MEPs plan to trigger EU rule of law investigation into Boris Johnson's government over suspension of parliament

Exclusive MEPs from across Europe back the plan to safeguard democratic rights

Jon Stone
Wednesday 28 August 2019 19:17 BST
Boris Johnson confirms prorogation of parliament

MEPs from across the EU are organising to trigger a formal investigation into the British government for breaching of the rule of law because of Boris Johnson’s “disturbing” move to suspend parliament, The Independent can reveal.

EU parliamentarians are circulating an emergency question to the European Commission calling for action under Article 7 of the EU’s founding treaty, which has been used to censure countries such as Poland and Hungary when their governments have been deemed to be undermining democracy or fundamental rights.

The bid, launched on Wednesday evening, already has the backing of dozens of MEPs from member states including France, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and Denmark – and drawn from all of the parliament’s mainstream political groups. MEPs have until next Monday to put their name to the proposal, when it will be sent to the commission, and organisers say new signatories are being added every few minutes.

The emergency call states that the UK government’s suspension of the Commons, described by its own speaker as “an offence against the democratic process” and a “constitutional outrage” – “will have the effect of preventing the parliament from exercising its legislative function, providing checks and balances to the executive and in particular from taking parliamentary action in relation to the Brexit process”.

The MEPs ask whether the commission is aware of “any precedent where a member state has suspended its parliament for such a length of time or at such a moment of importance” and asks how the commission assesses “the compliance of the UK as a current EU member with the EU rule of law standards, in particular with the respect for fundamental values referred to in Article 2” of the bloc’s treaties.

It concludes: “Whereas the commission has taken infringement action against member states by invoking Article 7 of the TEU [Treaty on European Union], will the commission consider doing so urgently in this case, considering the clear risk of a serious breach by the UK of the values referred to in Article 2 TEU?”

Sophie in ’t Veld, one of the MEPs backing the motion, was among those who led the charge against Viktor Orban’s nationalist government in Hungary, which has been accused of violations of fundamental rights. The European parliament voted by a two-thirds majority last year to force the commission to trigger rule of law proceedings against the central European state.

“If in any EU member state the government would suspend parliament at such a crucial moment, it would be considered a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the values enshrined in the EU treaties, and a sanctions procedure would be initiated,” she told The Independent.

“In 1993 the heads of government decided that EU membership ‘requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy’. It is obvious that the move of Boris Johnson is contrary to that requirement.”

Antony Hook, a British Liberal Democrat MEP who is coordinating the bid said: “Suspending the UK’s parliament for political convenience is clearly against the fundamental principles of the European Union and the basic principles that any parliamentary democracy should uphold.

“We will all recall disturbing events from history to which this could be compared. I hope the European Commission will investigate any potential breach of EU rule of law standards as a matter of urgency and take action. British citizens remain European citizens and are entitled to the same protection of their fundamental rights to which European citizens are entitled.”

The European parliament’s seat in Strasbourg

Earlier on Wednesday the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt described the decision by Mr Johnson’s government as “sinister” and expressed solidarity with British MPs, who face being temporarily locked out of the Commons.

European parliament president David Sassoli also appeared to criticise the decision to lock out MPs, tweeting on Wednesday evening: “Listening to parliaments is always good for democracy. For this reason it is better to keep them open.”

To trigger rule of law proceedings on its own MEPs would require a vote by a two-thirds majority, but the commission can launch proceedings without parliament’s explicit mandate if it believes there is a threat to rule of law. Such an investigation would likely be highly politically contentious and it is unlikely that EU officials would want to further destabilise Brexit talks by intervening, however.

The European Commission took a diplomatic line on the UK government’s move, which No 10 says is merely standard practice. A spokesperson for the EU’s executive said questions about the decision were for the UK authorities to address.

“With regards to the UK government decision to suspend the parliament sittings until 14 October, we’re not commenting on internal political procedures of our member states, and we’re also not going to speculate on what this means in terms of next steps in the UK’s parliamentary procedures. I think this is for the UK to answer,” the spokesperson told reporters in Brussels, before the MEPs moved to call for a probe.

Under the government’s plan parliament would be prorogued for 23 days until 14 October, just days before the UK is due to crash out without a deal. MPs cannot block prorogation. A snap poll conducted by YouGov on Wednesday after the announcement found that the British public believe it is unacceptable for parliament to be suspended by 47 per cent to 27 per cent.

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