The rule of law is a key component of Europe’s just society, political stability and economic growth. The fourth annual “Rule of Law Report-2023” reveals legal development and the “rule of law” situation in the EU member states; we added an example for Latvia.
This 2023-report shows that the states have improved and strengthened the rule of law while also concerns remain and more work needs to be done to improve the independence of judiciary, impartiality of public service media and the safety of journalists covering legal issues.
The rule of law, together with democracy and fundamental rights, represents one of the basic and founding values of the European Union; it is both a common feature in all the member states and bedrock of the whole Union’s identity. Besides, it is a core factor in Europe’s political stability and economic prosperity. In recent years, these founding values have come under attack around the world, testing the resilience of the EU and its member states.
More in: 2023 Rule of Law Report: https://commission.europa.eu/system/files/2023-07/1_1_52565_communication_rol_en.pdf
Generally, the “rule of law” situation remains constant in among the EU states; the report acknowledges that about 65% of the last year’s recommendations have been fully or partially, addressed in the states, which shows that 2022-recommendations have has important effects on the states’ legal development. Considering that reforms aimed at improving the rule of law framework takes time, present account reflects significant legal development happened within one year, with some “systemic concerns’ in some states.
Present package published in July 2023, includes the rule of law’s analysis and significant legal developments in the EU states since July 2022, including assessment previous recommendations and providing specific recommendations to some member states; the report represents a key driver of changes and reforms in the member states’ legal systems.
Source: Commission press release: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_3631
The report covers four legal development spheres: national justice systems, anti-corruption frameworks, media pluralism and institutional checks-and balances.
= National justice system’s reforms
Justice reforms have remained high on the political agenda over the last year, with many Member States following up on the 2022 recommendations and implementing reforms agreed in the context of the national recovery/resilience plans. Many states have further advanced or finalised important reforms to strengthen judicial independence, such as legislative efforts to strengthen the independence and effectiveness of Councils of the Judiciary, improving judicial appointment procedures and the functioning of their highest courts and/or preparing steps to strengthen the autonomy of prosecution services.
EU states also introduced measures aimed at improving efficiency and quality of justice, as well as facilitating access to justice; some states further invested in their justice systems, although remuneration of judges and prosecutors present a concern and led to challenges to recruit qualified judicial personnel. At the same time, structural concerns persist in a few states as regards judicial independence.
Recommendations for 2023 on justice address such challenges as the need for safeguards in judicial appointment procedures, the composition of Councils of the Judiciary, the autonomy of the prosecution service or the need to provide adequate resources for the judiciary, including salaries of judges and prosecutors.
= Anti-corruption frameworks
Corruption remains a serious concern for EU citizens and businesses; thus, the 2023 Eurobarometer on citizens’ attitudes towards corruption has shown, e.g. that an increasing majority of citizens (70%) and businesses (65%) still believe that corruption is widespread in their country. Europeans are increasingly skeptical about national efforts to address corruption, with around 67% thinking that high-level corruption cases are not pursued sufficiently.
Source: Businesses’ attitudes towards corruption, in: https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2969
A number of EU states have taken measures, in line with the 2022 Rule of Law report’s recommendations on anti-corruption; several states have initiated criminal law reforms to strengthen measures against corruption. While some states have continued their track-record of investigating, prosecuting and sanctioning high-level corruption, some have taken action to strengthen the capacity of prosecution authorities responsible for anti-corruption efforts through additional resources and specialisation.
On the preventive side, several states updated existing anti-corruption strategies and action plans or are in the process of revising them; others have taken steps to strengthen integrity frameworks, such as codes of conducts or lobbying rules. The recommendations issued this year are related to the strengthening of preventive frameworks, such as those governing lobbying and conflicts of interest rules, as well as ensuring the effective investigation and prosecution of corruption cases.
Public officials are subject to asset and interest disclosure obligations in the majority of EU states, but these vary in scope, transparency and accessibility of disclosed information, as well as in the level and effectiveness of verification and enforcement.
In some states, investigations and prosecutions into corruption cases are lengthy and a solid track record is still lacking, especially in high-level cases. To ensure a more coherent and effective response to corruption across the Union, the Commission has proposed new EU-wide legislation on corruption in May 2023.
More in: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52023PC0234
= Media freedom and pluralism
Several states have adopted, strengthened and/or are discussing measures to protect journalists and human rights defenders engaging in public participation from unfounded or abusive court proceedings. During the year, certain states have adopted legislation increasing the transparency of media ownership and have strengthened provisions to enhance the independence or extend the remit of their media regulatory authorities.
Various concerns persist with regard to the lack of transparency in the distribution of state advertising, conflicts of interests and access to public documents, which are some of the important issues highlighted in the report requiring greater attention. While some states have initiated reforms to strengthen the independence of their public service broadcasters, in several others, challenges in this respect remain unaddressed.
The Commission has again issued a number of recommendations which cover, e.g. transparent and fair allocation of state advertising, the independent governance of public service media and measures to improve the safety of journalists as well as the right of access to public documents. The Commission proposed in September 2022 the Media Freedom Act, now under negotiations, to set out safeguards at EU level to protect media pluralism and editorial independence.
= Institutional checks and balances
EU states continued improving quality of national legislative processes and facilitating stakeholders’ involvement, i.e. thus, constitutional courts continue to play a key role in the system of checks and balances and have also taken important decisions regarding the organisation of national justice systems.
National human rights institutions, ombudspersons and other independent authorities have seen their status further strengthened in some states; in majority of states, there is an enabling and supportive environment for civil society and some of them are taking measures for further support.
However, there is still no formal framework for stakeholder consultation in some states, or it is not sufficiently followed in practice, and civil society organisations and human rights defenders continue to face challenges such as funding issues and restrictions on their operating space. Concerns have been raised in various states regarding the continued use of emergency powers.
Present report again includes information on the states’ implementation of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights; it also follows up the reactions of member states’ checks and balances to the use of spyware.
To address some of these challenges, the Commission has reiterated recommendations that remain partly or not addressed, and where relevant issued additional ones, relating for example to the effective involvement of stakeholders in the legislative process, the establishment and functioning of accredited National Human Rights Institutions and to ensure an open operating framework for civil society.
Main reference to the 2023 Report in: https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/upholding-rule-law/rule-law/rule-law-mechanism/2023-rule-law-report_en
The Report noted that Latvian new Action Plan 2023-2025 on corruption’s prevention was adopted and several legislative amendments aim to improve the process of combating corruption. The Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (KNAB) continues to efficiently deal with anti-corruption issues. While the investigation and prosecution of corruption-related cases are carried out efficiently, the State Audit Office has raised concerns regarding the division of competences among various anti-corruption authorities. The electronic system for asset declarations continues to work well. New initiatives on integrity matters, such as the code of ethics for the Government, have been announced. A new law on lobbying was adopted and is expected to be fully implemented by 2025 by setting up the lobby register. The new legislation on whistle blowing is operational, while the Ombudsperson underlines the need for clarity and ensuring effectiveness in the practice of the current whistle blowing framework.
The previous 2022 Rule of Law Report, has revealed the following:
• No progress on initiating a process in view of ensuring adequate safeguards against undue political influence in the appointment of Supreme Court judges, taking into account European standards on judicial appointments.
• Fully implemented the recommendation on continuing efforts towards the swift adoption and made some progress on the effective implementation of the Action Plan 2021-2024 to prevent corruption.
• Some progress on continuing efforts towards adopting the draft legislation on lobbying, and following that, ensuring the setting-up of a special lobby register.
• Fully implemented the recommendation on taking measures to increase the participation of civil society in decision-making at local level.
On this basis, and considering other developments that took place during 2022-23, it is recommended in the 2023 report that Latvian authorities would:
• Take measures to ensure adequate safeguards against undue political influence in the appointment of Supreme Court judges, taking into account European standards on judicial appointments.
• Ensure the effective implementation of the legislation on lobbying, including the setting-up of a special lobby register.
Source: Countries chapters and recommendations in: https://commission.europa.eu/system/files/2023-07/6.2_1_52666_count_chap_abstracts_and_recomm_en.pdf.