By Mike O’Sullivan
In May 2016, at a summit on anti-corruption the then British Prime Minister David Cameron said in hushed tones to Queen Elizabeth, “We’ve got leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain… Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world”. A month later he lost the Brexit referendum and the UK has been in a state of chaos ever since.
Nigeria most likely had little hand in Brexit, but the complacency of Cameron did. So too, according to a Commons Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russian influence in British politics, did the openness of the Cameron government (and others) to the generosity of Russian donors (fourteen ministers in the Johnson government, including six cabinet ministers have accepted donations from Russians living in the UK).
Britain, which for so long and in the eyes of so many, is the country that has epitomized the rule of law. Its lackluster response to financial and other incursions by Russia, the politicization of policy (Cummings vs. Whitehall) and the faulty response to the COVID-19 crisis have contributed to the view that the robustness of institutions and the rule of law are in decline in Britain.
Stock market rigged
It is not alone. Last month in an interview with CNN, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that the stock market was ‘rigged’, and that this might not be such a bad thing. For a country whose value set is based on capitalism, this is an astonishing admission, though less surprising in the context of the vandalization of the rule of law and institutions in the US by the President. Most US presidents, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Reagan, have underlined the importance of the rule of law, but not Donald Trump.
Like Downing Street, the change in moral tack at the White House points to the testing of core values in the two countries whose empires formed the basis of globalization (Britain in the 19th Century and the US in the 20th Century), and in that respect, is yet another crack in globalisation.
Rise and fall
Policy makers in each country should pay attention to the elaboration of the link between the erosion of the rule of law to the end of empire by Edward Gibbon in ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. More recently, there is plenty of evidence to show a link between economic growth, financial stability and the rule of law across countries.
If politicians in say the UK, or any other European country, are happy to take donations from citizens of Russia and China, it is harder for them to claim the moral high ground over China in foreign policy. It is equally problematic for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to travel the world looking to build an alliance of democratic countries against China whilst the rule of law is undercut in the US. If the idea of the rule of law is going out of fashion in Washington and London, it is gaining some allure in Brussels.
Rule of law in Europe
Much has been made of the hard won result of last month’s European leaders’ summit (it was the second longest ever, only 25 minutes behind the Nice summit in 2000) in the sense that it has created fiscal capacity for the EU. While the classic division between fiscally conservative or ‘frugal’ countries and those like France and Italy who are fiscally indulgent was on display, a new fiscal fissure is opening up.
The agreement reached in July — EU leaders agreed a recovery package and the 2021-2027 budget that will help the EU to rebuild after the pandemic and will support investment in the green and digital transitions — introduced some conditionality around the rule of law in terms of how it binds aid to EU members (the likes of Bulgaria, Romania and Poland are on the minds of Brussels). Though no sanction has yet fallen on the Viktor Orbans of the world this move is part of a new trend where European values are going to play a more prominent role in political discourse (seven of the top ten countries in the World Justice Project report on Rule of Law are EU states).
In the future, collaboration will be done less on the basis of geography and more on the basis of shared values – this might mean that bodies like NATO and the EU may lose rather than gain members.
It also means that the nations of the ‘old’ world need to realise that their economic and political advantage comes from the rule of law, and that the current race to the bottom in terms of practice of the rule of law, is self-defeating.