UCL European Institute


The rule of law in Europe

29 June 2023, 9:00 am–5:30 pm

 A Committee for the Defence of Democracy protest in Warsaw against Poland's new government, 12 December 2015

This workshop aims to advance understanding of the role of the rule of law in the European Union in relation to democratic backsliding.

This event is free.

Event Information

Open to

All | UCL staff | UCL students






Dr Claudia Sternberg

This workshop is by invitation. If you wish to attend, please get in touch with Claudia Sternberg (c.sternberg@ucl.ac.uk). 

Get in touch


  • Dr Oliver Gerstenberg, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Laws, University College London 
  • Dr Heather Grabbe, Visiting Professor, UCL European Institute, University College London | Senior Advisor, Open Society Foundations 
  • Dr Holger P. Hestermeyer, Co-Director of the Centre for International Governance and Dispute Resolution (CIGAD) and Professor of International and EU Law at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King's College London 
  • Dr Andi Hoxhaj, Lecturer (Teaching) in Law, Faculty of Laws, University College London 
  • Dr Ronan McCrea, Professor of Constitutional and European Law, Faculty of Laws, University College London 
  • Dr Aidan O’Neill KC (Scot) KC, Matrix Chambers 
  • Dr Michal Ovádek, Lecturer in European Politics, Department of Political Science, University College London 
  • Dr Charles F. Sabel, Maurice T. Moore Professor of Law, Columbia Law School 
  • Dr Eloise Scotford, Dean and Professor of Environmental Law, Faculty of Laws, University College London 
  • Dr Claudia Sternberg, Head of Academic Programmes and Principal Research Fellow, UCL European Institute, University College London 
  • Valeria Topalo, UCL LLB (Hons), Private Client Paralegal at DMH Stallard 
  • Dr Takis Tridimas, Co-Director, Centre of European Law and Professor of European Law, King’s College London 
  • Dr Johan van der Walt, Professor of Philosophy of Law, Faculty of Law Economics and Finance, University of Luxembourg 
  • Dr Marlene Wind, Professor and Director of CEP (Centre for European Politics) and Professor at iCourts, (Centre of Excellence for International Courts), Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen 


The EU has been dealing with a slow-motion crisis in relation to democratic backsliding for over a decade in which arguments over the rule of law have been a central feature.  

But what are the contours of the role played by the rule of law in this area? And how does the rule of law relate to democracy—a value to which Art. 2 TEU also refers? Criticism of the Polish and Hungarian governments has not been restricted to matters of judicial independence but has also covered media pluralism, conservative approaches to gay and trans rights and rejection of multiculturalism and migration from outside the EU. Academic debates on the principle of rule of law are divided between protagonists of a more formal “rules-based” conception, according to which the principle covers the idea of government power being exercised via an identifiable and predicable set of rules that (allegedly) are independently interpreted and a more substantive constitutional conception requiring adherence to the rule of law as requiring adherence to a broader set of political values such as non-discrimination and protection of fundamental rights. Invariably at issue in these debates is the question of how the rule of law can be both simultaneously—a constraint on politics and a constraint on courts serving as the rule of law’s exponents and guardians in a modern, morally diverse democracy.  

Within the EU context, due to the central role played by judges and courts in the integration process judicial independence has been a vital element of the Union’s legal order and the Court of Justice has issued a number of rulings that seek to counter undermining of the independence of judges in Hungary and Poland. On the other hand, the Commission has also taken action in relation to attacks on gay and trans rights, media pluralism and the status of civil society institutions. The Polish and Hungarian governments, for their part, have regularly characterised criticism of their policies on judicial independence and on media freedom as being motivated by disagreement with their social conservative and migration-sceptical world views. Does the EU—does the CJEU—have authority to substitute “modern” values of social liberalism—when it comes to, say, gender, sexuality, multiculturalism, religious diversity, refugees—for “traditional” values which reluctant Member States may embrace as part of their proclaimed national identities?  

This conference aims to advance understanding of the role of the rule of law within the broader set of challenges faced by the European Union in relation to democratic backsliding. It will focus on the following questions:  

  • Can the rule of law crisis in the EU be discussed separately from the broader issue of democratic backsliding?  

  • Ought efforts to uphold the rule of law distinguish between the question of judicial independence and wider notions of the rule of law? What is the importance of the nature of the EU legal order and the role of judges within it in this regard?  

  • To what extent does a morally and institutionally diverse European Union—whose multiple demoi are often themselves morally divided—need “ideological homogeneity”? Does the EU—does EU law—have an “identity”? Are these terms very useful at all? (How) can the EU accommodate migration-sceptic or socially-conservative member states? To what degree would defence of a narrower view of the rule of law be compromised by an approach that seeks to require adherence to a wider definition of the rule of law as a requirement of EU membership?  

  • What are the respective roles of and limits of the roles of judicial and political bodies in the protection of the rule of law—and what is the role of civil society?  



    9:00-9:30 Welcome and introduction 

    Eloise Scotford, and convenors 


    9:30-11:00 Democracy, backsliding and diversity 

    • Marlene Wind: Thick vs. Thin: Why the EU needs a thick conception of democracy and the rule of law
    • Heather Grabbe: How rule of law violations affect the functioning of the EU: member-state relationships and the Single Market 
    • Ronan McCrea: Political diversity and the rule of law in the EU 

    Chair: Claudia Sternberg 

    11:00-11:30 Coffee  

    11:30-13:00 Fundamental constitutional principles of a European democracy  

    • Takis Tridimas: Fundamental constitutional principles of a European democracy  
    • Johan van der Walt: Discussant 
    • Chuck Sabel: Discussant 
    • Chair: Oliver Gerstenberg 

    13:00-14:00 Lunch  

    14:00-15:30 Strategic litigation, primacy and judicial independence 

    • Aidan O’Neill KC: Strategic litigation in the shadow of Brexit  
    • Holger Hestermeyer: Questioning primacy: Where the Bundesverfassungsgericht went wrong and how to fix it 
    • Michal Ovádek: The making of landmark rulings in the European Union: the case of national judicial independence 
    • Chair: Ronan McCrea 

    15:30-16:00 Coffee  

    16:00-17:30 The external dimension, and closing discussion   

    • Andi Hoxhaj: The EU enlargement law in context  
    • Valeria Topalo: Art. 49 TEU and the situation in Moldova 
    • TBC: TBC 
    • Chair: Oliver Gerstenberg 

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