The 47 member states of the pan-European Council of Europe have committed themselves to the European values enshrined in many treaties, most notably the (European) Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR).
There are at least three lines of defence. First, the member states are supposed to live up to their promises voluntarily. Second, the CoE officials and intergovernmental bodies try to deal with emerging problems politically. Third, ultimately the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rules on applications ”after all domestic remedies have been exhausted”, so it is a slow and laborious road, but the member states have undertaken to abide by the final judgment of the Court. Abidance is monitored by the CoE.
As I tried to explain yesterday, there are pan-European values, common to all CoE members, not Western European, Central European or Eastern European values and norms designed to give people in Central or Eastern Europe less protection than their more fortunate counterparts in the older CoE members in the West: European values and Hungarian media law: ECHR (10 January 2011).
European Union values
The European Union (EU) is a tight and deep political union, as opposed to the intergovernmental Council of Europe, so it would be natural to expect the EU to be better equipped to deal with deviant behaviour against the freedoms and rights of its citizens.
In addition, the Lisbon Treaty was marketed as an improvement for citizens in many respects: more democratic, fundamental rights, citizens' initiative etc.
EU founding values
Let us look at the bright side of life. In my view, the founding values of the European Union are admirable (OJEU 30.3.2010 C 83/17):
Article 2 TEU
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
(You can notice the inclusion among the founding values of ”the rights of persons belonging to minorities”, treasured by a Hungary solicitous about 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians outside its borders.)
As long as states remain candidates for EU accession, they have to convince all the member states that they respect these founding values and that they are committed to promoting them (Article 49 TEU).
Once inside, a member state is less at risk legally, because the hurdles against sanctions are still quite high. According to Article 7 TEU, the Council needs to determine by a four fifths majority that there is a ”clear risk of a serious breach” of the founding values by a member state.
The process can be initiated by a third of the member states, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission. The procedure can lead to recommendations.
Real legal sanctions are possible only when a unanimous European Council determines a ”serious and persistent breach” by a member state.
Legally, we have a blunt weapon, not especially well adapted to minor but important infringements by member states' governments.
Politically, already serious discussion about the commencement of proceedings is an embarrassment for a wayward government, despite the slender risk of condemnation.
However, it requires a degree of moral courage from the institutional players involved to get even a principled discussion going.
P.S. The Daniel Mason writes The Endless Track, a British Euroblog refreshingly interested in actual EU policies and the place of South Yorkshire within the European Union. You can follow @danmason21 on Twitter when he hopefully returns with new tweets.