MEP slams EU’s failure to sanction Hungary and Poland for alleged rule of law violations

Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, French Greens/EFA deputy Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield partly blamed the Commission for what she says is a failure to act fully against both countries.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

07 Dec 2020

Both Hungary and Poland are at the forefront of criticism for perceived attacks on everything from attacks on the judiciary, media freedom and the rule of law to abortion and LGBTI rights.

Delbos-Corfield says that Hungary, in particular, is guilty of attacks on academic and media freedom and the rights of NGOs operating in the country.

As an example of the relative inertia in acting against the two EU “bad boys” Delbos-Corfield cites a recent meeting of Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee.

“This was supposed to be a chance to discuss these issues with representatives of the Hungarian and Polish governments and also the German EU presidency but none of them showed up.”

The Commission was at the meeting but should not be spared criticism, she says, because it has “not implemented infringement procedures [against Hungary and Poland] and this is a concern. It begs the question: what is the Commission doing about this?”

Her comments come amid the ongoing impasse over the €1.85 trillion EU budget and recovery plan caused by Hungary and Poland objecting to the so-called rule of law mechanism which binds future EU funding to respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights.

All efforts so far to reach agreement have failed and EU leaders will meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday in one last effort to find a compromise.

“There is no plan B. We trust the German presidency to resolve the outstanding issues as soon as possible so that funds are available from the start of 2021” David Sassoli, European Parliament President

EU countries and leading MEPs have said they are not willing to backtrack on the rule of law deal agreed in the summer and Delbos-Corfield adds, “Even though it is a good idea I was never so keen on the rule of law condition being tied directly to the MMF.”

“It was perfectly clear a year ago that we would be in this position. The best thing would have been to decouple the two things but it is probably too late for that now so we have to deal with it.”

She says that, in any case, with regular breaches of the rule of law, Hungary and Poland may have effectively “excluded themselves” from the right to receive EU funds.

“I am not even sure the recovery funding would go to the primary beneficiaries in Hungary and Poland anyway,” she told the virtual briefing.

“Both have misused EU funding so maybe we should tell them that they will not get any more money if they do not apply the rules.”

Hungary and Poland joined the EU on 1 May 2004 and both have held the prestige EU presidency since, but Delbos-Corfield says, “If things don’t change could you ever imagine another Hungarian presidency? That is a crazy idea.”

The MEP told reporters that while the Article 7 procedure “is not ideal” that should not be an excuse for failing to enforce it.

“The Commission has not implemented infringement procedures [against Hungary and Poland] and this is a concern. It begs the question: what is the Commission doing about this?” Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, Greens/EFA

She goes on, “But if the German presidency is not willing to do that, as seems the case, then my fear is the next presidency will not have the courage to do this either.”

All eyes are now on German chancellor Angela Merkel, who is in charge of brokering a deal as her country currently holds the EU presidency.

She said she supports “limited” concessions to Hungary and Poland.

If no agreement is reached this week, the Commission has conceded that it would result in “significant” budgetary cuts and could mean next year’s EU budget is €25-30 million lower than under current plans.

Structural and regional funds, which both Hungary and Poland have benefited from greatly over the years, could be worst hit, it is feared.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said the executive will launch the proposed €750 billion recovery fund without Hungary and Poland if there’s no breakthrough at this week’s Council.

But, ahead of the “crunch” meeting, pressure is mounting on Hungary and Poland to drop their opposition, with Parliament’s President David Sassoli saying, “Last month, we reached an ambitious agreement on the package, delivering more money for key EU programmes and a strong rule of law mechanism. For Parliament, this package is agreed and will not be reopened.”

The Italian deputy said, “There is no plan B. We trust the German presidency to resolve the outstanding issues as soon as possible so that funds are available from the start of 2021.”

His comments were shared by Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, whose country takes over the EU presidency on 1 January and who warns of “huge cuts if there is no deal.”

While in Brussels last week, he said, “no one wants that, so I hope we all have this in mind when we meet.”

Costa said failure to reach a budget deal will “paralyse EU policymaking,” adding, “We simply cannot reopen the agreement. It has been signed and agreed and we must work on the basis of that agreement but we will not reopen it. We need to reach an agreement now.”

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