Against the backdrop of the far right’s increased share of the vote in June’s European Parliament elections, there are growing concerns about European political parties’ commitment to the EU’s rule of law initiatives.

In theory, most parties’ election campaigns included a pledge to strengthen rule-of-law mechanisms. The manifesto of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), for example, contained a strong narrative on the rule of law as well as some relatively concrete proposals for improving its protection in the EU. The EPP’s Ursula von der Leyen insisted that any agreement with other parties to help her secure a second term as European Commission president must be based on a commitment to the rule of law.

Photo of Pablo Castillo-Ortiz.
Pablo Castillo-Ortiz

Furthermore, during the campaign, the EPP, the Socialists, the Greens, and the Liberals all claimed to be leading rule of law defenders or accused other parties of opening the door to rule-of-law violations. Even the manifesto of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) contained a mildly positive reference to the rule of law.

Now that the new composition of the parliament is known, and ahead of the appointment of the new commission, what can be expected from the rule of law in the EU in the next five years?

Keeping to commitments?

The make-up of the parliament has important implications for the rule of law. The pro-EU parties, which together obtained a relatively large majority in the last elections, can be deemed to have a mandate to push for improvements in the EU’s rule of law protection system. While emphasising their role as rule-of-law defenders, these parties also acknowledge the limited efficacy of existing action in this area. They should now be bound by their commitments, and in the next few years they should seek to advance the EU’s rule of law agenda. Precisely because of the rise of the far right, the rule of law must be defended more rigorously than before.

For their part, the ECR and its members might be put to the test. Before and during the campaign, some prominent ECR figures, most notably Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, often tried to portray themselves as relatively conventional European conservatives while at other times attempting to please their more radical and Eurosceptic voters. If pro-EU political forces take action on the rule of law in the new political cycle, this will force the ECR and some of its parties, like Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) and Spain’s Vox, to take a stance on the issue, which might become a source of tension in the EU-level party. It is a crunch point for these parties’ claim to be in favour of the rule of law.

Against this background, rule of law considerations should still play a prominent role in European politics in the years to come. The question is how to turn the pro-EU parties’ narrative of concern for the rule of law into specific action.

From rhetoric to results

It is crucial for the commission to have a prominent role when it comes to protecting the rule of law. Academic literature has shown how the commission has been insufficiently active when it comes to, for instance, its role in article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which sets out the steps the commission can take if it believes a member state has failed to fulfil a treaty obligation. The election results should give the commission a renewed impetus in this area. Additionally, the general acknowledgement of the EU’s failures should create momentum to sharpen the tools for protecting the rule of law in the union.

These issues should be part of MEPs’ rationale when voting on the new commission president and college of commissioners. In the case of von der Leyen, she must be held accountable to her pre-election commitment to the rule of law.

Given their majority in the parliament, the pro–rule of law parties now have an opportunity to boost the agenda of defending the rule of law. The legislature’s peculiar position in the EU’s institutional architecture might constrain this opportunity, especially given the commission’s quasi-monopoly of legislative initiative. But there is still a range of action that can be taken, including resolutions on the rule of law or the parliament’s participation in the mechanism set out in article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which allows for the sanctioning of member states that are found to be in violation of the rule of law.

In fact, the party manifestos indicate a range of possible actions and reforms in this area. Pledges include the use of conditionality in the EU’s multiannual financial framework (proposed by the Liberals), the expansion and reinforcement of the commission’s annual rule of law reports (the EPP and the Liberals), and support for EU candidate countries in their efforts to guarantee that the EU keeps its promises to them (the Greens).

In sum, the latest European Parliament elections give pro-EU parties a mandate to push the rule-of-law agenda in the EU and improve the toolkit available to the EU institutions. The last few years have shown that the union’s range of tools for protecting the rule of law and the enthusiasm with which they are used are insufficient. It is high time for EU-level parties and the EU institutions to meet their commitments in this vital area of European politics by fine-tuning or rethinking existing instruments in light of the bloc’s experiences and frustrations with the rule of law.


Dr Pablo Castillo-Ortiz is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law, University of Sheffield (UK). He holds a PhD in Law and Political Science (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid). Dr Castillo-Ortiz carries out an interdisciplinary research focused on judicial institutions, rule of law and European integration. He has published extensively in journals such as European Political Science Review, Journal of Common Market Studies, and European Constitutional Law Review. In his latest book, entitled ‘Judicial Governance and Democracy in Europe’ (Springer, 2023), he carried out an exhaustive empirical analysis of organs for judicial governance in Europe. He also has contributed to media such as El Pais and EUObserver, and to think tanks such as Elcano Royal Institute and Fundación Alternativas.


Photo credit: European Union 2024 – Source : EP (CC-BY-4.0)