For the first time, the European Council has enshrined a commitment to the rule of law and a mechanism to protect the budget in its decision on the Multiannual Financial Framework. Minister of State Michael Roth spoke to German newspaper FAZ about its design (interview from 27 July 2020).
Mr Roth, there has been strong criticism - not least from your party, the SPD - of the rule of law clause agreed on as part of the major financial compromise among the EU i Heads of State and Government. The former Justice Minister, Katarina Barley i, who’s now one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament, said that the wording was vague and that individual member states could interpret in whatever way they liked. Does the agreement have too little substance?
Strengthening the rule of law in all EU countries is a matter close to my heart; however, it was clear from the start that this would be one of the most difficult and painful discussions at the European Council. I can well understand those who were hoping for more. But, even though it is formulated in a complicated way, the decision reached by the Heads of State and Government forms the basis for a binding regulation. We’ve never come so far.
But didn’t the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban i, who could be affected by a rule of law procedure of this kind, claim victory in Brussels?
I see things differently to the Hungarian Prime Minister. Europe isn’t a game with winners and losers. We’ve now made important decisions on our community of values and law. For the first time, the Heads of State and Government have agreed that in future funding payments will be linked to respect for rule of law principles. That is a major step in the right direction and a huge opportunity for Europe. Let’s use it!
A regulation has to be formulated and adopted before that can happen. And that requires majorities among the Heads of State and Government as well as in the European Parliament, doesn’t it?
First of all, a regulation is needed to form a legal basis. It must then be adopted by a majority in the European Parliament and by the customary qualified majority in the Council. I know from many conversations with Members of the European Parliament that they are only willing to agree to the corona financial package and the new EU budget in conjunction with a rule of law conditionality. This is all about creating an effective and practicable instrument! In principle, the overwhelming majority of the Heads of State and Government and of the European Parliament agree that the rule of law is the essence of our community of shared values. There must therefore be financial consequences if member states violate the rule of law.
Shouldn’t such a regulation also specify the precise circumstances which constitute a rule of law violation?
When we initiate such a procedure, decisions will ultimately always be made on a case‑by‑case basis. If the EU Commission identifies general shortcomings in the sphere of the rule of law in a member state, it will propose measures such as the suspension of payments. The Council would then make a decision on that basis. As for specific circumstances which constitute deficiencies in the rule of law, these may include a threat to the independence of the courts.
How long will it take before such a regulation is in force and can be applied?
The European Commission put forward a draft law in 2018. This remains the basis for further negotiations. And the Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens in the European Parliament now have very clear expectations: they’re calling for a regulation on rule of law conditionality in the future Multiannual Financial Framework. It looks like they won’t agree to the EU budget without it. We therefore have to reach a positive decision quickly now. We cannot put this off. The EU’s credibility is at stake! We can only defend our values in the outside world with confidence if we leave no‑one within the EU in doubt that they must be strictly adhered to.
Interview conducted by Johannes Leithäuser / faz.net