An annual Rule of Law report on EU member dtates is among new measures outlined by the European Commission to strengthen the rule of law within the Union.

The annual report is intended to keep the rule of law on the political agenda of the EU by highlighting best practices and identifying recurrent problems across the EU.

Recent challenges to the rule of law in some EU countries ignited concerns about the Union’s ability to deal with such situations, the Commission stated in the blueprint for action published on Wednesday.

“High-level corruption and abuse of office are linked with situations where political power is seeking to override the rule of law, while attempts to diminish pluralism and weaken essential watchdogs such as civil society and independent media are warning signs for threats to the rule of law,” the Commission added.

A lack of judicial independence, weakened constitutional courts and repeated attacks by one branch of the state on another, were also identified as issues undermining the rule of law in certain, unnamed, member states.

The Commission identified three avenues through which to respond to these issues: promoting a rule of law culture; preventing rule of law problems; and responding to rule of law issues when national mechanisms have faltered.

It also said infringement proceedings had to be completed quicker to ensure rule of law shortcomings were effectively addressed.

What can the Commission do?

Under its rule of law framework, the European Commission can open a dialogue with member states it believes have acute rule of law problems.

As a last resort, member states can face so-called Article 7 proceedings, which effectively suspend certain membership rights.

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in January 2017.EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in January 2017.

Poland and Hungary have come under particular rule of law scrutiny by the EU in recent years and last year MEPs called on member states to activate article 7 proceedings against Hungary.

Malta has also faced rule of law criticism within the European Parliament, as well as increased scrutiny by separate bodies such as the Council of Europe.

Wednesday’s report recommends enhancing cooperation between the EU and the Council of Europe as means of reinforcing rule of law.

The Council of Europe, which describes itself as the continent’s “leading human rights organisation”, is a separate entity to the EU. Its parliamentary assembly recently published a damning report on Malta’s rule of law, which underlined extreme weaknesses in its system of checks and balances. The report also piled pressure on the government to open an independent investigation into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia within three months.

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