MEPs take aim at Council’s position on rule of law conditionality mechanism

In a plenary debate on Monday evening, deputies stressed that recent EU proposals did not go far enough in linking EU funds to the respect of rule of law, calling them “ill equipped and ineffective.”

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

06 Oct 2020

In the debate, most MEPs criticised Member States’ current position on the so-called “rule of law conditionality mechanism”, saying it did not create a strong enough deterrence that could ever be triggered in practice.

The issue has taken on added significance because MEPs have warned they will not sign off the EU’s huge Coronavirus recovery package unless there is a guarantee that funding will in future be directly linked to respect of the rule of law.

With continued violations of rule of law and corruption in some EU countries, members in the debate said the EU “owed it to citizens and taxpayers” to effectively protect the EU budget. It was argued that if EU funding is not conditional on respect for the rule of law, the EU is “supporting autocratic regimes and financing breaches of fundamental rights in the Member States.”

Speaking at a news conference in Parliament on Tuesday, Greens co-leader Philippe Lamberts joined other MEPs in insisting that EU funding in future must be linked to respecting rules on the rule of law and democracy.

He said the current debate about alleged rule of law violations in Hungary and Poland was a “chance to demonstrate that you cannot be part of the [EU] club without upholding its rules.”

“All independent bodies show that the rule of law in Europe is decreasing. The most worrisome cases are Poland and Hungary, but it is not just here but in other countries. This clearly shows that no country is exempt from such violations and that is why we must be determined not just to ‘study’ the problem but do something about it.”

“All independent bodies show that the rule of law in Europe is decreasing. The most worrisome cases are Poland and Hungary, but it is not just here but in other countries. This clearly shows that no country is exempt from such violations” Philippe Lamberts, Greens co-leader

Lamberts criticised German presidency plans to tackle the issue, saying they “do not go far enough.”

Hungary and Poland, the two countries which are currently under rule-of-law investigations by the EU, have both pushed back against a mechanism that tightly links EU funds to respect for the rule of law.

A European Council in July agreed for the first time in principle that the disbursement of EU budgetary funds can be linked to respect for rule of law standards. Details are yet to be agreed by the EU institutions – the latest negotiating round of talks took place on Monday -  but the current German draft text talks of “the effects of breaches on the respective union funds” when considering the proportionate measures to be taken.

But Lamberts, along with many other MEPs, is unhappy with this and wants a much stronger rule of law mechanism, saying, “The current German presidency proposal is not enough. It says we could suspend the transfer of funds to Member States if the rule of law has not been upheld.”

He added, “But that suggests that respect for the rule of law and human rights is seen merely as an economic calculation.”

His comments coincide with a separate case involving Hungary on Tuesday when the EU’s Court of Justice ruled that a law on foreign universities operating in Hungary is in breach of EU law.

“At a moment when we need to pull together and act in response to the health, economic and climate crisis, some of our Member States are taking advantage of the situation to feed nationalism and hinder our efforts to take action” Dacian Cioloș, Renew Europe leader

Separately, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described the Hungarian government’s moves to change the management model at Budapest’s prestigious University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) as the “latest attack on academic freedom and free expression.”

Students continued their blockade of the university in protest against new government-imposed measures and, in a letter to the Financial Times, prominent artists and writers including Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren, Eddie Redmayne and Salman Rushdie called the Orbán government’s transformation of the university “an authoritarian intervention”, which is “part of a full-scale culture war.”

EU values and transparency commissioner Věra Jourová has, like many MEPs, also urged Member States to adopt a rule of law mechanism to reign in countries like Hungary, saying “I agree that the EU is a Union of common values and these values are an obligation for all of us. I fully support the strong will of the German presidency to finalise difficult negotiations on the rule of law.”

Renew Europe leader Dacian Cioloș, a Romanian MEP, also spoke on the issue at a news conference on Tuesday, saying, “At a moment when we need to pull together and act in response to the health, economic and climate crisis, some of our Member States are taking advantage of the situation to feed nationalism and hinder our efforts to take action.”

Further comment came from his colleague Hilde Vautmans who noted, “Values on paper mean nothing if you can’t protect them in practice. We need an effective rule of law mechanism in the next MFF, with smart conditionality and reversed qualified majority voting. No compromises.”

Hungarian Renew Europe deputy Katalin Cseh commented, “We are in the middle of a global pandemic. We cannot afford EU recovery money to vanish in pockets of corrupt governments and cronies,” while her compatriot and fellow party member Anna Júlia Donáth said, “The European Commission reports systemic lack in Hungary to prosecute corruption involving high-level officials. We need a rule of law conditionality now and we need it to sanction governments, not citizens.”

“The EU must have corrective tools at the ready when judges are silenced, the media is attacked and public corruption is omnipresent in a Member State” Petri Sarvamaa, EPP MEP

The EPP, Parliament’s biggest group, has been accused of backsliding on the issue, partly because of its traditional links with the ruling Fidesz party headed by Viktor Orbán in Hungary. But, speaking on Monday, group leader Manfred Weber, said he also supports a strict rule of law conditionality in the next EU budget, saying, “Nobody should doubt the determination of the Parliament on this.”

The German member warned that Parliament will not give consent to the MMF and €750bn recovery fund package unless and until a rule of law mechanism is established. He also said there is agreement on this demand among the leaders of the other main groups - S&D, Renew Europe and the Greens.

Speaking to Euronews last week, Hungarian MEP Balázs Hidvéghi from the ruling Fidesz party, hit back at continued criticism of his country, saying, “What we have been seeing over the past few years has been that the rule of law discourse has been misused to the level of a political weapon and used against countries with a right-wing government like Hungary or Poland.”

Petri Sarvamaa, who is leading negotiations with the presidency on the rule of law budget conditionality for Parliament, said, “The EU must have corrective tools at the ready when judges are silenced, the media is attacked and public corruption is omnipresent in a Member State. The EPP wants a functioning rule of law conditionality in the next multiannual EU budget and a permanent fair and non-discriminatory monitoring of the rule of law in all Member States.”

He added, “The mandate I have from Parliament is clear: those who want to receive EU money, must respect basic EU rules.”

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