State of the Union: is the rule of law necessary for EU citizens?

By Ilaria Sacco

In the European Union, September is the time to take stock. It represents the month of the Speech on the State of the Union, an annual address whereby the President of the Commission weighs up the past year and sets the priorities for the one ahead. It also provides a perfect moment for reflecting on the health of the EU, its bodies, citizens, and 27 Member States. 

According to Ursula von der Leyen’s 2021 speech, the dominant themes from last year can be summarized as follows: covid-19, climate change, defence, and youth. Indeed, the European Union was able to reach 72% of adults fully vaccinated; it has urged the Member States to adopt promptly a legally binding obligation to reduce net greenhouse emission by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels; it relaunched the idea of a more incisive Europe at an international level with a shared common defence policy; last, it proposed to make 2022 the European Year of Youth.  

However, as important as those topics are, the President of the Commission was criticized for not spending enough time on a fundamental one: the rule of law. According to some, it was a topic that required deeper analysis. The worrying developments in certain Member States over the rule of law have indeed represented one of the recent most critical threats. In this context, the same Commission is also being attacked for choosing to not sanction Poland and Hungary. 

Since then, the situation has worsened, and Poland went as far as challenging the supremacy of European law over the national one. This led the rule of law to be an extremely relevant topic. As a consequence for its salience, the recent European Parliament public opinion survey “State of the Union 2021 Barometer” is particularly focused on the viewpoint of the citizens on the rule of law. This is significant as it shows how far the respect of this value is considered a necessity from the EU citizens’ perspective.

Rule of law: the opinion of EU citizens
A survey exploring European citizens’ opinions on some of the key priorities for the EU has been commissioned before the President addressed the Parliament. The first discussions explored the viewpoints regarding the respect of the rule of law within the EU. Most respondents (81%) agree that the European Union should exclusively provide funds to Member States conditional upon their government’s implementation of the rule of law and democratic principles [Figure 1].  

[Figure 1: Flash Eurobarometer – State of the European Union]

More than seven in ten agree with this statement in each of the 27 EU Member States; this is particularly valid for older respondents and those with more years of education.

When asked if Member States must share and respect common values, including the rule of law, to be part of the Union, 44% of EU citizens totally agree, while just 2% completely disagree. The statistics in Poland and Hungary reflect the European average: 45% of Hungarians believe that the rule of law must be respected in order to be part of the EU; 41% in Poland are of the same opinion [Figure 2]. 

[Figure 2: Flash Eurobarometer – State of the European Union]

Furthermore, 19% of EU citizens wish to see the respect of the rule of law and democracy as one of the priority issues in the European Parliament in the following years. 

Are the tides turning?
The respect of the rule of law is being challenged within the borders of the EU. Nonetheless, citizens are becoming increasingly responsive to it. The vast majority of them believe that European funds must be delivered only whether the rule of law is respected. 

This comes up at a time when some Member States are openly challenging the rule of law and the European Commission seems unable to react properly. This attitude may nevertheless change in order to safeguard the legitimacy of the legal order of the EU that holds it together and to deal with citizens’ opinions as well. 

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