By making sure, the sovereign is both constituted and limited by law, Europe has been the cradle of de jure protection against despotism as counter-project to the de facto rule of the strongest. Over the last 50 years, European states even established an unprecedented supranational set of legal rules, protected and enacted by the Commission and the Court of Justice of the EU. The paradox of sovereignty was seemingly resolved. Theories of European integration emphasized the role of institutions to overcome collective action problems, ensure compliance and sustain the unique supranational legal system. Recently, however, the rule of law has come under pressure from several interrelated developments, challenging one of European Studies’ most pertinent narratives of ‘integration through law’.
The debt crisis and its economic repercussions disclosed member states’ limited ability to comply with the Eurozone’s austerity rules. Consequently, the empowerment of the Commission has been in the focus of the ensuing reform negotiations. The current Italian government and its unwillingness to comply with the new rules shows that this challenge is far from being over, not to mention the ongoing undermining of the rule of law in both Poland and Hungary.
In the wake of the economic crisis, we witnessed the rise of organized populisms challenging the rule of law at two fronts: First, they discredit the EU’s legitimacy, blaming the EU for eroding democracy in the member states rather than enhancing it by shifting too many elements of formerly national sovereignty to the European level. Without such legitimacy, the EU’s standing vis-à-vis the member states weakens. Second, once in office, populist parties undermined Europe’s legal system with overt non-compliance. Ultimately, the threat of an unorderly Brexit is the gravest result of this populist
At the same time, the EU is facing an increasingly uncertain international environment. The current US administration has made it a dogma to cancel multilateral treaties only to replace them by bilateral negotiations. The WTO dispute settlement body, a cornerstone of international trade law, is sabotaged by the US’ unwillingness to reappoint judges. China is not a rock solid supporter of the rule of law either, Brazil has just democratically empowered an authoritarian ruler, and African countries increasingly drop their membership of the International Criminal Court.
Finally, the EU is facing homegrown issues of non-compliance. For example, the Commission’s crack down on tax exemptions for multilateral corporations has challenged member states’ fiscal autonomy. Or, Germany appears unwilling to comply with the EU car emission standards to protect its industry.
How are these challenges going to affect European integration, institutions and its legal system? How do different member states react to these developments? Will they openly confront non-compliant
states and support the Commission? Or are we witnessing a silent erosion of compliance with EU law? In how far can the EU sustain the multilateral world order? What happens after ‘integration through law’? How can the rule of law be brought into a new balance with identity-based politics?
These are some of the core questions that will be addressed at the forthcoming Danish European Community Studies Annual Conference, 3-4 October 2019, Aarhus University, Denmark.