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Polish rule of law and the bankruptcy of the European integration model

18 Jan 2017 - 13:06
Source: European Parliament/flickr

Crisis in Poland and euro crisis show that EU has too much faith in malleability of Member States

Besides having struggled with the euro crisis, the EU is now also facing a rule of law crisis in eastern Europe. The euro crisis may have subsided, but now Frans Timmermans, the European Commissioner responsible for rule of law quality, has to pull out all the stops to keep Poland on the right track. In Poland, as in for instance Hungary, a velvet counter-revolution is taking place. The government party is testing the limits of the democratic values to which the country committed upon its accession to the EU. And the chances are small that Poland (or Hungary) will listen to Timmermans.

The similarities between the euro crisis and the rule of law crisis tell us something about the bankruptcy of the European integration model implemented so far. In both crises, it was and is hoped that necessary administrative and political reforms automatically follow once EU treaties are in place at a high political level. The belief in the top-down malleability of societies has been universal throughout the European integration process. East European Member States signed Article 2 of the EU Treaty, enshrining European democratic values, just as the euro countries agreed to the Stability and Growth Pact, according to which, amongst other things, national debt should not exceed 60% of GDP. That kind of top-down integration just doesn’t work.

Monetary integration has been underway for 25 years now, but Greece, Portugal, France, Italy and, to some extent, Belgium are still experiencing problems with economic adaptation. These euro countries are, like Poland and Hungary, to a greater or lesser degree unstable countries with low-quality institutions. There is no proper division between policy, control and enforcement. Consequently, the risk of political interference and corruption is lurking in many policy areas. Such weaknesses cannot be remedied by budgetary agreements, European laws or visits by Timmermans. Euro sinners cannot be punished, nor can Poland be corrected at a high political level when it is dismantling basic rights.

Still, European integration may yet succeed, but for that to happen countries will have to take a bottom-up approach to carrying out internal reforms. Here, the EU may lend a helping hand, but only if Member States overcome, once and for all, the lack of commitment governing the many everyday technical consultations between officials and politicians, where EU Member States just seem to do what they like. Quality of the economy and of rule of law is defined by a whole range of national organisations: national statistical bureaus, planning agencies, land registers, labour markets, consultative structures, banking supervision authorities, tax systems, tax collection agencies, educational institutions, etc. A plethora of such institutions together determine national competitiveness. Of course, good quality of a country’s rule of law also requires properly functioning administrative organisations, such as police, ombudsmen, legislative review agencies, anti-corruption bureaus, independent supervisory authorities, advisory bodies, party financing transparency instruments and integrity agencies.

In European crises, national officials and politicians do not seem to want to take each other to task over deficiencies in their national institutions: if you don’t complain about me, I won’t criticise you. Dutch officials, too, avoid mutual quality control as this may elicit criticism of the Dutch policy and its implementation. There is too much tolerance of weak national institutions, which is why the EU is stumbling from one crisis to another.

Together with other developed Member States, the Netherlands will have to become much more critical and clear in its daily official and political contacts with colleagues from eastern and southern Europe. On the shop floors of European integration (i.e. the national institutions), a spade must be called a spade. Economic-administrative conditions and rule of law structures should be constructed from the capillaries of European societies. We are deluding ourselves if we think that Member States can be changed top-down. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This quote by Einstein aptly applies to how the EU is tackling each and every crisis.

This opinion was published in Dutch daily Het Financieele Dagblad, 11 January 2017.