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Constitutionalising the end of history? Pitfalls of a non-regression principle for Article 2 TEU

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 February 2023

Julian Scholtes*
Lecturer in Public Law, University of Glasgow,


Enforcement and conceptualisation of Article 2 TEU values – Rule of law – A non-regression principle for EU values faces significant pitfalls – Limits of the ‘backsliding’ paradigm informing doctrinal developments under Article 2 TEU – Inadequacy of a progress/regression trajectory as a lens for constitutional developments – Complexity of Article 2 values threatens to render regression assessments simplistic – Non-regression and the equality of member states – Potential conflicts between non-regression and minimum standards as tests for Article 2 compliance

© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the University of Amsterdam

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This article benefited from extensive discussion with many friends and colleagues – I would especially like to thank Marcin Barański, Francesco De Cecco, Michał Krajewski, Franca Feisel, Jaka Kukavica, and Luke Dimitrios Spieker for their comments on earlier drafts.


1 L.D. Spieker, ‘Breathing Life into the Union’s Common Values: On the Judicial Application of Article 2 TEU in the EU Value Crisis’, 20 German Law Journal (2019) p. 1182; A. Jakab and D. Kochenov (eds.), The Enforcement of EU Law and Values: Ensuring Member States’ Compliance (Oxford University Press 2017); K.L. Scheppele et al., ‘EU Values Are Law, after All: Enforcing EU Values through Systemic Infringement Actions by the European Commission and the Member states of the European Union’, 39 Yearbook of European Law (2020) p. 3.

2 ECJ 27 February 2018, Case C-64/16, Associação Sindical dos Juízes Portugueses, ECLI:EU:C:2018:117.

3 ECJ 16 February 2022, Case C-157/21, Poland v Parliament and Council, para. 145.

4 ECJ 20 April 2021, Case C-896/19, Repubblika v Il-Prim Ministru.

5 O. Mader, ‘Wege aus der Rechtsstaatsmisere: Der neue EU-Verfassungsgrundsatz des Rückschrittsverbots und seine Bedeutung für die Wertedurchsetzung’, Europäische Zeitschrift für Wirtschaftsrecht (2021) p. 917-922 and p. 974-978; M. Leloup et al., ‘Opening the Door to Solving the “Copenhagen Dilemma”? All Eyes on Repubblika v Il-Prim Ministru’, 46 European Law Review (2021) p. 692.

6 Leloup et. al., supra n. 5, p. 701.

7 A. Mungiu-Pippidi, ‘Is East-Central Europe Backsliding? EU Accession Is No “End of History”’, 18 Journal of Democracy (2007) p. 8.

8 Leloup et. al., supra n. 5; see also Mader, supra n. 5, p. 975.

9 Repubblika, supra n. 4.

10 Ibid., para. 10.

11 Ibid., para. 71.

12 ECJ 19 November 2019, Joined Cases C-585/18, C-624/18, and C-625/18, A.K., ECLI:EU:C:2019:982.

13 Ibid., para. 61.

14 See also Poland v Parliament and Council, supra n. 3, para. 144: ‘[C]ompliance with [Article 2 TEU] values cannot be reduced to an obligation which a candidate State must meet in order to accede to the European Union and which it may disregard after its accession’.

15 Repubblika, supra n. 4, para. 63.

16 Ibid., para. 64.

17 Ibid., para. 59.

18 Ibid., paras. 66–72.

19 ECJ 10 December 2018, Case C-621/18, Wightman, ECLI:EU:C:2018:999, para. 63.

20 ECJ 24 June 2019, Case C-619/18, Commission v Poland, ECLI:EU:C:2019:531, para. 42, ECJ 18 May 2021, Joined Cases C-83/19, C-127/19, C-195/19, C-291/19, C-355/19 and C-397/19, Asociaţia ‘Forumul Judecătorilor din România’, ECLI:EU:C:2021:393, para. 160, ECJ 21 December 2021, Case C-357/19, Euro Box Promotion, ECLI:EU:C:2021:1034, para. 160.

21 ECJ 18 December 2014, Opinion 2/13, ECLI:EU:C:2014:2454, para. 168.

22 See also R. Uitz, ‘The Rule of Law in the EU: Crisis – Differentiation – Conditionality’, BRIDGE Working Paper Series (2022) p. 15, ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

23 Repubblika, supra n. 4, para. 63.

24 ECJ 15 July 2021, Case C-791/19, Commission v Poland, ECLI:EU:C:2021:596.

25 Asociaţia ‘Forumul Judecătorilor din România’, supra n. 20, para. 162.

26 A.D. Mitchell and J. Munro, ‘No Retreat: An Emerging Principle of Non-Regression from Environmental Protections in International Investment Law’, 50 Georgetown Journal of International Law (2019) p. 85.

27 Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), Art. 24.5. See also Art. 23.8.

28 EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, Art. 387 (on labour and social standards), Art. 391 (on environmental and climate standards).

29 Council Directive 1999/70/EC of 28 June 1999 concerning the framework agreement on fixed-term work concluded by ETUC, UNICE and CEEP. See also L. Corazza, ‘Hard Times for Hard Bans: Fixed-Term Work and So-Called Non-Regression Clauses in the Era of Flexicurity’, 17 European Law Journal (2011) p. 385.

30 B. Warwick, ‘Unwinding Retrogression: Examining the Practice of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’, 19 Human Rights Law Review (2019) p. 467.

31 EU–UK TCA, Art. 387, Art. 391.

32 See supra n. 27.

33 See also Art. 13.3(2) of the EU–Vietnam FTA; Art. 13.7(1) of the EU–Korea FTA; Art. 13.12 of the EU–Singapore FTA.

34 See supra n. 27.

35 M. Bronckers and G. Gruni, ‘Retooling the Sustainability Standards in EU Free Trade Agreements’, 24 Journal of International Economic Law (2021) p. 25 at p. 30.

36 See also P. Bárd et al., ‘Systemic Problems, Systemic Infringements: The Case of Hungary’ (Greens/EFA in the European Parliament 2022) Report p. 50,⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

37 Without referring to Repubblika, Kostakopoulou has recently suggested a similarly maximalist ‘non-regression’ principle for the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. See D. Kostakopoulou, ‘Justice, Individual Empowerment and the Principle of Non-Regression in the European Union’, 46 European Law Review (2021) p. 92.

38 Leloup et al., supra n. 5, p. 703.

39 Mader, supra n. 5, p. 975. The originally German text was translated by the author of this piece.

40 L.D. Spieker, ‘The Conflict over the Polish Disciplinary Regime for Judges – an Acid Test for Judicial Independence, Union Values and the Primacy of EU Law: Commission v. Poland’, CML Rev (2022) p. 777 at p. 790.

41 Repubblika, supra n. 4, para. 64 (emphasis added).

42 In this vein, Repubblika has been read as affirming a ‘logic of red lines’: see A. von Bogdandy, Strukturwandel des öffentlichen Rechts: Entstehung und Demokratisierung der europäischen Gesellschaft (Suhrkamp 2022) p. 500.

43 Mader, supra n. 5, p. 975.

44 Ibid., p. 975.

45 N. Bermeo, ‘On Democratic Backsliding’, 27 Journal of Democracy (2016) p. 5 at p. 14.

46 T. Ginsburg and A.Z. Huq, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (University of Chicago Press 2018) p. 90.

47 L. Cianetti and S. Hanley, ‘The End of the Backsliding Paradigm’, 32 Journal of Democracy (2021) p. 66; L. Cianetti et al., ‘Rethinking ‘Democratic Backsliding’ in Central and Eastern Europe – Looking beyond Hungary and Poland’, 34 East European Politics (2018) p. 243.

48 Cianetti and Hanley, supra n. 47, p. 69, citing T. Carothers, ‘The End of the Transition Paradigm’, 13 Journal of Democracy (2002) p. 5 at p. 14. See also L. Tomini, ‘Don’t Think of a Wave! A Research Note about the Current Autocratization Debate’, 28 Democratization (2021) p. 1191.

49 D. Slater, ‘Democratic Careening’, 65 World Politics (2013) p. 729; T. Ginsburg and A. Huq, ‘Democracy’s Near Misses’, 29 Journal of Democracy (2018) p. 16.

50 Cianetti and Hanley, supra n. 47, p. 74.

51 ‘Slovenia’s New Govt Shows Democratic Backsliding Can Be Reversed’ (Balkan Insight, 8 June 2022), ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023; ‘Slovenian Elections: A Win for Democracy, a Loss for Populism in Europe | International IDEA’, ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

52 Cianetti and Hanley, supra n. 47, p. 78.

53 See A. Gliszczyńska-Grabias and W. Sadurski, ‘The Judgment That Wasn’t (But Which Nearly Brought Poland to a Standstill): “Judgment” of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal of 22 October 2020, K1/20’, 17 EUConst (2021) p. 130.

54 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s. 33.

55 See Venice Commission, Rule of Law Checklist (18 March 2016), CDL-AD(2016)007, paras. 44 and 108-109.

56 See also A. Czarnota, ‘Constitutional Breakdown, Backsliding, or New Post-Conventional Constitutionalism?’, in U. Belavusau and A. Gliszczyńska-Grabias (eds.), Constitutionalism Under Stress: Essays in Honour of Wojciech Sadurski (Oxford University Press 2020).

57 See P. Blokker (ed.), Constitutional Acceleration within the European Union and Beyond (Routledge 2017).

58 I borrowed the formulation from Mitchell and Munro, supra n. 26. They make a similar argument with respect to non-regression in environmental law, finding that ‘the simplicity of the concept of non-regression and the evident legitimacy of environmental objectives mask deep complexities in measuring level of environmental protection and identifying reductions in those levels’, at p. 625.

59 See J. Waldron, ‘Is the Rule of Law an Essentially Contested Concept (In Florida)?’, 21 Law and Philosophy (2002) p. 137.

60 European Commission, ‘Further Strengthening the Rule of Law within the Union State of Play and Possible Next Steps’, ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

61 Venice Commission, ‘Rule of Law Checklist’ (11-12 March 2016) CDL-AD(2016)007, see⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

62 As B. Iancu argues, ‘the rule of law is a meta-concept, not a particular practice […] which could more legitimately form the subject of a “good practice code”’, in ‘Quod Licet Jovi Non Licet Bovi?: The Venice Commission as Norm Entrepreneur’, 11 Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2019) p. 189 at p. 198-199.

63 T. Ginsburg, ‘Pitfalls of Measuring the Rule of Law’, 3 Hague Journal on the Rule of Law (2011) p. 269 at p. 272.

64 M. Bobek and D.Kosař, ‘Global Solutions, Local Damages: A Critical Study in Judicial Councils in Central and Eastern Europe’, 15 German Law Journal (2014) p. 1257; C.E. Parau, ‘Explaining Governance of the Judiciary in Central and Eastern Europe: External Incentives, Transnational Elites and Parliamentary Inaction’, 67 Europe-Asia Studies (2015) p. 409.

65 Bobek and Kosař, supra n. 64.

66 See also B. Iancu, ‘Post-Accession Constitutionalism With a Human Face: Judicial Reform and Lustration in Romania’, 6 EuConst (2010) p. 28 at p. 39; Bobek and Kosař, supra n. 64; S. Holmes, ‘Judicial Independence as Ambiguous Reality and Insidious Illusion’, in R. Dworkin (ed.), From Liberal Values to Democratic Transition: Essays in Honor of Janos Kis (Central European University Press 2004); C. Guarnieri, ‘Justice and Politics: The Italian Case in a Comparative Perspective’, 4 Indiana International & Comparative Law Review (1993) p. 241.

67 S. Rose-Ackerman, ‘Judicial Independence and Corruption’, in D. Rodriguez (ed.), Global Corruption Report 2007: Corruption Judicial Systems (Cambridge University Press 2007); B. Schönfelder, ‘Judicial Independence in Bulgaria: A Tale of Splendour and Misery’, 57 Europe-Asia Studies (2005) p. 61.

68 Bobek and Kosař, supra n. 64.

69 Leloup et al. acknowledge this in a brief footnote: see supra n. 5, fn. 80; see also D. Kosař, ‘The Least Accountable Branch’, 11 ICON (2013) p. 234.

70 A. von Bogdandy has asserted that the proposal would be incompatible with Art. 2 TEU and would be likely to place Hungary even further at odds with EU law. See ‘Acting Intelligently: The Hungarian Legal Way’ (Visegrad Insight, 26 January 2022), ⟨⟩ visited 16 January 2023.

71 For a discussion of these proposals, see G. Halmai and A. Arato, ‘So that the Name Hungarian Regain its Dignity’, Verfassungsblog (21 July 2021), ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

72 T. Daly, ‘“Good” Court-Packing? The Paradoxes of Democratic Restoration in Contexts of Democratic Decay’, 23 German Law Journal (2022) p. 1071.

73 M. Tushnet, ‘Review of Dixon and Landau’s “Abusive Constitutional Borrowing”’, 7 Canadian Journal of Comparative & Contemporary Law (2021) p. 23 at p. 24.

74 See supra n. 19.

75 Poland v Parliament and Council, supra n. 3, para. 144, and ECJ 16 February 2022, Case C-157/21, Hungary v Parliament and Council, para. 126.

76 K. Engelbrekt, ‘Multiple Asymmetries: The European Union’s Neo-Byzantine Approach to Eastern Enlargement’, 39 International Politics (2002) p. 37 at p. 44.

77 W. Sadurski, ‘That Other Anniversary’, 13 EuConst (2017) p. 417 at p. 419.

78 B. Puchalska, Limits to Democratic Constitutionalism in Central and Eastern Europe (Ashgate Publishing Ltd 2011) p. 113; see also J. Zielonka, ‘Europe as a Global Actor: Empire by Example?’, 84 International Affairs (2008) p. 471 at p. 476.

79 Repubblika, supra n. 4, paras. 59-60.

80 Mader disagrees and reads the judgment as directly relating to the status quo at the time of the judgment: see Mader, supra n. 5, p. 976-976. The ambiguity arises as the constitutional provision in force at the time of accession and the provision in force at the time of the judgment are one and the same.

81 Expressing similar doubts, see Spieker, supra n. 40, p. 790.

82 See Leloup et al., supra n. 5, p. 703, briefly expressing similar doubts.

83 Bobek and Kosař, supra n. 64; Parau, supra n. 64; Iancu, supra n. 66.

84 K. Haukenes and A. Freyberg-Inan, ‘Enforcing Consensus? The Hidden Bias in EU Democracy Promotion in Central and Eastern Europe’, 20 Democratization (2013) p. 1268.

85 Much of this was, of course, not down to the EU but rather what local civil society actors, backed by Western constitutional experts, pushed for themselves. See I. Krastev and S. Holmes, ‘Imitation and Its Discontents’, 29 Journal of Democracy (2018) p. 117.

86 European Commission, ‘Agenda 2000 – Commission Opinion on Romania’s Application for Membership of the European Union’ (15 July 1997, DOC/97/18) p. 15. See also P. Blokker, New Democracies in Crisis? : A Comparative Constitutional Study of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia (Routledge 2013) p. 143.

87 Art. 120 of the Constitution of the Netherlands.

88 J. Husa, ‘Locking in Constitutionality Control in Finland’, 16 EuConst (2020) p. 249.

89 Venice Commission, Rule of Law Checklist, paras. 81-82 and 108-110.

90 This does not exonerate ‘whataboutist’ defences of abusive constitutional borrowing – see the following paragraph.

91 K.L. Scheppele, ‘The Rule of Law and the Frankenstate: Why Governance Checklists Do Not Work’, 26 Governance (2013) p. 559.

92 See, for instance, the Polish government’s ‘White Paper’ to this effect: The Chancellery of the Prime Minister, ‘White Paper on the Reform of the Polish Judiciary’ (2018), ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

93 See Bárd et al., supra n. 36, p. 51; see also Mader’s argument discussed above to this effect: Mader, supra n. 5, p. 975.

94 R. Dixon and D. Landau, Abusive Constitutional Borrowing: Legal Globalization and the Subversion of Liberal Democracy (Oxford University Press 2021).

95 See n. 102 below.

96 M.Tushnet and B. Bugarič, Power to the People (Oxford University Press 2022) p. 105-124.

97 See, for instance, Venice Commission, Report on Judicial Appointments, CDL-AD(2007)028, paras. 5-6.

98 M. De Visser, ‘A Critical Assessment of the Role of the Venice Commission in Processes of Domestic Constitutional Reform’, 63 The American Journal of Comparative Law (2015) p. 963 at p. 997.

99 On the infantilisation of CEE states in the course of their democratic transition, see B. Buden, ‘Als die Freiheit Kinder brauchte’, in Zonen des Übergangs: Vom Ende des Postkommunismus (Suhrkamp 2009) p. 34-52.

100 ECtHR 3 February 2022, No. 1469/20, Advance Pharma Sp. Z. O. O. v Poland, para. 181. It is worth highlighting that the Court was merely listing the relevant passage of a Venice Commission opinion in the ‘relevant legal materials’ section, rather than employing that argument itself.

101 In response to the judgment, Secretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Justice Sebastian Kaleta tweeted: ‘The ECHR has once again stated that if in Germany politicians appoint judges it is good (old democracy), the selection of judges in Poland despite not being done by politicians is bad (young democracy). This is treating Poland like a colony, so this judgment is meaningless’ (DeepL translation). See Twitter, ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

102 Commission v Poland (Régime disciplinaire des juges), supra n. 24, para. 110.

103 Spieker, supra n. 40, p. 790.

104 Ibid.

105 Repubblika, supra n. 4, para. 64 (emphasis added).

106 Repubblika, supra n. 4, para. 69.

107 A.K., supra n. 12, para. 128.

108 Commission v Poland (Régime disciplinaire des juges), supra n. 24.

109 Ibid., para. 110.

110 The pattern repeats across the several questions answered in the judgment – as regards to the following question, the Court finds that ‘those provisions thus undermine the independence of those judges and do so, what is more, at the cost of a reduction of the protection of the rule of law in Poland’ (para 157) (emphasis added).

111 Leloup et al., supra n. 5, p. 701.

112 On the increasingly neglected value of popular sovereignty, see A. Somek and M. Wilkinson, ‘Unpopular Sovereignty?’, 83 Modern Law Review (2020) p. 955.

113 See Engelbrekt, supra n. 76.

114 See also J. Orlando-Salling, ‘Reimagining a European Constitution’, Verfassungsblog, 15 March 2022, ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.

115 For a convincing account of the effects of value transgressions on the legitimacy of the EU, see C. Mac Amhlaigh, ‘Eppur Esiste!: Legitimacy and Longevity in the EU’s Long Decade of Crisis’ [2022] Edinburgh School of Law Research Paper, ⟨⟩, visited 16 January 2023.