Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok at the EU Conference on the state of the Rule of Law in Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,

It’s a pleasure seeing you today!

When I was Minister of Justice for nine months, it surprised me how many Latin words are used in the field of law.

One of my favorites:

Cui Bone. This means: who profits/benefits.

But today, I would like to start with two other words, which you must know very well:

Lex, rex.

These Latin words are perhaps the most concise description of a theme which we have been pondering for centuries. Lex, rex means the law is king, and not the other way around. And that’s also what Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, the most influential pamphlet written at the start of the American Revolution.

Centuries earlier, Cicero said something in the same vein:

‘We are all servants of the laws in order to be free.’

These are words of wisdom from which we can draw inspiration when it comes to the rule of law. Yet at the same time, you and I know very well that what’s common sense in theory can be quite different in practice.

And I'm not just talking about countries that don't set much store by agreements and democracy.

The rule of law is hard work.

As soon as we stop paying attention, the rule of law falters. For example, when fighting a pandemic…

Across Europe, and in the Netherlands, COVID-19 poses challenges to the rule of law. We’ve seen, for example, an increasing backlog in the courts and difficulties in safeguarding transparency and accessibility.

That is why, in addition to wise words by philosophical thinkers, I attach equal value to a more practical take on the rule of law.

Former president of the Dutch Supreme Court Geert Corstens wrote a book called Understanding the Rule of Law.

But a more literal translation of the original Dutch title is:

The rule of law is something you have to learn. [De rechtsstaat moet je leren.]

And yes, learning is hard work, for everyone.

It’s a challenge we should tackle together.

Although we’re making progress in safeguarding and strengthening the rule of law in Europe, we can and must do better.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The rule of law is important.

It’s the only true guarantee of our democracy and fundamental values. And it’s also the only true guarantee of our prosperity and security. Consider this:

An international entrepreneur who wants to buy a piece of property will think twice if he discovers that property rights are enforced arbitrarily. Or if he discovers that going to court is complicated. And business disputes cannot be easily resolved. Trust is extremely important.

In the 2019 Global Competitiveness Index, judicial independence is a crucial factor in countries that score well. This shows that respect for the rule of law has tangible economic benefits. And that of course also applies to Europe.

Because consistent respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary

and a properly functioning system of checks and balances are fundamental criteria for economic and legal cooperation within the European Union.

That’s why the rule of law is important.

For every country in Europe. Whether they be small or large, newcomers or ‘veterans’.

Rules are rules, and a deal is a deal.

When it comes to climate.

When it comes to migration.

When it comes to the EU budget.

But also when it comes to the principle of law itself.

That's why we strongly support the compromise on the rule of law conditionality that was agreed earlier this month. And when countries violate the rule of law, we must continue to hold them accountable.

Europe can only be strong if every country is held to the same standard.

The rule of law is not a ‘nice-to-have’ option you can leave out, when it doesn’t suit you… It reminds me of an amusing list of laws circulating online.

Here’s one:

The Law of Avoiding Oversell: When putting cheese in a mousetrap, always leave room for the mouse.

And here’s another:

The Law of Self Sacrifice: When you starve with a tiger, the tiger starves last.

This list doesn’t include an amusing law of the law.

Perhaps it’s because the law of the law is dead serious. When you don’t stick to the rules, you find yourself on a slippery slope: promises and agreements become worthless. Fortunately, Europe has made significant progress in its efforts to strengthen the rule of law.

This year, for the first time, we are conducting a structured dialogue on the state of the rule of law in the Union. This annual review cycle is of great value. It can serve as a gauge and help countries stay alert. Of course this is not about pointing the finger at others or assigning blame. The common goal is to identify problems at an early stage and learn from each other.

And that also applies to the Netherlands.For example, we have backlogs in our criminal justice system as a result of our COVID-19 measures. And we’re behind in our efforts to digitalise the justice system. We know that we need to roll up our sleeves. There’s work to be done. In the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

And we’re happy to do this work together.

We are working with many government and non-government partners across Europe to make the rule of law and institutions stronger. One of the ways we’re doing this is by facilitating peer-to-peer exchanges among experts on drafting legislation and by improving cooperation in the justice system.

A great example is our societal transformation programme, called Matra. We’ve been working with partners in South-eastern and Eastern Europe for nearly 30 years in the context of this programme. Every year some 200 civil servants from those regions visit the Netherlands to acquire knowledge and skills. Our embassies across Europe also actively promote the rule of law.

Together with governments and civil society organisations…

…And with other valuable partners, like you.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It's time for me to wrap up, and for you to talk more about lex, rex.

Going back to Geert Corstens, he wrote, ‘Under the rule of law, no one has the last word’. And that’s also true for our discussions about the rule of law. The last word certainly hasn’t been spoken.  

Because the law isn’t written in stone.

It’s a living concept that is constantly evolving.

Let’s share our experiences and approaches.

Today is a perfect day for that.

And your excellent track record in promoting the rule of law makes you perfect sparring partners.

Enjoy the conference.

Thank you.