European Western Balkans

European Commission to publish rule of law reports on EU and candidate countries on 3 July?

The presentation of the reports on rule of law in July 2023 by the EC Vice President Vera Jourova; Photo: Official account of Vera Jourova on X social media

The European Commission is drafting the reports on the rule of law for both the member and four candidate EU states – Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia, and these documents will be published on the same day, an unofficial source in Brussels says for European Western Balkans. According to the official information that EWB has received from the EC, the reports will be published on 3 July, but “it can be subject to change”.

The EC further explains that the decision to open the 2024 Rule of Law Report to four candidate countries was made as “these countries are most advanced in their respective accession process, or when it comes to the level of preparedness concerning the matters of the rule of law”.

According to diplomatic sources, the same methodology will be applied to assess the situation regarding the rule of law in the EU member states and the countries which aspire to join the block.

The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was the first one to announce that the EC would publish the reports on the rule of law in the candidate countries as well. In the “State of the Union” address on 13 September 2023, Von der Leyen explained that it would be done so that the candidate countries could progress faster towards EU membership.

In fact, such a step implies that the European Commission will evaluate the state of the rule of law in the candidate countries by applying the same criteria as for the countries that are already part of the EU. Therefore, the detailed descriptions and recommendations stated in these reports will allow a clear comparison of the situation in the candidate countries and EU member states, thus providing an even more accurate insight into the “chronic” difficulties faced by the countries that aspire to join the Union.

The annual reports on the rule of law state that the rule of law, along with democracy and fundamental rights, is one of the fundamental values of the union. “Every year the rule of law reporting cycle contributes to maintaining the sound foundations of European democracy”, the EC underlines.

The aim of the annual reports is to assess the state of the rule of law in each member state, as well as the EU as a whole, to detect and prevent new problems, and to support reforms in the domain of the rule of law.

The EC points out that the report is based on a “transparent and objective methodology”, taking into account specific national contexts and traditions, and the same treatment of all member states.

The rule of law reports were published for the first time in 2020, as a starting point “for constructive discussions and intensive exchange of best practices among member states, both at political and technical level, in the European Parliament and national parliaments”.

The upcoming rule of law report will analyze the developments in the rule of law domain in four areas: judiciary, fight against corruption, media freedom and pluralism, and broader institutional issues related to law.

Problem with the rule of law present in EU member states

The previous rule of law report, published in July 2023, noted, among other things, that in some EU member states, such as Finland, Denmark, Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg, there was a high degree of public perception of judicial independence (above 75%), while in countries such as Poland and Croatia, the judicial system was still considered dependent on the state authorities (less than 30% of the public considered the judiciary independent).

The EC noted: “A fully independent, well-functioning judicial system is necessary to ensure that the judiciary acts for the benefit of citizens, for trust in EU cross-border operations, for judicial cooperation, and for the functioning of the single market and the legal order of the Union as a whole”.

It is expected that in the upcoming report the EC will reiterate its position that the fight against corruption remains key to preserving the rule of law and citizens’ trust in public institutions, and that a comprehensive approach to the fight against corruption must include a combination of preventive and punitive measures.

The previous report noted that almost all member states had national anti-corruption strategies in place. The Czech Republic, Italy and Latvia had updated the national strategies and/or action plans, while Hungary, Slovenia and France had started the review process of existing strategies, and “preparatory review procedures” were underway in Slovakia and Germany.

In the previous report, the EC also assessed that some EU member states did not make good results in investigating and punishing high-level corruption cases (for instance, Hungary and Bulgaria), while the improvements were made in the countries such as Croatia and Slovakia.

“Effective investigations of high-level corruption have continued in Croatia, so the total number of indictments and verdicts has increased. Efforts to fight high-level corruption continued in Slovakia, with several former high-ranking officials charged with criminal bribery”, the document stated.

Among the problems “listed ” by the EC in the previous rule of law report were also the challenges related to the conflict of interest. For instance, it was noted that there were no comprehensive rules on conflict of interest in Italy, but that the national parliament was discussing a draft law that would define it, while in Slovenia rules on conflict of interest and non-compliance of duties pointed to certain monitoring deficiencies, especially at municipal levels.

When it comes to the media, the EC is expected to stress the necessity of media freedom and pluralism in the upcoming report, as it has done so far.

These documents also assess the work of media regulators. Some countries (Hungary, Slovenia, Poland) were criticized last year for “making insufficient safeguards against undue political influence on the appointment process or the functioning of regulatory bodies”.

Also, one of the segments addressed in the rule of law reports refers to the  examination of the “media ownership structure”.

*The original article was edited to include the information obtained by the EC that the reports on the rule of law are drafted only for four candidate countries.

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