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Belgian EU presidency and International IDEA partner to guide ministerial reflection on rule of law and EU enlargement

April 30, 2024
BRUSSELS – With increasing pressure on democracy globally, and the new security context in Europe, the enlargement of the European Union (EU) to new members in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans is back on the agenda of European leaders. But to maintain internal coherence and ease joint decision making, all members be it aspiring or current EU Member States, should fully embrace the rule of law.

On 29-30 April in Brussels, The Belgian presidency of the Council of the EU holds an informal meeting of Europe Ministers (General Affairs Council) to reflect on how the rule of law and democracy can be strengthened across the EU and in the enlargement countries.  

The Belgian presidency has collaborated with International IDEA to release a policy paper offering solutions to advance the rule of law and democracy within the EU and its enlargement policy. The paper, which builds on International IDEA’s own data and interviews with 44 top EU officials and civil society experts, both in the EU and enlargement countries, aims to guide ministerial discussions. It provides policy recommendations to translate the political commitment to uphold EU values into concrete action.

“The EU is more than a transactional or economic organization. It is primarily a Union of values, built on the rule of law and democracy. Precisely these values make the EU attractive and lead other countries to aspire to EU membership” says Hadja Lahbib, Foreign Minister of Belgium. “The paper on upholding the rule of law in an enlarged union by International IDEA serves as a valuable tool to engage in discussions on how to strengthen the rule of law, both within the EU and with aspiring members.”

The Stockholm-based International IDEA is an intergovernmental organisation supporting democracy worldwide. It has a dedicated office in Brussels that provides policy advice on democracy to the EU. The policy paper assesses the interplay between the EU’s efforts on rule of law externally (in the enlargement countries) and internally (within its own Member States) and recommends measures to strengthen democracy and the rule of law on both sides.  

“The ministerial reflection on democracy and the rule of law in the EU and in enlargement countries, supported by International IDEA’s research, comes at an opportune time” says Dr Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary-General of International IDEA. “Decisions that will shape the EU’s identity in a decade are being taken now. The European elections of June and the subsequent EU leadership must place values at the core of their mandate to maintain internal cohesion and strengthen decision making. International IDEA is delighted to support and contribute to this vital democratic debate”.

Key topics and recommendations covered in the paper

The main findings of the paper can be summarized in five key recommendations:

1. The EU could optimize its rule of law and enlargement toolbox. 

In the last two decades, rule of law reforms in enlargement countries have not yielded expected results, and the EU has not been able to fully address rule of law setbacks and backsliding in some of its Member States. The EU could therefore strengthen the role of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office; refine the EU enlargement policy and; expand the scope of the EU’s internal Rule of Law Dialogue.

2. The EU could strengthen EU conditionality and funding on the rule of law. 

Budgetary conditionality may well be considered the most efficient and effective mechanism to address rule of law deficiencies and drawbacks in the EU and in enlargement countries, as it has immediate and tangible impact and does not require unanimity among EU Member States. The EU could therefore condition the release of new funding to the implementation of the latest rule of law acquis; provide more comprehensive justifications for the application of conditionality; strengthen rule of law and democracy standards in relevant EU legislation and; ensure sufficient rule of law resources in the next EU budget.  

3. The EU could adapt the EU’s institutional set-up responsible for the rule of law. 

The rule of law is part of the mandate of a wide number of European bodies active within and/or outside the EU. There is scope to increase synergies among these bodies and to raise the rule of law on the EU agenda. The EU could therefore strengthen the presence of enlargement countries in relevant EU agencies; launch an annual forum on the rule of law and enlargement; designate an executive vice-president for rule of law and democracy in the next European Commission and; introduce an automatic transition on voting rights about rule of law matters in the Council.

4. The EU could deepen its support to civil society as an essential actor in monitoring and upholding the rule of law. 

Civil society organizations (CSOs) play a critical role in holding institutions accountable by monitoring local developments and reporting breaches of fundamental values, presenting an important countervailing force when their own governments disrespect the rule of law. The EU could therefore facilitate the participation of CSOs in the EU accession negotiations and; guarantee adequate funding for CSOs active on rule of law matters.

5. The EU could broaden and specify the scope of EU competence on the rule of law. 

With a Union of 36 members or more, steps will be needed to guarantee that EU institutions can function effectively and fully uphold fundamental values.  The mandate of EU institutions regarding the rule of law will need to be strengthened. The EU could therefore use the EU legislative arsenal to further promote rule of law and expand EU hard law and; design accession treaties and revising EU treaties to strengthen and specify further rule of law commitments by the EU and its Member States, including through the introduction of an explicit link between rule of law and the internal market. 


Read the policy paper >> Towards an Enlarged Union: Upholding the Rule of Law


Contact for media interviews

Alistair Scrutton, Head of Communications, + 46 707 21 10 98  

Charles Brasseur, Programme Manager, Regional Europe Programme,, +32 470 19 79 55


Available for interview

Sam van der Staak, Director for Europe at International IDEA, manages International IDEA's Regional Europe Programme and leads International IDEA’s representation to the European Union in Brussels. His work focuses on responding to democratic developments in Europe, with a special emphasis on the topics of political parties, money in politics, and ICT in democracy. He makes regular media contributions for national and international media.

Charles Brasseur, Programme Manager at International IDEA's Regional Europe Programme, works to strengthen International IDEA’s ties with the EU and advocating for democratic governance. His works focuses among others on cooperation with presidencies of the Council of the EU and on the EU’s external democracy action.  


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