due to too much promises and too little delivery in the EU. It is important to fix these problems first. Kirsten Meijer, international secretary of the Dutch Labour Party PvdA, asked how promoting the rule of law will look like, and who takes responsibility. Timmermans replied the necessity of an open dialogue. At this moment abuses are seen, but there is no mechanism to discuss them openly in the Council. An example is the Poland hotline in the Netherlands. Almost no one openly criticised this hotline or asked questions about the situation.
After the Q&A session a panel directed by Laffeber, discussed pre- and post EU accession mechanisms to promote rule of law culture. Jan Marinus Wiersma (Wiardi Beckman Stichting and European Forum) argued the importance of trust: “We trust that the rule of law is followed in all EU countries in the same way.” Wiersma was not sure whether a mechanism can be established that goes further than the current name en shame.
Natacha Kazatchkine, from the EU office of Amnesty International, advocates for rethinking EU human rights strategy. She named four commitments that Amnesty uses: First, the development of a comprehensive human rights approach in all policy areas. Second, to put a standard, which third can be used to monitor human rights. This all leads to number four: the actual enforcement of human rights and ways to counter and react to abuses. According to Kazatchkine the legal framework of the EU has gaps concerning this topic, therefore new laws are needed.
Emine Bozkurt, Member of European Parliament for the PvdA, named the same problems as Timmermans: once countries are a member it is difficult to criticize their policy. As an example she took France, who deported Roma people. A lot of people disagreed, but no one made an actual move.
The fourth panel member Maja Nenadoviç, independent researcher, said “if the cat is gone, mice dance on the table.” In her research she calls this a reverse norm transfer: people and institutions who promote changes do not follow the rules themselves, which is a shame. Further she is in favour of less transparency in the discussion process and instead come with one strong unanimous statement for an action or problem, for example concerning the political policy in Hungary.
During the Q&A a question was asked about the role of the PES. “With this big social democratic group we can take action already, instead of waiting on new proposals and mechanisms”, someone in the audience said. To a certain extent (intern) the PES already does this, Laffeber argued, because they suspend members whose actions are not tolerated.
Laffeber closed the morning session with saying the political process to promote a rule of law in Europe just started. Now it is important to continue the debate on the highest political EU level.
After a lunch the afternoon session started in which three researchers discussed their papers on the challenges of democratic transition, chaired by Jan Marinus Wiersma. The audience could ask questions and make suggestions on the papers.