“Commitment to democracy is something you should never take for granted”

Dissertation Prize 2020 goes to Matteo Bonelli


How can the rule of law and democracy standards be safeguarded in the member states of the European Union? That’s the question Matteo Bonelli, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law, discusses in his dissertation, for which he has received the Dissertation Prize 2020. He provides the reader with “a thorough examination of the political, societal and historical realities”, according to the jury report. But, as he says, “there is no silver bullet, no easy solution”.

In April 2011, the Hungarian parliament voted for a new constitution that limited the independence of the national bank, the judiciary and the data protection authority. “This was the first time a member state of the EU went backwards”, says Bonelli. “From a good enough democratic system to a less democratic society. I was a master’s student at the time. When I got the opportunity to do a PhD, this stuck with me. Especially when similar developments started to happen in Poland. I focus mainly on these two countries in my dissertation.”

So why does this happen? Why do the people of a country vote politicians into power who make these kinds of radical changes? Bonelli has identified several causes. “For one, the EU is based on shared values, but it was never really clarified what the standards for those values are. There is a Charter of Fundamental Rights, but the standards for democracy and the rule of law are not as defined. When a country is a candidate member state, they get a set of guidelines and criteria they have to meet. But once they are a member state, there is a lack of precision in describing what is expected of them.”

This, says Bonelli, makes it hard for other member states to respond. “The politicians in these countries are excellent at the game of pointing the finger. When Frans Timmermans, as vice chair of the European Commission, took action against Poland, they said: ‘What about the judiciary in the Netherlands? You have problems, too. Why don’t you fix those first?’ And yes, the Dutch judiciary also has its issues, but they are nothing compared to those in Poland. But without clearly defined standards, the discussion falls flat. However, it is important for the EU to take action and for the discussion to continue. Because if the quality of democracy or the rule of law deteriorates in one country, you can feel it everywhere. For example, Dutch judges have on occasion refused to send a suspect back to Poland because they didn’t believe he would be judged fairly.”

Another thing Bonelli thinks the EU should do is focus more on the societal and cultural dimensions, rather than only on the formal ones, when accepting a new member state. “For a democracy to work, the population has to be committed to it. It’s not enough to have politicians who are eager to join the EU. All people need to believe that democracy may be flawed, but it’s the best system we have. Now this is a commitment that should never be taken for granted. The rise of populism and the loss of trust in institutions can be seen all over Europe. The EU should be alert. I see positive signs, though. “The European Democracy Action Plan proposed by the Commission, for example, which includes legislation to stop foreign entities from interfering in national elections. That shows that the Commission wants to take the lead.”

The EU should also invest in media campaigns to reach the citizens of countries, says Bonelli. “Too often, you’re either considered a Eurosceptic or a Euro-enthusiast. The discussion focuses on the costs of the EU, not on why it matters. You can be critical of the EU and still underscore its values. And yes, there will always be tension. The motto of the EU is unity in diversity. So you should strengthen democracy and the rule of law, but you can’t tell member states how to organise their elections or judiciary system.”

“Commitment to democracy is something you should never take for granted”
Bonelli Picture
Author: Cleo Freriks

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Categories: Science
Tags: EU,law,research,dissertation prize

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