ELI Decennial Celebration: ‘Facing the Current Challenges in Europe – the Role of the Institutions and Civil Society’


The first panel discussion of the evening invited esteemed representatives of key European institutions and organisations to discuss the current challenges that they face and provided a forum for a Q&A session.

Koen Lenaerts, President of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), started the discussion by elaborating on the implications of the current unprecedented pandemic, which has and will continue to put an enormous pressure on the functioning of states, democratic institutions, and judicial systems. Lenaerts stressed that at the same time, societal and environmental change, and political polarisation, put social cohesion at risk. As a result, the biggest challenge that the European Union and, in particular, the CJEU faces is the upholding of the rule of law. In order to protect the rule of law and judicial independence, the CJEU has applied a contextual approach in its case law.

The rule of law within the EU is not one rule to rule them all. It allows for diversity and does not militate in favour of a specific constitutional model, but limits itself to providing a framework of reference intended to guarantee the uniform application of EU law and to protect the values on which the EU is founded.’ – Koen Lenaerts 

Robert Spano, President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), referred to the so-called democratic backsliding, which can be witnessed through the cases brought before the Strasbourg Court concerning key rule of law principles and, in particular, judicial independence. In addition, Europe faces the challenges brought upon by climate change, technological advancements, and the backsliding in women’s rights and LGBTQI+ rights. Spano elaborated on the principle pf subsidiarity, which aims at securing to every person in the jurisdiction of a member state of the Council of Europe the rights and freedoms under the convention.

Subsidiarity is not realistic without strong independent and impartial domestic courts, imbedded in a national system that is governed by the rule of law.’ -  Robert Spano

He stressed that the European legal community is not limited to judges, and that all stakeholders need to make efforts towards effective implementation of the rule of law, with nation states integrating the principle in a manner that resonates with their constitutional traditions. In the end, all actors involved – including legal practitioners, civil society, and citizens – should work towards establishing a human rights culture.

Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice, highlighted the importance of protecting the rule of law and our values. In order to overcome the challenges Europe faces today, an awareness among citizens and a rule of law culture needs to be created.

There can be no compromise when it comes to defending our common values.’ – Didier Reynders

As the Commission is the Guardian of the Treaties, it has to ensure that any measures – especially any COVID-19 measures – do not go beyond what is proportionate and necessary. Ultimately, what the Commission protects in this regard are individual freedoms. 

It is a goal to convince the citizens that the rule of law is an important element for their daily lives. […] It is not just an abstract concept for judges and lawyers, but it is very important if you have a conflict with the authorities, with the businesses, or with some other citizens, that you have the capacity to go to an independent, qualified, and efficient judge to defend your position.’ – Didier Reynders

Adrián Vázquez Lázara, Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI), discussed the current topics of interest of the JURI Committee and underlined the importance of institutions and organisations working together. The JURI Committee identified artificial intelligence, environmental liability, blockchain – among other topics – as areas of law that need to be regulated in order to have a positive influence on the future. Moreover, some of the challenges in the upcoming months will be the arrangement of the EU-UK judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters, which resonates widely among companies on both sides of the channel. Vázquez Lázara also stressed the importance of the rule of law, which is a cornerstone of everything the JURI Committee wants to push forward.

Without the rule of law and without judicial independence, the health of our democracies will definitely not be in shape.’ – Adrián Vázquez Lázara

Margarete von Galen, President of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), elaborated on how lawyers could help tackle the challenges Europe currently faces. Von Galen also identified the rule of law as the guarantee of guarantees and stressed that an independent legal profession is needed, which challenges the decisions of those in power. Consequently, the legal profession is irreplaceable when tackling bad practices and injustices, and its independence is indispensable.

By defending citizens’ rights, lawyers directly promote the rule of law and are therefore a cornerstone of a society based on fundamental rights and freedoms.’ – Margarete von Galen 

She urged EU Institutions to recognise the importance of the role of lawyers in the administration of justice as well as in defending human rights.  

A lively debate on the importance of the rule of law as well as on the role of institutions and civil society organisations followed with the attendees.