Law and Order

  • August 2020
  • Ioanna Karagianni

Law and Order

The case of Poland and the EU’s need to show leadership

Source: Flickr

Particular concern has been caused in the wake of Poland’s decision to withdraw from the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Istanbul Convention, the first binding instrument in the world on combating violence against women, which the country signed in 2012 and ratified in 2015.


The Polish Justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, said that he would start the procedures to withdraw from the Convention. He  claimed the text  is “harmful” because it requires that schools teach children about gender from a “zoological point of view,” and continued that “this ideological element is linked to the imperative to change education in schools and outside of school programs, in terms of learning, attitudes, convictions of the young Polish generation of students to make, in our opinion, the false assumption that biological sex is archaic, and in fact everything comes down to the socio-cultural gender.”


Ziobro also expressed the Polish government’s dissatisfaction with the articles of the Convention which deal with  family relationships in the LGBT context, noting that it is “a view propagated by activists from left-wing or homosexual circles who want to translate their beliefs into binding law.” These statements have caused rage in Poland, with people protesting in the streets, and with the Council of Europe (CoE) and the European Union (EU) reacting too – but, for the moment, only with words.


CoE Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić  said Poland’s intention was alarming and reiterated that the sole objective of this instrument is to combat violence against women and domestic violence She encouraged a dialogue with Poland in case they  misunderstand  the Convention’s scope. She also noted that leaving the Convention “would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe”.


European Commission (EC) First Vice President Frans Timmerman reacted saying “Let it sink in: one out of every three women is victim of domestic violence. Thousands die, many more are marked for life. If combating that atrocity is an ‘ideology’, sign me up!” European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli also said that such decisions would be deeply regrettable and urged the EU Member States to protect women.


The European Parliament (EP) has already expressed multiple times dissatisfaction and concern with Poland’s wrongdoings in the fields of the rule of law, human rights and democracy.  A Polish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Sylwia Spurek (S&D) described that over 60 percent of Polish women are against withdrawing from the Convention. She demanded to know on whose behalf the government actied  when they denounced the Convention. Irish MEP Frances Fitzgerald (EPP) stressed that the sole role of the Convention is to fight violence against women and said that ratifying it was “essential”. Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt (Renew Europe) called Poland’s decision “scandalous”. German MEP Terry Reintke (Greens) expressed solidarity with all those who fight back regression, and Spanish MEP Eugenia Rodríguez Palop (GUE/NGL) said that Poland’s actions do not come as a surprise, as it is known that  many women   become victims of domestic violence in that country.


The EC in its Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 has reiterated its intention to do all it can ‘to prevent and combat gender-based violence, support and protect victims of such crimes, and hold perpetrators accountable for their abusive behaviour’. Furthermore, the new EC has been aiming to create an additional comprehensive Rule of Law Mechanism, and has as one of its priorities to have close dialogues with European Member States on the basis of law. The situation with Poland gives the opportunity to the EC to actually put this in practice, resolve the issue and strongly encourage the country to remain a member of the Convention.


In case the European Union’s (EU) accession to the Istanbul Convention continues remaining blocked in the Council, the EC itself needs to keep intact its intentions to propose measures against violence to achieve the same objectives as the CoE Convention, and it needs to re-examine the issue of conditionality and compliance to the rule of law when it comes to EU funding. It is also urgent that the MEPs have a greater role and say in the decisions of the EC itself as the institution reflecting the national parliaments’ theses, and as this would anyway coincide with the plans of the EC to ensure the EP’s greater role in the rule of law mechanism.


It is urgent to deal with this now, because Poland’s situation is not unique: similar attitudes can be found in Hungary as well as in Slovakia, where the parliament has rejected the Convention claiming that it is not aligned with the country’s constitutional definition of marriage as a heterosexual union.


As the political guidelines of Ursula von de Leyen read, ‘threats to the rule of law challenge the legal, political and economic basis of how our Union works. [..] We have a common interest in resolving problems. Strengthening the rule of law is a shared responsibility for all EU institutions and all Member States’. The situation with Poland constitutes an opportunity for the EC to show real leadership and to confirm it sticks to its promises, does not make compromises, and always defends the EU’s core values.

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After the Council deal… what?

  • July 2020
  • Ioanna Karagianni

After the Council deal… what?

The German EU Presidency and the opportunities it offers

Source: infoguerre.fr  

After four days of EU Council meetings, on July 21 the new plans on the Recovery Plan and the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) were finally accepted. The plan is to be composed of €390b in grants and €360b in loans, which will be attached to the next €1.074 trillion MFF for 2021-2027 and will respond to the corona virus pandemic, while it will also help realize the ambitious plans of the European Commission (EC) to fight climate change and to make the most of the new digital era.


All these are happening while Germany is holding the European Council Presidency until January- something that has been awaited for a long time. The most influential EU member state has been expected to fix issues lingering in the European project in an unexpectedly challenging situation, the Covid-19 crisis – one that has created a series of issues, but also opportunities. Will the German Presidency be an added value at this critical moment to realize the new MFF and the EU recovery plan in a way that the pandemic is treated while Europe becomes more united? Or will this chance for European revival be missed?


From strengthening and promoting social cohesion by pursuing a sustainable growth strategy, expanding digital and technological sovereignty, enhancing the EU’s competitiveness, reforming the legal background on migration and asylum, thriving in climate and environmental policy, and pursuing a powerful foreign policy, the program of the Germans is ambitious. However, for these to be fulfilled, it is the resilience of the EU project itself which needs to be reinforced now more than ever, as, after the economic crisis in 2008-2009, now Covid-19 has come to test the European unity. An example of this has been reflected in the attitude of Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, who has been the figurehead of the “frugal four” (the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Denmark) in consistently opposing the MFF and the Recovery plan negotiations, fighting for more control over how the budget is being allocated. A vital task for the German Presidency thus would be to build bridges and facilitate constructive dialogue and close or, at least, minimize the socio-economic differences between North and South and East and West. The German Presidency, and its figurehead, Chancellor Angela Merkel definitely  have the opportunity and the ability as one of the strongest EU Member States to facilitate long term economic reforms while building on social equality and mutual understanding.


The threat to the European project is clear and present, and the WTO has predicted that the global recession caused by the pandemic will be worse than that of the 2008 global financial crisis. Now that the plan is adopted, the economy needs to adjust to the new reality and become sustainable, while the single market needs to be further strengthened. Adopting a forwarding-looking strategy, since one of the issues of the pandemic has been the lack of forecast and prevention, the German EU Presidency should also live up to their promise to improve the EU’s crisis management instruments, and create a strong and innovative system for fast information exchange aiming at preventing similar crises in the future, something that can be beneficial both for the economy and for the public health. This can benefit from the promotion of digital health technologies, while supporting the EC in ensuring data privacy, something that will also contribute to the success of the EC Digital Services Act.


Safeguarding democratic rights is another area that the German Presidency should pay particular attention to during their mandate if they are to revive and protect the European project. Equality and non-discrimination have to be cross-cutting themes in all areas of action, together with tackling disinformation and hate speech to support democracy. The Presidency should take advantage of their opportunity to address rights violations and encourage Member States to take swift actions when the European law and fundamental rights are violated.


A rule of law mechanism should not to be further delayed, and the rule of law conditionality should not be weakened- the European Parliament can definitely play a role in pushing the Germans in this direction. Last but not least, the European Parliament should have a say in the programming- if the Institution is not consulted, there is still the risk of not respecting fundamental European values of democracy.


In other words, focusing on the revival of the economy, preventing similar crises, protecting democracy and human rights, and hearing from both the Heads of State and the Member States themselves could be keys to rekindling the European spirit.


The German EU Presidency takes office in a critical moment in the EU’s history and it is expected to perform well, leaving a legacy of concrete achievements. With Covid-19 still here, a lot of work should be done to revive the European economy, and mostly, the cracked European solidarity. As an economic and social crisis is just around the corner, if not already here, the German Presidency, together with the European Commission and the EU Member States, should show to the people and to the world that united we can do better.

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EU Digital Services Act: grasping the opportunity to refresh the resilience of our European democracy

  • June 2020
  • Ioanna Karagianni
EU Digital Services Act: grasping the opportunity to refresh the resilience of our European democracySource: Future of Privacy Forum

Online platforms have gained a dominant role in our lives and in our democracies. We do business online, we get informed through online platforms, we buy products, organize events and exchange views on topics of our interest.  There is, at the same time, a need to better accommodate to this new reality while we maintain our privacy, dealing with fake news, and curbing risks and challenges that our new, digital reality generates . Shall the EU grasp this as an opportunity to refresh European democracy or will it let it pass?


Along with other flagship initiatives such as the Green Deal, in her political guidelines and in the European Commission (EC) Communication ‘Shaping Europe’s Digital Future’, EC President Ursula von der Leyen described her plans to grasp  what opportunities  digital technologies create. She talked about how Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things and 5G are fast transforming the world and our everyday lives and how the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) can act as an example of success story.


The February 2020 EC Communication ‘Shaping Europe’s Digital Future’ defined the  Commission’s intentions to create the conditions and deploy capacities to become a leader in ensuring the integrity and resilience of data infrastructure, networks and communications. It expressed the plans for Europe to be self-defined, but, at the same time, remain open to collaboration with parties willing to play ‘by European rules and meet European standards’[1] and to shape global interactions.


The Digital Services Act package is the concrete plan which “will upgrade our liability and safety rules for digital platforms, services and products, and complete our Digital Single Market.”[2] The February EC Communication announced actions under the heading of the Digital Services Act in two parts: one dealing with online liability and safety and with the harmonized regulations for the digital single market, based on the logic of the E-commerce Directive around illegal and harmful content- envisaged to result in an EC proposal for new and revised rules by the end of the year. The second part of the package  creates some ex-ante rules[3] regarding, for instance, contestability issues for some large platforms.


This aims to upgrade online governance, a much needed actas the  policies in place date back to some 20 years, It sets up common rules to expand the liability of digital platforms and online advertising services in the EU and enacts measures to limit the spread of online hate speech and disinformation. Lately, the EC also launched a public consultation on the Act to gather opinions from  businesses, individuals, and the civil society. But are these plans fit to boost the resilience of European democracy against emerging threats, such as disinformation?


The current E-Commerce Directive includes standard rules for the intermediaries’ liability in content sharing. If the EU aims at creating and implementing an ambitious plan, revising the responsibility for online content should be given greater importance. Private companies which are part of the content dissemination chain could, for instance, be given more  incentives and safeguards to work on liability,  in co-operation with the regulators. Equally important is the need of the latter to adopt clearly defined concepts regarding illegal information, misinformation and hate speech.


Human rights, such as the freedom of speech, need to be equally protected both offline and online. This is for a plain reason: since it is easier for platforms to deal with online material by taking it down, there is a proven tendency in the current regulations to accommodate to this (e.g. in the copyright regulation). For the moment, according to the current regulations and their definition of liability, a platform is either not responsible at all for their online content or they have an diting responsibility. This raises issues as  many online platforms  tend to boost certain types of content  and to hide other types. Thus, there is the need to create a regulation that combines balancing rights and liability. Furthermore, in order to  successfully promote a competitive EU in the digital economy, the EU should increase the transparency of online platforms, hold companies behind the platforms responsible for removing illegal content, and create regulatory consistency by harmonizing EU rules.


A whole new digital world has been created in the recent years and this is the future. The successful implementation of the Digital Services Act is not only an opportunity to upgrade the policies on online platforms, but it will also modernize the European economy and help to refresh the resilience of our European democracy vis-à-vis hate speech and misinformation.


[1] European Commission, Communication ‘Shaping Europe’s Digital Future’, February 2020, < https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication-shaping-europes-digital-future-feb2020_en_4.pdf>

[2] European Commission, A Union that Strives for More: My agenda for Europe, p.13, < https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/political-guidelines-next-commission_en_0.pdf>, accessed online on 10 June 2020

[3] European Commission, Communication ‘Shaping Europe’s Digital Future’, February 2020, < https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/communication-shaping-europes-digital-future-feb2020_en_4.pdf>


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It breaks if you don’t try: EU Foreign and Security Policy

  • February 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

It breaks if you don’t try: European Foreign and Security Policy

An EU that fails to act to defend its interests and values on the world stage is an EU that fails voters through passivity and inaction.

Source: CSDP EEAS Flickr


The recent Munich Security Conference (MSC) had the tagline “Westlessness”, which was met with some confusion by non-native English speakers. The intention was to suggest that the West’s was in retreat – even decline – and that the prospect should be causing policymakers a certain restlessness. Not particularly easy to translate.


However, it is an important concept. There was a clear division on show at the conference within the West – between Europe and the USA – not just over security and defence tactics, but over what the threats actually were. Republicans and Democrats in the USA agree on very little at the moment but are united in the belief that Huawei should have no place in 5G infrastructure in Europe. Europe, as ever, has almost as many viewpoints as it does countries.


Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, is said to have asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The EU claimed to have resolved this conundrum with the advent of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a position currently held by Josep Borrell.


Borrell, to his credit, has recognised that he simply does not have the power to be the go-to man for all of Europe. At the MSC, he expressed a desire for the EU to move beyond simple statements and expressions of concern. He wants a Europe that is comfortable with talking in power terms and using its power to get what it wants. For Borrell, unanimity is a stumbling block to action, and the majority must be able to act in its absence.


It is the absurdity of unanimity that has led the EU into its current predicament. Until recently, it was in the frankly embarrassing position of having a naval mission with no ships. This was a direct result of Italian intransigence about sea rescues conflicting with the general will to maintain Operation Sophia. What it now has is yet another lowest-common-denominator compromise where there can be a naval mission against arms trafficking, but only as long as nobody has to rescue any migrants from drowning.


This lowest-common-denominator tendency seriously weakens the EU’s foreign policy and its reputation. It provides other countries with a very easy way to influence EU foreign policy: China and Russia know that they need only convince one Member State to disagree in order to block or limit EU action on a particular topic. Macron, despite showing questionable judgment on seeking reconciliation with Russia, has correctly identified the need for Europe to start taking its own security seriously.


His solution has been a separate group, outside of the EU and NATO, called the European Intervention Initiative. It is essentially a ‘coalition of the willing’ to prepare and respond to crises together. France, which has become the only nuclear power in the EU after Brexit and whose army is among the strongest in Europe, is ready to lead the coalition. As positive a development as this is, it does not address the fundamental problem. It is the EU, not its members, which is not taken seriously as a foreign policy actor. The rest of the world approaches Member States instead if they want to get anything done, with the ‘implication […] that Europeans need to get their act together if they want outsiders to take them seriously.’


The true mark of success for EU foreign policy would be the ability to shape events in its neighbourhood. The sheer size of its market gives it the capacity to do so, but the political sensitivities surrounding the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) mean that this potential is largely wasted. The Eastern Mediterranean is afflicted by a number of crises, but the EU’s foreign policy priority has been migration control. European conflict resolution efforts have been ineffectual and marginal, and there is no real strategy on Libya or Syria that goes beyond keeping refugees out of Europe.


The EU’s new naval mission is, again, emblematic of its broader foreign policy failings.  To actually enforce the Berlin Agreement’s arms embargo, it would need far more capacity than European countries would be willing to supply. Stopping the flow of arms would require ground troops on the Egyptian-Libyan border and total control of Libyan airspace with European fighter jets. It could enact sanctions if it were capable of getting all Member States to agree to them.


Eastern Mediterranean crises have, arguably, got as bad as they are because of the power vacuum left by American disinterest and European paralysis. Other countries have seized the opportunity to fill the gap with both hands, developing conflicts into proxy wars. The European public [including the UK, as the survey linked was carried out in 2019] supports a common EU defence and security policy and a common foreign policy (74% and 66% respectively.)


An EU that fails to act to defend its interests and values on the world stage is an EU that fails voters through passivity and inaction. The only way forward is for the Commission to continue working to convince Member States to introduce majority voting on the non-military aspects of CFSP. With unanimity still in place, decisions will continue to be held hostage by single Member States, other actors will have a simple way to disrupt European foreign policy, and the EU will remain toothless and unable to act on the global crises that the public want it to address.

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