The ‘rule of law’ mechanism, agreed late last year, was supposed to make sure that every Member State expecting to receive funding from the EU’s massive fiscal recovery package had to abide by the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. I think it’s fair to say that this conditionality clause has been stretched to near breaking point by Poland and Hungary.
Both Member States have regularly found themselves at odds with the EU over perceived rule of law breaches involving the judiciary, gender equality and press freedom.
Unsurprisingly MEPs - who fought a long and difficult battle to establish the rule of law mechanism - have subsequently been running a series of campaigns to bring pressure to bear on the European Commission to take action on any such breaches.
Yet despite seemingly broad support, attempts by EU deputies to force the EU Executive to implement sanctions against Warsaw, Budapest and, more recently, Prague, have been largely brushed off by the Commission. That is until now… Budapest’s decision to introduce new rules banning the teaching and distribution of educational materials featuring gay people to under-18s may prove to be the last straw for the Commission, as thousands of protestors took to the Hungarian capital’s street in protest.
"Unsurprisingly MEPs - who fought a long and difficult battle to establish the rule of law mechanism - have subsequently been running a series of campaigns to bring pressure to bear on the European Commission to take action on any such breaches"
Hungary’s new law, which is similar to Russia’s so-called ‘Gay Propaganda’ law, was steamrollered through the Hungarian Parliament last week by Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party. The move is widely seen as an attack on the country’s LGBTI community as well as an attack on free speech and the right to education.
The political backlash has been more rapid, more concerted and feels more resilient than previous reactions, with MEPs in particular piling the pressure on Ursula von der Leyen’s Executive, frustrated by the German Commission President’s prevarications over acting against Hungary and triggering rule of law sanctions. Even other EU Member States, normally reticent when it comes to national law-making, seem taken aback by Hungary’s move.
But will this week’s intensive pressure be enough to get the Commission to act? Only time will tell; but when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.