EU Watch: Encouraging debate about EU values and efficiency.

Our Priorities

Areas of interest 

While the European Union covers many areas, EU Watch will focus on those where values and principles are primarily at stake.
These are:
  • EU external relations and foreign policy
  • the protection of fundamental rights, the rule of law and democratic principles
  • the regulation of the digital sphere
In addition, we are looking at the EU’s handling and role in the COVID-19 pandemic and check whether or not Brussels is living up to the expectations of the citizens of Europe.
 

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1 – Pursuing an effective EU foreign policy

The EU’s economic importance in the world is not yet matched by its importance in international affairs. It has been slow to reach decisions and to act decisively, slow to change. Moreover, despite its economic power, the EU has almost no military or other means to exert pressure on others.

The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is in existence since 1993. A very complex system has created to safeguard member states’ traditional powers on the one hand while allowing for joint action at the European level on the foreign policy front.

Values and principles

The objectives of the CFSP are to safeguard EU values and interests, to support democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the principles of international law, to preserve peace, to prevent conflicts and to assist populations, countries and regions faced with natural or manmade disasters.

EU Watch’s overall approach is to try to understand and encourage debate about the EU Values and the EU mechanics which underly EU Foreign and Security Policy.

What are the mechanics?

A cursory examination of the mechanics underlying the CFSP reveals a system which, by its very structure

  • hampers decision-making,
  • creates delay and
  • causes inefficiency.

The European Council (heads of state and governments and the Council of Foreign Ministers take the major decisions, including sanctions against individuals and organisations. The European External Action Service (EEAS) – the EU’s diplomatic service – has to prepare and implement decisions. Besides the EEAS,  the European Commission has established a service called Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI). Its reports directly to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, who is also a vice-president of the Commission. The European Parliament also has a minor role in foreign-policy making and is regularly consulted by Borrell and the other players.

Complexity is evident throughout every stage, from the earliest moment of a proposal to act, through its adoption and execution, right up to the final stages when it is (or should be) reviewed.

The simple fact that there are so many entities with the right to participate – with so many parallel and overlapping competencies and differing goals and rules – is a serious problem. It is compounded by the complex mechanics of differing voting mechanisms on different matters.

EU Watch seeks to:

  • Analyse and inform how the EU applies sanctions and other restrictive measures with regard to third countries
  • Assess EU funding programmes with third countries in light of EU values
  • Analyse and inform how the EU’s trade and economic policies interlink with foreign policy
  • Inform about the mechanics of EU foreign policy-making
  • Draw attention to and comment on shortcomings
  • Encourage debate, feedback and useful communication and understanding
  • Suggest possible remedies in light of EU values
 

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2 – Upholding democracy & the rule of law

EU values in the field of rule of law

Rule of law is regarded as a prerequisite for the protection of all the other fundamental values of the European Union, including for basic rights and democracy.

At the core of the rule of law is effective judicial protection, which requires the independence, quality and efficiency of national justice systems. Citizens should be able to challenge their actions in independent courts. Article 2 of the Treaty also enshrines the fight against corruption, which unfairly favours some to the detriment of others, the safeguarding of media freedom, and the protection of other basic human rights enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Mechanisms

The EU has several tools at its disposal to protect the rule of law. The European Commission is responsible for guaranteeing the respect of the rule of law and for making sure that EU law, values and principles are applied across the Union.

In cases of “severe breaches” to the rule of law, the Commission can propose to activate a procedure under Article 7 of the Treaty which can lead to a temporary loss of voting rights by the member state concerned. However, the Council (and thus national governments) are the ultimate arbiter in this regard. The Article 7 procedure is cumbersome and of limited effectiveness, especially given that it requires unanimity in the European Council.

Recently, the EU agreed a so-called Rule of Law Mechanism according to which EU funds may be withheld from member states that disrespect the rule of law. Application is limited to those principles that “affect or seriously risk affecting the sound financial management of the EU budget or the protection of the financial interests of the Union in a sufficiently direct way.” However, “Endangering the independence of judiciary” is mentioned as one issue that may be indicative of breaches of the principles of the rule of law. The European Council in December 2020 called upon the Commission to delay the application of the new rules until the European Court of Justice has ruled on their constitutionality.

However, the European Parliament insisted that the rules must be applied as soon as possible. I

Aspects to the debate

  • How does the EU assess the situation in the member states, on who defines (or should define) the criteria?
  • How are payments out of the EU Budget linked to rule of law standards in member states?
  • Does the EU do enough to fight against corruption and nepotism in member states and what should it do?
  • Should supranational bodies such as the European Commission and the European Parliament have a right to restrict member states’ “sovereign decisions”, including by making decisions contradicting national democratic decisions?
  • Should EU membership rights be (partially) suspended if countries continue to disrespect basic principles of the EU Treaty?
  • Does the EU itself fulfil the rule of law criteria it demands from its member states?

EU Watch seeks to:

  • Analyse the competencies and mechanisms at EU level
  • Draw attention to shortcomings in application of EU values
  • Promote the transparency of the decision-making process
  • Liaise with other NGOs covering the issue
  • Organise briefings and panel debates
  • Make submissions on aspects identified as relevant
  • Advocate outcomes that are in line with EU principles whilst at the same time resolving contentious matters
 
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3 – Regulating the digital sphere

For decades, the European Union has been striving to regulate not just the online world, but the internet as well. Many of those questions have been very controversial, not just between the various political groups in the European Parliament, but with respect to business and consumer interests.

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Over the years, a number of important legislative pieces were adopted in Brussels, among them the 2000 E-Commerce Directive, the 2016 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the 2019 Copyright Directive. Presently, two more important legislative proposals are under discussion: The Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The two bills were proposed by the European Commission in December 2020 and are now under consideration in the European Parliament and the Council.

In addition, debate continues about freedom of speech and how much regulation should be imposed on companies – social media platform providers in particular – in that regard.

To a large part, the EU’s activities in the digital sphere relate to the principles in the funding treaties and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The following values and key principles are affected:

Fundamental rights of the consumer

  • Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Human dignity and integrity
  • Tolerance and Equality (fight against hate speech)
  • Freedom of expression and information
  • Rights of children
  • Protection of personal data and of private life

Freedom to conduct business / fair competition

  • General monitoring obligation on online platforms
  • Appropriate use of algorithms
  • Transparency for online advertising

Democracy

  • Combating fake news
  • Protecting fair and free elections
  • Ensure transparency of internet platforms
  • Safeguarding against erroneously deleted content, i.e. protecting against censorship
Controversial questions 

EU Watch seeks to look at the following issues in detail.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH: How and who will make assessments to remove or reinstate speech/content? To what extent can IT companies ban or limit political discourse on their platforms (e.g. recent ban on Donald Trump’s social media accounts)? As Commission President von der Leyen put it: “No matter how right it may have been for Twitter to switch off Donald Trump’s account five minutes after midnight, such serious interference with freedom of expression should be based on laws and not on company rules. It should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers.”

UPLOAD FILTERS: A debate has been raging across Europe for several years whether companies and online platform providers should be allowed or even mandated to deploy so-called upload filters, i.e. algorithms that filter out potentially harmful speech and other content. Critics, including a majority in the European Parliament, have said this would constitute a severe limitation to free speech. Proponents say that upload filters are already being used (e.g. against child pornography and terrorist content) and that there is no other way to police platforms. The current DSA draft says that where platforms act as moderators, the criteria for takedown of content must be stipulated in the general user guidelines of the company.

SELF-REGULATION V. EXTERNAL REGULATION: Will platforms continue to make those judgements (under a regulator’s guidance and supervision), or will control become entirely independent of the platforms themselves? What the Commission has suggested is closer to the former, but the proposals still have to go through the EU’s legislative process and could be amended significantly

LEVEL OF REGULATION: Does the EU need to go further in dismantling large platforms, e.g. force them to divest certain parts of the businesses, or has it gone too far already?

INDUSTRIAL POLICY: Should the EU champion the emergence of European platforms that can potentially be regulated more easily? Should the EU actively stimulate “European champions”, or better leave it to the market?

SUBSIDIARITY: To what extent can and should the EU limit member states’ ability to regulate the internet? How much leeway remains, including in light of the principle of subsidiarity enshrined in the EU Treaties?

 

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4 – Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic

The EU has come under some heavy fire in some member states for its handling of the Coronavirus crisis, in particular for a lack of coordination and the sluggish procurement of vaccines.

  • Should the EU have stepped up earlier to coordinate the response to the pandemic?
  • Did it negotiate in the wrong way with the pharmaceutical companies?
  • Did it take too long in approving vaccines?
  • Are the economic stimulus measures sufficient to get the EU’s economy back on track?
  • And should Brussels have imposed common lockdown rules as well as testing and travel regulations across the EU?

EU Watch looks at these controversial issues in more detail.

 

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