It is not just Hungary that the EU needs to tackle on democracy breaches

The European Commission is reportedly planning to harden its stance against member states who fail to adhere to democracy and the rule of the law.

The European Commission is reportedly planning to harden its stance towards member states who fail to adhere to democracy and the rule of the law.

This move, to be discussed by Commissioners at the end of August, would look at ways of ‘enforcing the observance of fundamental values set out in the EU treaty’, to be followed up by a conference in November ‘bringing together other EU bodies as well as policy makers, judges, lawyers and experts’, according the Financial Times.

The Commission is mulling measures, proposed by the European Parliament last week, which include a ‘Copenhagen Commission’ of independent experts to conduct constant monitoring of all EU states to guard against democratic backsliding.

The so-called Copenhagen criteria are standards on democracy and fundamental rights that all aspiring EU members must meet. Sanctions may include withholding EU funds.

That report was on Hungary, whose democratic breaches have made headlines in recent months. But the Commission has indicated it doesn’t want to be seen to be picking on any particular country.

Perhaps Italy should be next? Here, the heart of original EU, some of the key problems flagged in the rogue new members to the east are painfully evident. For some 20 years now, Italy’s democracy, press freedom, and the independence of the judiciary have been under constant attack, while corruption and organised crime have been flourishing.

The chief culprit in all of this is multi-billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. Although no longer prime minister, he’s still very much at large as leader of one of the largest parties, which is now in a ‘grand coalition’ with the centre-left Democratic Party.

Berlusconi, who has been PM three times since he ‘entered the field’ with his Forza Italia party 20 years ago, has been using office to tackle a seemingly endless stream of legal problems, and to protect his estimated £5.6 billion of private wealth that derives from his huge business interests.

He has also ensured – through control of private TV and political influence over state broadcaster RAI – that his version of events are the truth for millions of Italian households.

Berlusconi is really not the kind of character any country considered democratic would allow anywhere near public office. Over the past year he has received three criminal convictions, for tax fraud, sex with an underage prostitute and wiretapping.

And so Italy maintains its well earned popular reputation as Europe’s banana republic, a country where, according to Italian investigative journalist Marco Travaglio, one its richest citizens has secured no less than 37 ‘ad personam’ laws, where a top politician has relentlessly criticised judges for simply doing their job, and who has undermined, through his actions and words, respect for one of the state’s key functions – tax collection.

Yet confronted with the scandal of this out-of-control oligarch, spearheading ‘a fundamental rights and rule of law crisis’ in the heart of the EU, Brussels has chosen to remain silent, time and again.

Events last week demonstrated yet again just why it should speak up. In an incredible scene, the Italian parliament halted proceedings in protest at a decision by the supreme court aimed at preventing the media magnate from evading – as he has done on a number of occasions in the past – a four-year jail sentence on a technicality.

The real danger is that fundamental principle will be trumped by the desire for political ‘stability’ – today to satisfy the demands of the markets and the Troika for a grand coalition that can implement unpopular ‘reforms’ and austerity measures, just as 20 years ago Berlusconi’s self-interested entry into politics was accepted as the country sought to consolidate the public finances ahead of Italy’s entry into the Single Currency.

It is to be welcomed that EU institutions plan to get tough on member states that flout democratic norms and where illegality reigns. But if is to avoid accusations of double standards it needs to be applied to all, regardless of size and clout.

And when in the name of tackling the sovereign debt crisis the Commission and ECB are placing the burden of adjustment on the little man, doing something about one of Europe’s wealthiest and most arrogant men might even win back some of the EU’s lost credibility, both in Italy and elsewhere.

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