Most EU law regulates trade inside the EU’s internal market. When an EU country’s government decides to start firing judges, ban public protests or censor the news, there are few individual EU laws on these human rights issues that the EU can enforce against it.
You might be asking: what about the Charter of Fundamental Rights? Doesn’t it protect independent courts, free speech and the right to peaceful protest? It does, but it protects you against the EU, or against a government when it implements an EU law. If a national government is just acting on its own, then the Charter doesn’t come into effect.
There is one procedure available that allows the EU to take action. But this procedure can only be used when a country has, or looks likely to, carry out serious human rights violations. It is often referred to as the ‘Article 7’ procedure (because it was created by Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union).
However, it has never been used and some people nickname it the ‘nuclear’ option – not because of the availability of atomically powered sanctions, but because everyone is afraid of pushing the button.
Ultimately, it requires all the member countries of the EU (except the government standing in the naughty corner) to agree that there is a serious problem and that the EU should take action. And because no government ever wants to have this procedure used against it, it is reluctant to ever support its use against any of its neighbours.
Some EU countries, parts of the European Commission and many MEPs have become extremely frustrated at the fact that there is no workable mechanism to allow the EU to make sure its member countries live up to its values and protect human rights.
So work has been afoot since 2013 to create some kind of system to monitor and protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law in the EU. More on this later.