European democracy in debate

Is democracy in Europe at risk? How might the European Union effectively react to the risks that threaten the rule of law of its member states? On 5 March, all of these questions shall be thrown onto the table at a conference taking place in the Gulbenkian Foundation.

For the first time in its history, the European Commission triggered Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty. According to this article, the European Council is to verify the existence of a clear risk of severe violation of European values – respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for the rights of man – and, in a final instance, apply sanctions on the infringing member state.

The opening of this procedure, in late 2017, against Poland, not only throws the spotlight on the situations ongoing in certain countries but also added a “stamp of urgency” to the need to discuss the rule of law in certain European Union democracies. Poland, which had undertaken legislative reform that removed guarantees over the separation of powers and the independence of judicial powers, may have set the alarms sounding but is far from being the only case causing concern. The case of Poland joins others such as Hungary under Viktor Orbán as well as the recent constitutional crisis in Catalonia. And with them all looms a far broader problem: the sustained growth in the nationalist movements of Europe.

The European Union has created, over the course of its history, mechanisms to guarantee the integrity of the democratic values and the rule of law – and the recently triggered article 7 falls within this framework. However, its application is a complex and cumbersome process and runs the risk of ending up as little or nothing more than a verbal threat and thereby exposing the fragility and impotence of European level institutions.

Within this context, the question raised is: just how can the EU continue to serve as a guardian of the democratic values that lay at the base of its own foundation and effectively react when these same values face risks where not open threats? Are the tools and instruments available to the Union sufficient or should we rethink the entire system and come up with alternative measures?

Frans Timmermanns, European Commission vice-president, Sylvie Goulard, former Minister of Defence of France and Enrico Letta, president of the Jacques Delors Institute, shall be in Lisbon on 5 March, from 11:00 onwards, to discuss all of these questions in the conference “Reinvigorating and strengthening democracy in Europe”.

Programme of the conference