Interview with Ramona Strugariu, Member of the European Parliament – Renew Europe, Romania.
Throughout the pandemic, democratic standards have worsened around the world, examples of such developments coming from within the European Union as well. What tools and plans does the Union have to reverse these trends, at least within its borders?
We have a lot of work to do. Some worrying situations have become critical, and I am specifically referring to Hungary and Poland here.
The trend of deterioration for our democracies is very rapid. It is speeding up unless we intervene, and I fear that we might end up with a blitzkrieg against democracy. Not necessarily overnight, but in a very short period of time. That is why I am asking myself sometimes whether we are equipped enough to respond to that or not. And the answer is: rather not. Why?
What Viktor Orbán is doing to Hungary for example is not happening since yesterday, it is happening since around 2010. This example was followed by Poland, which acted similarly against the judiciary, and expanding on other areas, the latest development being a ban on abortion which is a step back to the Medieval Ages. The reason they did it was that they realised at some point that they can act with impunity, and that the European Union is not exactly equipped with those tools to be able to efficiently and rapidly respond to such breaches on the rule of law.
We ignored to deal with the issue for a number of years, but let’s take a look at the instruments that we do have.
“We will never reach unanimity within the Union to apply Article 7 to one member state”
We have the CVM (Cooperation and Verification Mechanism), which is specific to Romania and Bulgaria. It is a very commendable initiative which is related to the acts of accession and implies a lot of recommendations and concrete steps to take, but all of them non-binding.
Then we have the Commission’s rule of law framework and the Council’s rule of law dialogues, which essentially represent some discussions and produce some non-binding recommendations.
Then we move to infringements, and here we have a sound legal basis and that is the Article 258 TFEU. Infringements however are moving quite slowly, Romania for instance has a long list of them but nonetheless, other countries are on that list as well. These procedures are legally-binding and can determine possible sanctions.
There should be an emphasis on education, media literacy, countering disinformation in a responsible way, bringing Eastern Partnership countries closer to the European Project, building resilience within member states, or even talking the citizens through the alphabet of EU values that have a direct influence on their lives.
And lastly, we have the so-called “nuclear option”, the Article 7. The Article 7 paragraph 1 is on a “clear risk” of a breach of values and is activated on the vote of four fifths of the members of the Council and determines the existence of this serious risk. However, in order to move to Article 7 paragraph 2, which is very concretely related to sanctions, unanimity is required, and this ends the story. It is so because we will probably never reach such unanimity within the Union when it comes to applying such sanctions to one member state, as that state will always have friends, or will always have regional strategic partners supporting its position in the Council.
We are a bit stuck, but not hopeless. Firstly, we are looking towards the Conference for the Future of Europe with a lot of responsibility, also in view of changing these mechanisms. It may seem far away, but it is something that needs to happen fundamentally if we want a more responsible European project. Secondly, we do have the conditionality mechanism related to the rule of law, which is a mechanism that is able to trigger specific sanctions upon those member states that are in breach of these principles and values. More so, we can have these measures being taken even when we determine that there is a risk, and not only when an attack on the rule of law has already occurred.
“Sanctions only will not improve the state of democracy in the Union”
However, this mechanism is triggered only if the financial interests of the Union are affected. It is not per se directed against breaches of rule of law, and the causal relationship between the financial interests of the Union and a breach of the rule of law is very difficult to establish. So, do we have a mechanism that is essentially toothless because it is very hard to use, if not impossible, or do we really have an instrument that we can use, even though with some difficulty?
We have a mechanism with a preventive component, that can also be triggered when there is a serious risk of a breach in the rule of law, which can prevent situations when EU funds could be allocated towards ends in conflict with EU values. On the other hand, I am fully aware that there is no perfect mechanism to be triggered in this kind of situations.
Article 7 is in my view an impossible procedure. A serious discussion on how to act more efficiently will come of course after a change in the Treaties. However, we have this mechanism conditioning financing from the EU budget on the respect of the rule of law and this should give us a bit more hope and a bit more space to act.
The media is dying in Hungary. The propaganda machine that Orbán uses to target the population does not need any other source of inspiration, not even Russia, because he does it so well.
Nonetheless, if we refer to sanctions and only sanctions, I am afraid that we will not necessarily improve the state of democracy in the Union. Here I would really welcome initiatives like the European Democracy Action Plan, or the Rights and Values Programme, this kind of actions that are not applying financial sanctions, and therefore create more tension within the European Project, but instead build upon the values that we have to preserve. There should be an emphasis on education, media literacy, countering disinformation in a responsible way, bringing Eastern Partnership countries closer to the European Project, building resilience within member states, or even talking the citizens through the alphabet of EU values that have a direct influence on their lives. All of these will probably be more effective than sanctions on top of sanctions. Yes, we need a mechanism to be triggered in complicated situations, for the Union and for the relationship with third countries alike, but my hope ultimately does rely more on how we can build up upon the values that we have.
“Societies will change governments. We will not be able to do that”
Generous funding has been approved for the Rights and Values programme, with a guaranteed funding of over €600m and also a possibility of extension of this funding to over €1.5bn. This is a programme that is very clearly targeted towards strengthening the civil society and key EU values amongst citizens. Does this renewed focus on more bottom-up action signal a change in approach from the Union?
I think it is simply a wake-up call, and the realisation that we either get stuck forever in an unfunctional mechanism that we built up ourselves, or we start to address in a more proactive way the challenges ahead of us. Disinformation and hybrid war are for instance huge ones. This is exactly the type of action that builds resilience within societies no matter what governments may say.
Governments come and go, and educated societies are the ones that are giving ground to emerging political forces which are capable to economically and socially support the country and uphold these European values. The focus should be rather here, than dealing with some stubborn governments that will not change: societies will change governments, but we will not be able to do that.
Democracy is not a given. It is something that you build up every day.
These governments, especially Poland and Hungary, do have a solid electoral base, so trying to apply outside pressure might actually alienate these citizens. Are we trying to bring societies to a level where they would make more educated democratic judgements on their governments?
The media is dying in Hungary. The propaganda machine that Orbán uses to target the population does not need any other source of inspiration, not even Russia, because he does it so well. It will have an impact upon the people, and their political decisions. And if we are to call it an “informed decision”, we have to ask ourselves what kind of information does reach these citizens.
Maybe we should be looking there a lot more than we are doing it today. Maybe through a consistent, longer-term effort we are able to help these citizens understand that what is happening is wrong and that it will be a huge mistake to reconfirm through vote a leader that is depriving them of information.
“We are in a huge and unequal battle to fight something that we did not address at the right moment”
Are we back to acknowledging that democracy is not something that EU members just have as a given, and we have to build it together? Does that mean that the EU is prepared to take its influence more seriously around its borders too, in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries?
We have seen during the pandemic that we have serious backsliding from those countries which were considered models of democracy, and models of respect for human rights. Democracy is not a given. It is something that you build up every day. Through the civil society, through the educational systems of these countries, through a coherent policy in the Union dedicated to media literacy. We ignored these things for a while, and we are now in a huge and unequal battle to fight something that we did not bother to address at the right moment.
Regarding the Eastern Partnership, I have been part of several discussions in the past days with people from parties in these countries who are desperately calling for support in tackling the crisis. I wonder if we realised that essential, small, targeted steps towards these partners could mean enormously in terms of solidarity, and for their democracies as well.
Vaccines deliveries, at least for the essential medical staff are necessary. Russia and China are looking at this too, and if they get to do it before us, their geostrategic influence and influence in the region will increase significantly. Targeted economic measures for SMEs as well as funds for media freedom are also important.
If we look at the numbers, the Union is doing a lot of things, and it would be unfair to say otherwise. But since the crisis is an effort for all governments, I would not exclude the Eastern Partnership, not even the Western Balkans from this effort. Let us think about it together with them. Let us include them in the Green Deal project and engage with them in our discussions. Let us bring them more in our policies and trans-sectoral cooperation. After all of this, they will naturally come closer to the European Project.
Going back to the new rule of law mechanism: does it protect against governments seizing control over the judiciary, which is a very quick way to backslide seriously (as in Hungary), or does it also open a country like Romania to the danger that inefficient and insufficiently developed justice might end up being punished more than politically controlled justice, which is what we have in Hungary?
In the last years, the degradation that you mentioned advanced so quickly that and I am afraid it might take some time to properly fix it.
A significant effort has to be made, and within the country. I am not saying that the EU should not help: it should, it does, and it is of course fundamental for the European institutions to react when things go wrong. But it is primarily our national responsibility to make sure we do not end up in the situation when we are literally screaming “EU, help us!”. Because we were not so long ago in the situation when we were begging for a message coming from Vice-President Timmermans or Commissioner Jurova to send signals that what was happening in Romania was wrong. I think it definitely did make a difference, because the people out in the streets were probably feeling very lonely in the beginning but these messages coming from the EU institutions encouraged them.
But all of this is indeed only applying pressure. We do have a long list of outstanding recommendations on Justice, and we do have a long list of infringement procedures as well. Whether all of these are fixed, is a matter of national responsibility, regardless of the government of the day.
“We have problems from rather unexpected places”
One of the more encouraging recent developments is the creation of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. In light of the latest conditionalities on rule of law, how influential will this new institution be? And as this institution is still being consolidated, will the stakeholders have the necessary political will to fully empower it to function at full capacity?
You need political will to make it functional, but then you will not need that anymore because the prosecutors will just have to do their job. That is why there is still some resistance from the level of some member states when it comes to delegating prosecutors.
Once set up and fully functional, it will definitely do its duty. They are estimated to start with a number of approximately 3000 cases, and then the average will be of about 2000 per year, which is a lot. For this, they need full support budgetary-wise, and we are trying to persuade the Commission to fund this institution as a full judicial body of the Union and not as a simple agency.
Our only option to provide a secure environment for the European Project and to turn it into a resilience instrument for preserving democracy is to adapt it to the changes and to the world around us.
Nevertheless, we need to observe that we do not have problems in appointing prosecutors from CEE countries, but from rather unexpected places. For instance, Portugal and Belgium are some of the more notorious examples, when the evaluation of the independent selection body was replaced via a political national decision.
Should we expect every state will be treated fairly, or that it will be very easy to bully Central Eastern Europe into a corner since we already have a problem of capital of trust?
I think we are a bit past that kind of bullying, because we have seen that during the crisis, we have had backsliding in the most unexpected places: people are upset in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and France. There is a sign that there is a very vulnerable path and a fragile balance everywhere. When acknowledging backslidings, we are not relying on statements from political sources, but on reports from institutions and the analyses of think tanks and NGOs. It is up to the civil society to signal such backsliding and speak out loudly about it. Luckily, we are not self-evaluating ourselves, and this is one of the good signs that we do have mechanisms within our countries and the Union to support democracy.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely do you think it is that the Conference on the Future of Europe will result in a change in the treaties?
I would say at least 8. I believe our only option to provide a secure environment for the European Project and to turn it into a resilience instrument for preserving democracy is to adapt it to the changes and to the world around us.
We saw during the crisis that in such situations, the tendency is not to act in solidarity and in a coherent manner, but to think of ourselves first. The sad truth is that nobody can secure their own backyard alone. Not in this kind of situations, and not in general either.
About the project
Supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.