EU leaders gear up for online summit overshadowed by Poland and Hungary row

Leaders are hoping to resolve an impasse that is holding up agreement on the €1.85tr budget and Coronavirus recovery plan.
Press Association

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

19 Nov 2020

Agreement on the massive fiscal package is being blocked by Poland and Hungary, both big recipients of EU subsidies but whose prime ministers accuse the EU of “blackmail.”

Both object to future EU funds being linked to the so-called rule of law mechanism that binds Member States to respecting the rule of law.

Ahead of the virtual summit, which starts later on Thursday, intense pressure was growing from various quarters on the two Member States to back down and allow the package to be swiftly agreed so that “much needed” funds can be dispersed to Member States to help them tackle the crippling impact of the Coronavirus crisis.

Late on Wednesday, Parliament’s President David Sassoli and group leaders met to discuss the crisis and later issued a statement which read, “We ask the council to adopt the package and begin the ratification process as soon as possible. Parliament’s leadership deeply regrets this delay and reiterates that the agreements reached [on both the MFF and the rule of law] are a closed deal and can in no way be reopened. No further concession will be made on our side.”

EPP leader Manfred Weber added that the rule of law clause in the package was a “red line” for the EU.

The German MEP said, “How can we make further compromises on the independence of the judiciary and free media? The current result is already a compromise between Parliament and 25 EU states. The EU must not be allowed to lose its core values.”

“Parliament’s leadership deeply regrets this delay and reiterates that the agreements reached are a closed deal and can in no way be reopened. No further concession will be made on our side” Statement by European Parliament President and group leaders

His group colleague, Austrian deputy Othmar Karas, a vice-president of Parliament, called for Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, which is aligned to the EPP in Parliament, to be kicked out of the EPP group “immediately” if Hungary continues to block the budget and rule of law mechanism at Thursday’s summit. 

Elsewhere, the EESC waded into the row. In a statement, Cristian Pârvulescu, president of its Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law, said, “We are deeply concerned that two governments have expressed their intention to use their veto to prevent the budget being tied to respect for the rule of law. Human rights and the rule of law are intrinsic to democratic societies and cannot be disregarded. The recovery funds and the budget cannot be held hostage.”

In a separate statement, European associations also backed the EU’s stance, saying, “European enterprises and workers urgently need the EU financial support foreseen in this agreement. This is not the time for political games.”

Further comment came from Hungarian billionaire George Soros, a frequent critic of Orbán, who said he supports Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt’s proposal that the €750bn recovery fund could be implemented by using an “enhanced co-operation procedure.”

Soros added, “However, the question is whether the EU, with Chancellor Merkel perhaps leading the way, can muster the political will.”   

He argued that the EU “can’t afford to compromise on the rule of law provisions.”

“How can we make further compromises on the independence of the judiciary and free media? The current result is already a compromise between Parliament and 25 EU states. The EU must not be allowed to lose its core values” Manfred Weber, EPP chairman

However, both Poland and Hungary have robustly hit back at the chorus of criticism, with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki saying, “The rule of law and breaking the rule of law have become a propaganda stick in the EU. We reject this position. We know from Communist times the use of these propaganda sticks. We say a loud ‘yes’ to the EU but we say a loud ‘no’ to various mechanisms that chasten us like children and treat Poland and other EU Member States unequally.”

A similar angry riposte came from Orbán who, also speaking on Wednesday, said, “Once this proposal gets adopted, there will be no more obstacles to tying Member States’ share of common funds to supporting migration and using financial means to blackmail countries which oppose migration.”

Two EU commissioners, Valdis Dombrovskis and Paolo Gentiloni, used a press conference on Wednesday to appeal for a speedy end to the impasse, while Germany, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said it was confident of finding a compromise.

The budget dispute with Hungary and Poland has completely overshadowed the summit, which was also supposed to deal with migration and Brexit.

A recent survey found that nearly 80 percent of respondents want EU funds to be conditional upon national governments’ respect for the rule of law and democratic values.

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