Democracy and the Rule of Law: Failing Partnership?

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Publication Date 20/01/2020
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Critics often accuse the EU of being an elite project, imposed on unwilling populations. But those populations benefit from the EU’s great achievements – the single market, and the borderless area of freedom, security and justice – which can only work if the rule of law prevails throughout the EU. Democratically-elected governments in individual member-states have to be prevented from taking decisions that suit them and boost their ratings, but undermine the rule of law throughout the EU. There is a difficult balance to be struck between the absolute ‘will of the people’ and the paternalistic ‘we know best’ rule by judges and other unelected institutions. But a ‘pure’ democracy always runs the risk of turning into what the former British Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham described in 1976 as an “elective dictatorship”, in which the government of the day, by virtue of its majority, can take any policy decision it chooses, without any check on its power. Modern European democracies need the rule of law to limit their ability to make terrible mistakes; and the EU as a whole has a legitimate common interest in the application of the rule of law throughout the member-states.

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ESO Records
ECFR: Commentary, 19.04.18 : Requiem for a democracy: the European Union and Orbán’s Hungary
Debate: Protecting the Rule of Law in the EU
Cardiff EDC: Developments in the Rule of Law issue in Poland

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