De Facto Power Grab in Context: Upgrading Rule of Law in Europe in Populist Times

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Kochenov, D. V. (2021). De Facto Power Grab in Context: Upgrading Rule of Law in Europe in Populist Times. Polish Yearbook of International Law, 40, 197–208.


Over the last three years European Union (EU) law has experienced a veritable revolution triggered by the Court of Justice’s rethinking of the fundamental aspects underpinning both the EU’s competence to deal with Rule of Law matters (especially related to the independence and the irremovability of judges at the national level), and the substantive understanding of the key elements of the Rule of Law pertaining to the newly-found competence. An upgraded approach to interim relief in matters related to the Rule of Law completes the picture. As a result, EU law has gone through a profound transformation and the assumptions as to the perceived limits of its reach – insofar as the organization of the national judiciaries is concerned – no longer hold. However, there is also the opposite side to this “Rule of Law revolution.” While its effectiveness in terms of bringing recalcitrant Member States back on track has not been proven (and Poland and Hungary stand as valid reasons for doubts); the division of powers between the Member States and the EU has been altered forever. Rule of Law thus emerges as a successful pretext for a supranational powergrab in the context of EU federalism. The picture is further complicated by the fact that the substantive elements of the Rule of Law required by the Court of Justice of the European Union of the Member States’ judiciaries are seemingly perceived as inapplicable to the supranational level itself. These include structural independence from other branches of power and safeguards of the guarantees of irremovability and security of tenure of the members of the judiciaries. Taking all these elements into consideration, the glorious revolution appears to have triggered at least as many questions as it has provided answers, while being entirely unable to resolve the outstanding problems on the ground in the Member States experiencing significant backsliding in the areas of democracy and the Rule of Law.
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