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Tag: European Parliament

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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Albania’s European Path

  • June 2019
  • Flamur Gruda

Albania’s European Path

Progress being made in strengthening the rule of law, yet the EU is seeking more

 

Source: Pixabay

 

 

Would you rather have a constitutional court that is filled with corrupt judges, or a court that is composed of vetted and trusted officials?  This is the dilemma that Albania faces, on top of the prospect of starting membership talks for EU accession.

 

Albania is a young democracy: its transition from a communist state occurred during the early 90s. The transition to a free market economy and a fully-fledged democracy has been difficult yet promising for the Albanians. The European Union (EU) officially recognized Albania as a potential candidate country to the Union in 2000. In 2009, the Council of the EU asked the European Commission to start an assessment on possible membership. On June 23, 2014, Albania was granted candidate status. In 2018, the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission gave a positive assessment for Albania to start full membership negotiations.

 

The Council of the EU, however, did not want to proceed with the negotiations. Notably, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands preferred to wait until June 2019. They hoped to see Tirana implement further reforms – including judicial reform, and especially the fight against organised crime and corruption.

 

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats of the European Parliament held a conference hosted by MEP Knut Fleckenstein, the EP’s standing rapporteur on Albania.

This conference reminded the relevant stakeholders that Albania had made progress towards integration in justice reform, combatting organised crime, and overall, had seen improvement on the rule of law.

 

Albanian Interior Minister of Albania Sander Lleshaj, Deputy Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Artemis Malo, and the Minister of Justice, Etilda Gjonaj, were invited to demonstrate the progress and improvements that the Albanian government had undertaken in order to allow for accession talks to begin.

 

 

What does Tirana have to say about its progress?

Some important steps have been taken by Albania in order to strengthen justice reforms and to consolidate an independent and impartial system.

 

Albania was a known cannabis producer and exporter. In 2016 alone, according to Minister Malo, more than 500,000 plants were seized by Albanian authorities. Albanian special forces, with Italian assistance, have been able to reduce those figures drastically. By 2018, Albanian and Italian surveillance found evidence of only 750 remaining plants to be seized. This represents a dramatic improvement and the success of the observation missions.

FRONTEX, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency has launched its first ever deployment outside of an EU member state in Albania. This also represents a strengthening cooperation between Albanian and EU authorities.  Minister Lleshaj highlighted that Albanian authorities stopped more than 20,000 people from crossing the border illegally last year, and this is seen as positive not only for Albania but also for the EU, as migration flows are being halted.

Albanian citizens show very high approval rates in social surveys regarding perception of the EU and willingness to integrate. According to Minister Malo, almost 93% of Albanian citizens support further integration and membership into the EU. This is particularly striking compared to other countries in the region, such as Bosnia and Serbia.

With regard to foreign policy alignment with the EU acquis, Albania has been 100% aligned with EU foreign policy positions. This is staggering when compared to current candidate member Serbia, which is only 51.8% aligned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minister of Justice Etilda Gjonaj; Photo: PS Alb 2019 

 

CFEP: What are the main conditions to ensure accountability and transparency when it comes to the vetting process in the judicial system?

Minister Gjonaj: There are two main levels of transparency, firstly the vetting process has the same jurisdiction as the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court of Albania. If an appeal is needed, then it can go to the ECHR, the European Court of Human Rights for validation. The second mechanism is entrenched in the Albanian Constitution through the IMO (International Monitoring Operation). It is responsible to verify the candidates to make sure they meet all of the requirements. The Ombudsperson is also responsible to verify the criteria.

Albania is also the only country that has been required to have a judicial monitoring program like the IMO from the European Commission.

 The main aim of the vetting process is to guarantee the functioning of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Albania

The vetting process Albania is currently undertaking involves three criteria:

  • Inspection of Assets: all judges and prosecutors in duty are obliged to fill out and deliver an official declaration of assets and all relevant documents justifying their authenticity and lawfulness
  • Background Information: to verify whether the person in question has (or has had) inappropriate contacts with persons involved in organised crime. Intelligence agencies will be responsible for helping the vetting bodies undertake this assessment
  • Proficiency Assessment: to evaluate if the vetting subjects have performed their ethical and professional activities in compliance with the legislation in force. Starting from January 1st, 2006 for subjects who have had more than 3 years of professional experience or, for those with less than 3 years of experience, from the moment in which they started their mandate.

 

 

Albania has undertaken comprehensive justice reforms, such as the vetting process mentioned above, which initially benefited from assistance by the US State Department, the FBI, and the European Commission. The vetting process has been put in place in order to ensure transparency and build trust in the judicial system. Out of a potential 800 candidates, judges and prosecutors, around 148 have gone through the vetting process. To date 118 public officials have been dismissed and another 36 cases are under investigation. This proves that the vetting process is actually working, although slowly. The Albanian government has also doubled the salaries of judges and prosecutors in the justice system to incentivise justice officials to carry out honest and sincere work. Nowadays, justice officials are paid some of the highest salaries in the country. Minister Gjonaj stated that Albania does have the political will to implement justice reforms, as demonstrated through the vetting process.

 

“The implementation of the justice reforms is about sustainability in the long run, and also for the greater benefit of the Albanian citizens, regardless of whether Albania receives an opening date for accession talks this June, or at a later time”, said Minister Gjonaj.

 

One of the main sticking points for Albania has been the nomination of Constitutional Court Judges. Currently there is only one sitting judge that has been able to pass the vetting procedures. All eight other remaining seats are vacant, and this has created a constitutional crisis. Minister Gjonaj said that the vetting procedure would take some time and they are hopeful that the vacancies will be filled by July of this year. Albania is currently moving towards a more transparent judicial system and a high degree of accountability. However, they remain in the transition phase, which is inherently time consuming.

 

 

Has enough progress been made for the Council to give Albania the green light?

 

Both the European Parliament and the European Commission expressed a positive opinion towards Albania’s accession talks in both 2018, and the new report in 2019.

 

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has urged EU members to start the negotiation process with Albania and North Macedonia without further delay. President Juncker of the European Commission has stated: “Albania made considerable progress on this road towards the EU. This is a testament of a determination and strength of the Albanian people”. Juncker also added that “any decision on the opening of the negotiation is based on merit and tangible results in the necessary areas, adding that for the European Commission based on an objective assessment Albania is ready for the next step.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edi Rama & Jean-Claude Juncker; Photo: European Union 2019

 

 

The decision now rests with Member States in the Council. The Dutch Parliament voted 105 out of 150 against the opening of accession talks with Albania. The Dutch Parliament has voted to deploy the ‘ Emergency Brake Mechanism‘ because of concerns about rising criminal activity by Albanian nationals in the country. They passed a motion asking the Dutch government to request that the Commission launches the visa waiver suspension mechanism. This could potentially lead to a suspension of Albanians’ Schengen travel rights.

 

The Albanian government has been working to alleviate the concerns of the Netherlands and the other member states, with respect to combatting organized crime. The progress against organized crime is highlighted throughout High Representative Federica Mogherini’s Report for the Council, and so this is clearly a top priority for the EU.

Inviting Albania into the negotiating process may create an impetus for reforms, which could in turn increase the level of accountability for the state structures.

 

Many challenges still remain for Albania and more needs to be done in order for Albania to join the European Union. The fight against corruption, organized crime, and creating a completely independent judicial system are the main priorities for Albania. Albania has taken heed of the advice given by the Council last year. The Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, during his meeting with President Juncker, noted “the EU should act geo-strategically, geopolitically, and based on the merit of the countries. If the countries deserve it, the EU should not deny it”.

 

 

 

 

Published by: Flamur Gruda at the Centre for European Progression in Brussels

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And not as I do

  • January 2019
  • Otto Ilveskero

And not as I do

The EU must lead the way in transparency

Source: Daniel Huizinga | Flickr

“We cannot demand openness and transparency from others, if those principles are not followed within our own institution.” Heidi Hautala, the Finnish Green MEP and European Parliament Vice-President hit the nail right on the head with her comment last July after the people’s representatives had once again rejected greater transparency over their use of expenses.

 

Without even a hint of irony, The European Parliament’s 15-member executive committee – the Bureau – had behind closed doors blocked a proposal to tighten controls over the MEPs’ General Expenditure Allowance (GEA). This ensured that the European parliamentarians could continue to enjoy their €4,416 a month parliamentary expenses without much scrutiny, costing the European taxpayer around €40 million a year. No requirements are currently in place for the representatives to provide information on how these funds are spent and most MEPs claim the full allowance.

 

Furthermore, in September 2018 the EU General Court even ruled that the Parliament had the right to reject journalists’ requests for greater expenses transparency on the basis of the protection of personal data. This decision immediately begs two obvious questions: 1) what are the MEPs doing with public money that is so private that it cannot be publicly revealed and 2) does the MEPs’ right to privacy really trump the European citizens’ right of access to information as set in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights? The court seems to have regarded the former as a question not worth considering and decided the latter to the benefit of the parliamentarians.

 

Last week it was revealed that the longest serving MEP currently sitting in the Parliament, Elmar Brok, had personally netted almost €18,000 from four groups of visitors by charging them €150 per person to visit the European Parliament as his guests. Nothing like a representative of the people who makes extra money out of the people he represents. But it is not so much the side hustle itself as the allegations that Mr Brok claimed many of the visitor costs back from the Parliament as expenses that constitute the problem within the context of transparency. Easy money. Doubled.

 

Scandals such as this are political gold for Eurosceptics looking to challenge the institution as wasteful and opaque – even if the same Eurosceptics are not any better with their own expenses. For example, last summer the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) was ordered to reimburse the Parliament over €500,000 of misspent public money, while in December the right-wing conservative Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE) was asked to repay over €530,000. This kind of behaviour can only be challenged with greater accountability, which does not exist without greater transparency on the MEPs’ expenses.

 

Overall, European institutions need to become more mindful of the public’s perceptions as well as more open regarding their activities. Simply put, Europe of today cannot be run on the Monnet method of integration by stealth. The politicisation of the EU since the Maastricht Treaty together with the rapid expansion of access to information has resulted in the increased power of political narratives and brought with itself the need for public institutions to repair information gaps between what they do and how they are represented by other political actors in particular. As a directly elected political body, the European Parliament has so far been able to defend its democratic credentials to those willing to listen, but without greater transparency it cannot challenge the wide-spread dissatisfaction with the European project. Opaque expenses spending and unaccounted for meetings with unregistered lobbyists are powerful ammunition to those wanting to portray the Parliament as an inward-looking elitist institution distant from the masses.

 

On the other side of Rue Belliard, the European Parliament’s co-legislator is not making things any easier either. Despite recommendations from the European Ombudsman, the Council has failed to systematically record member state positions on legislative issues and routinely marks documents as not to be published. Transparency in the Council has been viewed as a hindrance to the negotiations between the EU’s 28 members despite academic evidence to the contrary. The secretive nature of the Council has turned lack of transparency into an artform that allows member state governments to take credit or shift blame depending on whether a particular decision made in the Council is likely to be viewed as popular or unpopular within their domestic electorates. In addition, due to inadequate measures for parliamentary scrutiny on EU affairs in many member states, the positions taken by national governments in Brussels can remain hidden and uncontested throughout the decision-making process. This legislative black hole allows for European populists to further stoke the fire of public dissatisfaction by representing “Brussels” as a malevolent entity oblivious to the needs of the people.

 

More often than not, however, this Eurosceptic blame game has centred around the Commission. Yet, as an unelected political institution, the Commission has actually been more sensitive to the calls of unaccountability and lack of democratic credentials than the EU’s co-legislators and has attempted to improve its transparency accordingly. Achieving greater openness was in fact one of President Juncker’s first pledges after assuming the role. For example, the Commissions has staff rules in place for limiting the so-called ‘revolving door’ phenomenon, it conducts trade negotiations in a more transparent manner and has been highly responsive to the recommendations of the European Ombudsman, while commissioners and senior officials are mandated to publish their travel expenses and meetings with lobbyists (who must be registered with the Commission’s transparency register). Currently only seven member states have passed national legislation regulating lobbying and only five have a mandatory code of conduct for lobbyists similar in scope to the Commission’s standards.

 

After years of demanding openness and transparency from market actors in the name of competition and trust, the EU’s institutions must reform and unify their own transparency rules for greater accountability and credibility for the Union as a whole. And the first opportunity of the year is rapidly approaching, as the European Parliament will be voting for the first time on binding transparency rules for lobbying activities in its Rules of Procedure tomorrow (31 January).

 

Yet, without a hint of irony the Parliament will be conducting another transparency vote in the opaquest manner possible. This time the European People’s Party (EPP) voted in a secret ballot within the group to demand that the votes on the transparency amendments to the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure be conducted by secret ballot. As the EPP currently holds over 20% of the parliamentary seats, they were able to force a secret ballot on the vote based the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. On top of this, tomorrow’s vote is shadowed by a particular declaration made by the Parliament’s lawyers in November 2018. According to the EP’s legal minds, mandating MEPs to meet only registered lobbyists and even only voluntarily publishing information about these meetings is illegal based on the MEPs’ ‘freedom of the parliamentary mandate’ – an argument that has also been supported by the EPP. Both the EPP and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) groups have previously voted against rules allowing MEPs to meet only with lobbyists in the transparency register, which is already compulsory for commissioners and the Commission’s senior officials. It is time to unify the measures.

 

An increasingly politicised union has no choice but to increase the openness of its law-making. Accountability and trust have been burning topics in the current European debate on election manipulation, disinformation, and social media in particular, and the EU must be on the front lines of delivering reliable information to the voting public as well as ensure the accountability of its own actions. Greater institutional transparency is certainly the key to both of these ambitions.

 

Update: On 31 January the European Parliament approved the amended rulebook, including transparency rules and measures to prevent psychological or sexual harassment, by 496 votes to 114.

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Shout the truth louder

  • October 2018
  • Admin

Shout the truth louder

A week of weird comparisons

 

Source of the photo: Yahoo Finance

“You don’t like the truth, do you?” asked MEP Syed Kamall, leader of the ECR group in the European Parliament, after associating Nazism with modern social democrats. In fact, he was referring to social policy when he addressed the leader of the S&D, Udo Bullmann, the following way: “It’s a left-wing ideology, they wanted the same things as you, let’s be clear.” But it left a very bad taste in the mouth.

 

Well, I don’t think that most of us have any doubts which MEP is the one who doesn’t like the truth. No matter how ironic Kamall’s remark about the truth is, I just don’t want to make the mistake most of anti-populist actors make: entering into long explanations why the distorted reality of these politicians is wrong. I don’t even want to be as harsh as some EP members, who immediately shouted “rubbish”. There isn’t any need to over-interpret Kamall’s speech.

 

Still, it is worth to address the root causes. Right after this incident, I asked myself what he must have had in mind when he opened his mouth? At first place, I would have replied that Kamall wanted to please his voters, bruise his political enemies and come up with a catchy line, as many politicians do during heated debates. But his reactions convinced me that he really meant what he said.

 

Kamall stated how much he was annoyed by the people misunderstanding Nazism as a right-wing ideology. Then, feeling the outrage from the plenary and beyond, he half-heartedly apologized on Twitter, saying that he didn’t mean to be personally offending and he respects those who fought against Nazis, Communists and other extremists. The expression of “nothing personal” is certainly the cherry on the top of the cake. But he still gives the impression that he truly believes the S&D wants the same things as the Nazis. Regarding social policy, of course. But he only mentioned this in the beginning. The overall message is a weird comparison. And this is what makes him and his entire type extremely dangerous.

 

He and a great bunch of his comrades in the Tory party indeed believed that Great Britain’s EU membership was harmful for the country and they needed to regain power, which they echoed over and over again.  The voice of experts, who lengthily explained the idea of regaining national sovereignty was nonsense, projected that the UK would have to continue obeying the same rules of the EU and paying nearly the same membership fee without having a say after Brexit, couldn’t be heard because of those oversimplified messages. And what will quite possibly happen in March 2019? Exactly what the experts said.

 

Something very similar is taking place in Hungary as well. This week, the country celebrated the anniversary of the 1956 revolution against the Soviet rule, which gave a wonderful opportunity for leading figures of the governing party Fidesz to voice their similarly stubborn and dangerous comparisons. “Hungarian sovereignty was threatened by Russian boots back then and Brussels-style stilted speech and elegant suits by now”, stated Ministerial Commissionaire István Grezsa. MP Lajos Kósa compared the Hungarian government to the heroes of 1956. “They needed to face Soviet tanks, while we need to face reports from the European Parliament.”

 

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