[INTRODUCTION]

  • It is a pleasure to be here with you today and engage in an open debate on democracy and the rule of law in Europe.
  • I personally appreciate that the main theme of our meeting today is about reconciling Europe with its citizens through democracy and the rule of law.
  • I confess that I often find myself thinking about how we can reach to citizens and show them the importance of democracy and the rule of law.
  • For a long time, I have been convinced that the best solution for many issues we are facing today is in the hands of citizens. Me, and the Commission as a whole, have an important duty. You, researchers, academics, government officials and activist also have an important role to play. But as long as our conversation about democracy and the rule of law remains among experts, we will not be able to solve existing problems let alone improve our democracies.
  • This is even more important in the context of a pandemic that is deeply affecting every aspect of our life, including the way we debate political issues or participate in elections.
  • The events of the beginning of the year in Washington are a stark reminder of the nature of our democracies: they are fragile by definition, and their resilience can only be ensured by strong institutions firmly anchored in the rule of law.
  • But it is clear that in Europe we too face many similar challenges.
  • Allow me first to briefly explain how I understand rule of law and democracy, and why I think it impacts every citizen. Then, I would like to remind you briefly how I see the role of the European Commission in upholding democracy and the rule of law. Then I would want to conclude with my aspirations for action in 2021.
  • Let me state the obvious first. Democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights are the three pillars forming the bedrock of the European Union. They cannot exist without one another, even less used against one another. They are the basis for everything else in the EU and they are projected to all other policies, be it green, digital or beyond. This is largely what makes the EU unique.
  • I understand there are many excellent lawyers with us today, so they would know what I am talking about. Article 7, the rulings of the Court of Justice and so on.
  • But of course this is not how you will connect with citizens. I am a lawyer myself and if I try to speak like that to my family, they would throw me out of the house.
  • So we must go beyond these legal definitions, and translate them into everyday language with a clear meaning.
  • For me, who was born in Communist Czechoslovakia, it is somehow easier to understand, because I experienced a life where not respected.
  • Judges were there to service the few, not the many. We did not have any illusion of their independence from the party or from the government (which was the same thing, by the way). The media were broadcasting propaganda and did not hold power into account. Elections were a mirage.
  • To put it simply, there were many laws, but they did not rule those in power. Today, in modern Europe, we see that some borrow solutions from the authoritarian playbook: they want to switch off as many of those democratic safety valves as possible, be it judges, media or opposition.
  • The big question is why so many people do not seem to mind this. On the contrary, with their voting decisions, they seem to accept it or even support it.
  • There is no simple answer to this, and each country has its own context, but let me attempt to to find a common denominator.
  • I think too many people got disappointed with democracy and democratic forces. In times of crisis, people demand to see quick solutions– the current pandemic is a reminder of this. And we live in the world of super-charged transitions, like digital or green which only add to people’s feeling of instability.
  • But we seemed to believe that democracy would defend itself and  that many societal problems, like inequality, poverty or unemployment would go away if you just give it time.
  • So we left wide open space for demagogues and, as Anne Applebaum writes in her recent book the “Twilight of Democracy”, the clerks, to occupy the space and abuse people’s frustrations.
  • Many people did or do not believe that the judiciary is independent enough or that the media are objective enough. And if you do not think of something as good or helpful, and your personal situation is dire, you are not sorry to see it burn.
  • We at the Commission are fully aware of all of this, and try our best to act, and to inspire others to act with us. Allow me now to go into some details of our actions.

[EUROPEAN DEMOCRACY ACTION PLAN]

  • As you could hear from my introduction, I think this is a complex reality and our policy response has to capture this complexity.
  • This is why the European Democracy Action Plan, which we adopted last December, tries to be a comprehensive response to many important issues, especially touching upon democracy in the online world.
  • We have seen the rise of extremism, especially online; a lack of transparency and accountability of online platforms; insufficient application of rules relevant for elections in the digital world or sometimes lack of any rules; we have seen interference in our democratic processes by foreign actors, and the situation of the media and safety of journalists is deteriorating. All these issues affect the extension and quality of our democratic deliberative space.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic is only making those risks even stronger and more endangering.
  • The Democracy Action Plan tries to react on all these worrying trends:
    • By protecting the integrity in the electoral process;
    • By involving and empowering the public;
    • By strengthening the media;
    • And, last but not least, by fighting disinformation and foreign interference.
  • What we will do in practice? I will propose legislation on transparency in online political advertising, so people will know why they are seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what micro-targeting criteria were used. New technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation. This is also why we will look at limiting the micro-targeting criteria.
  • We have just launched a public consultation on this initiative and I invite you all to have your say.
  • Then, to help the media and journalists we are working on a recommendation on safety of journalists and an initiative to fight abusive litigation against journalists. We also want to increase the transparency of media ownership and of state advertising. Public money should not be used to favour only those who sympathise with the ones in power.
  • We will also increase financial support to fund cross-border journalistic investigations.
  • The last element of the plan is our new actions to counter disinformation. I have to stress that these actions firmly respect fundamental rights, including freedom of speech. There will be no censorship, as we are not looking to ban or remove disinformation content.
  • The silencing of Donald Trump, no matter how despicable his messaging could be, has reminded us that we should all think about where to draw the line and not leave this decision to CEOs of Big Tech alone.
  • At the same time, we cannot be naive and pretend there is no problem.
  • Disinformation is like salt slowly being put in our wounds.
  • The disinformation narratives about Covid vaccine are a perfect example of that.
  • This is why we are proposing to make a step change – by equipping ourselves with tools to impose costs on those who penetrate our systems with malicious intention. The producers of disinformation cannot remain untouched.
  • My goal here is to empower democratic actors and allow people to understand what content they see and why - so that they can make their choices freely.
  • Then, we also need much more from the channels where disinformation is distributed, especially online platforms.
  • We need a new Disinformation Pact with platforms, advertisers, websites and the civil society to improve accountability and transparency of algorithms; to stop allowing platforms and websites making money on disinformation; to design better ways to deal with manipulation through bots or with the use of fake accounts.
  • We must protect the market place of ideas, including those we might not like.
  • In order to avoid creating any Ministry of Truth, in case of harmful content, we should not so much focus on the content itself, but on how it is amplified. The right to speak does not mean a right to reach.
  • Finally, we will look at recipients of disinformation, meaning the citizens. Honestly, this plan is about them. The long-term solution lies in education and in media literacy.
  • We are supporting, also financially, civil society to help and of course, we have many proposals to increase the efforts in education and awareness raising side for instance with the European education strategy, which was presented a few months back.

[ON THE RULE OF LAW]

  • Allow me now to turn to the instruments for the defence of the Rule of Law. The rule of law has been a growing issue over the last decade, with the Commission becoming more active to address different situations and problems. The last decade forced us to test and then strengthen the tools we have, to assist the Member States but also to try to address the risks and challenges.
  • Thanks to the case law from the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights we have today clear definitions of what the rule of law is and of the EU’s prerogatives in this regard.
  • Of course I understand that our actions will not be applauded by everyone, and may be considered insufficient by some.
  • But those actions should be judged against the background of the role and mandate that the Commission has been given by the Treaties.
  • This is my daily frustration, but I have to act within the constraints set by law, because also the Commission itself is subject to the Rule of Law.
  • I know that the situation in some Member States has not improved, this is why I was constantly advocating for adding new legal tools.
  • We have many soft tools, like the EU Justice Scoreboard or the Economic Semester. The main focus where most calls for action have been focused are the so-called Article 7 procedure and the infringement procedures.
  • In 2017, the Commission triggered for the very first time the procedure of Article 7 of the Treaty that deals with systemic risks for the rule of law. And in 2018 the European Parliament initiated such procedure against Hungary.
  • The procedure of Article 7 is meant to capture systemic risks and in this sense complement more targeted measures that we address with infringement procedures. Article 7 was conceived as a nuclear option, more a threat than a instrrtument designed for real use. This is why the inbuilt unanimity has made it difficult to progress in the Council, but the instrument has been anyway useful to advance the debate among the Member States and to show the extent of the problem.
  • But it remains that the votes required in Council are impossible to gather in the current political context.
  • This is however not our only tool. We have opened many of infringement procedures when we saw a clear breach of the Treaties. I think we have showed determination by bringing those cases to the European Court of Justice. The Court clarified the scope of Union competence and there are pending rulings which may further determine the Commission’s role in this.
  • And we will not accept half-measures or feet-dragging when it comes to implementing the rulings of the Court. In January we have proceeded very fast to the 2nd stage of infringement on the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court.
  • We will continue to fulfil our obligations by launching new infringements and turning to the Court in search for justice as necessary.
  • But it is clear that more tools were needed.
  • To strengthen the preventive arm we proposed the new comprehensive European Rule of Law Mechanism, on the basis on an annual Report. In September, we published, for the first time, an assessment of the rule of law situation in all Member States, on the basis of the same methodology.
  • The report goes beyond the justice systems, focusing also on anti-corruption frameworks, institutional issues related to checks and balances and media freedom and pluralism.
  • It is very important to have an overview of these issues, and see the links between them. Not least because separate deficiencies often merge into an undrinkable cocktail, even if the individual ingredients seem to be fine.
  • This tool is supposed to bring the debate about the rule of law to the Member States, national parliaments, civil society, other EU institutions, all of which have a role to play, and hopefully also initiate a more informed public debate.
  • Due to the pandemic it has not been possible to fully develop this approach, but I am convinced that we will only succeed if the rule of law and democracy debate will migrate from the debate of experts to dinner-table conversations.
  • I know that some think that the Rule of Law Report is yet another useless document, when what is needed is strong action. But for me, this can be an important shift because it requires the involvement of all actors, institutional and beyond. Rule of law is a shared responsibility, and it can only be upheld if we all assume our part. This is not an issue that can be solved by a ‘lonesome sheriff’, be it the Commission or any other. And let me also be clear, there is no silver bullet, no single instrument that may correct rule of law issues on its own.
  • This common exercise should, over time, contribute to creation of a consolidated common culture and shared ownership over these issues. We will clearly dispel the unfounded accusations of bias.
  • This brings me to another element of our response, the budget rule of law conditionality.
  • The Regulation recently adopted is not ideological. Rather it is soberly and firmly anchored in law. The definition of the rule of law codified in article 2 of the Regulation is the one firmly anchored in the EU legal order.
  • It is a rather precise definition. All the elements of this definition were not only confirmed by the European Court of Justice, they are also a shared value of the Member States and more generally a cornerstone of the constitutional orders of any democracy.
  • This proposal is not targeted at specific Member States; on the contrary, it is meant to capture the potential risks wherever they might appear, and deter those, wherever they are, who may want to dismantle the democratic checks and balances.
  • I think it is the bare minimum to expect that EU funds will go where the rule of law is not under threat. Our values are not an addition to the single market, but rather its very foundation.
  • As you see, the Union has strived to equip itself better against challenges to our founding values. But I must stress that Union institutions cannot on their own prevent deliberate policies by national governments against those values, and that to expect this is to wrongly frame the debate.

[CONFERENCE ON THE FUTURE OF EUROPE]

  • Beyond the tools I mentioned, we need to further enrich representative democracy and foster trust, and politicians need to embrace deliberative democracy approaches like citizens assemblies. We will soon launch the Conference on the Future of Europe to walk the talk. Even if the context of the Conference has changed with the pandemic, our determination remains the same. We want to give citizens a greater say in shaping future EU policies.
  • The objective of the Conference is to bring citizens and policymakers closer together and reinforce the Union’s democratic legitimacy. The Conference will only be a success if citizens are on board, because this is first and foremost a bottom-up initiative.
  • A Joint Declaration between the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission is currently being finalised and will set out the Conference’s definitive scope, objectives and governance structure, after which it will move ahead quickly.
  • We will ensure a balanced representation of randomly selected citizens in the proposed European Citizens’ panels – be it in terms of geographical, gender, age and socioeconomic balances. We want citizens from all walks of life to get involved.
  • We stand ready to start the Conference even if face-to-face meetings cannot initially take place due to the pandemic. We have been developing a multilingual digital platform, which will allow for virtual contributions and online events to be organised with participants from all across the Union.
  • The ultimate key to the Conference’s success is our joint commitment to follow up on citizens’ ideas and proposals, including through legislative action if appropriate and in line with institutional prerogatives.

[ON THE CONTRIBUTION OF RESEARCH]

  • Before concluding, a few words on the importance of research. As already mentioned, stable democratic systems are not a given, also not within the EU. Democracy needs to be nurtured and defended. Trust of citizens in democratic processes and -as Václav Havel noted- personal responsibility of citizens, are key to this. Multiple reports and statistics show increasing levels of dissatisfaction among citizens when assessing the performance of their democracies.[1]
  • Researchers can play an important role in the design of evidence-based policy. They can help to understand the drivers for extremism, polarisation, disinformation, and the role of media and digital technologies in this. Researchers can help develop and experiment with innovative solutions and innovative policy approaches. Horizon Europe will continue the Horizon 2020 support for such research and experimentation.
  • Active engagement of citizens is the essence of democracy. Training and awareness-raising, as RECONNECT does through its ‘massive open online course’, helps.

[CONCLUSION]

  • To conclude, if you ask me about the future, for me two things matters most:
  • First, we have to act to defend democracy and the rule of law. It is not a one off task. I have no illusion that the problems will continue to appear, because democracy is a process that needs nurturing and in fact, fighting for.
  • Two – we have to be always respectful of voters and their elected representatives. Our role is to help ensuring that the elections and conditions for a choice are as fair as possible, but never to interfere in the choice itself. In democracy, people are the source of power and legitimacy and our role is to make sure they can continue to make free choices.
  • Those of us who lived behind the Iron Curtain, those of us who know the authoritarian playbook of Putin, understand well the process in which you switch off one safety fuse after another, until you reduce the checks and balances completely; until the government and those in power cannot be effectively controlled.
  • This can happen for instance when the judges in the Constitutional Tribunal or the Supreme Court depend on one party. This can happen when the state-owned companies whose CEOs and boards were appointed by the same party buy the media to silence criticism. Our role is to react when we see such risks. As someone who does not want to see the return of the authoritarian playbook, I will be very vigilant in this regard.
  • A final personal reflection. If I had to point at one thing that democracies have and we in an authoritarian regime did not, I would say this is ‘trust’. In democracy, we trust that our neighbour is not spying on us or reports us to the authorities because we criticised those in power; we trust that the state apparatus is not there to control us, but to serve us. The EU is an extraordinary manifestation of this trust. We trust that products made in one country will be safe in another. We trust our fellow European citizens. We trust that the ruling of a court in one country is fair and just for every other Member. We trust so much, we decided to dismantle the internal borders. This is my biggest motivation to act. To restore and uphold this trust. Because Europe without the trust is not a Union. Democracy without trust is not complete or indeed possible.
  • Václav Havel was spot on when he wrote: ‘The natural disadvantage of democracy is that it is extremely tiring to those who mean it honestly, while it allows almost everything to those who do not take it seriously.' And if I may add something today, I would also include ‘to those who want to abuse it'.

[1] For instance, The Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020, Cambridge, Centre for the Future of Democracy. According to the report, “across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise”. Authors point how since mid-1990s the share of individuals who are dissatisfied with the performance of democracy has risen by around +10% points, from 47.9 to 57.5%.