E.U. Insists on Rule of Regulation in Rising Deal With Hungary and Poland
BRUSSELS – The heads of state and government of the European Union hold difficult talks on Thursday to break a veto by Poland and Hungary that is holding back the bloc budget and a large economic stimulus package as the two nations try to evade supervision that would give them EU Might withdraw funds if they continue to overhaul democratic institutions at home.
The dispute, which threatens EUR 1.8 trillion, or $ 2.2 trillion in funding, including those badly needed for the pandemic, has deepened the rifts between member states, forcing European leaders to grapple with the nature of the Blocks to calculate yourself.
The compromise brokered by Germany, which holds the rotating presidency of the bloc, would continue to tie funding to compliance with the rule of law, a win for most member states.
However, the legally binding measure would continue to be watered down. Officials and diplomats briefed ahead of the scheduled meeting of heads of state or government said the deal would give Hungary and Poland a statement restricting the bloc to reviewing spending on EU funds. Members could also challenge a decision before the European Court of Justice.
In typical EU fashion, such a compromise would allow the leaders of Hungary and Poland to save face at home or even achieve victory. But it would also end the stalemate that has delayed economic funds.
A draft statement from the New York Times, which could be finalized Thursday, said the European Commission would determine how the rule of law mechanism would work and that it would not be used to discriminate against any member state or any member state in its sovereignty intervention.
The draft would also allow Member States to challenge the mechanism in court before it is applied. The details make for a tedious process that will postpone any real action for months if not years. That would be beneficial for Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, as he faces elections in 2022.
Legal experts were quick to criticize the emerging compromise.
“The draft is unprecedented and legally suspect. This seems to promise that the European Commission will only enforce the new regulation after Hungary and Poland have had a chance to open a lawsuit in the European Court of Justice seeking to overturn it,” said R Daniel Kelemen, Professor of Political Science and Law at Rutgers University.
The clash has pushed the building toxicity between the two countries and the rest of the bloc to the heart of Brussels and painstakingly messed up plans for a post-coronavirus stimulus package of € 750 billion and the regular multi-year budget. Further delays would prevent the funds from getting to the nations they need most and prevent an emerging economic recovery from the worst recession in the bloc’s history.
But the fight has also exposed the depth of the fault lines at a time when the European Union is trying to band together to fight the pandemic and show a unified front after Britain’s exit.
Hungary and Poland have long been in dispute with the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, over the dismantling of important constitutional institutions. The European Court of Justice, the highest court in the EU, has ruled some of these measures illegal, but the relapse has continued. The Hungarian and Polish heads of state and government argue that institutional change is their national prerogative and accuse the Commission of applying double standards to Eastern European countries, describing the rule of law as arbitrary and political.
Many fear that the damage done to democracy in Poland and Hungary will not only be difficult to undo, it will also damage the entire European Union, the richest democratic bloc in the world.
“Europe was founded as a community of like-minded states and has no awareness in its DNA that fundamental violations of the rule of law can occur within the EU,” said Wojciech Sadurski, a Polish and Australian expert on constitutional law who is a prominent critic of the Polish Government is.
The effects of this policy are deeply felt on the ground in Hungary and Poland.
In Hungary, Mr Orban and his allies have slowly, methodically eroded the rule of law. They passed a new constitution and changed electoral laws to make themselves better. The Constitutional Court is staffed with loyalists, as are high-ranking posts that include the public media, the Attorney General, the Hungarian National Bank and beyond.
This consolidation of power has drastically reduced meaningful control: elections are free, but not fair; Much of the news media is controlled by allies of the ruling party. The opposition in parliament is small and has no practical power.
The Polish judicial overhaul, under the guise of a push to exorcise remnants of the communist-era system, has also been criticized by the European Commission, which sees interference with the independence of the judiciary.
The battle for the rule of law conditionality comes as Poland is rocked by an increase in coronavirus cases and a growing protest movement against women’s rights.
Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University in London, said the two countries were “pursuing the same plan to undermine control and the balance of power”.
“It starts with winning the Constitutional Court and then taking control of the public media, prosecutors and the police. It usually ends with a revision of the electoral law,” he said.
As a result, according to Pech, Hungary is now “an electoral democracy,” and Poland, where the ruling party does not meet with more resistance far behind.
Since coming to power, the nationalist-conservative government of Poland has taken control of the Constitutional Court, placed the prosecutor under the authority of the Ministry of Justice, and established a new disciplinary regime for judges.
The European Court of Justice has ordered the suspension of this disciplinary body, but in recent months has waived immunity and cut the salaries of two judges who criticized the government.
The European Commission has filed several cases against Hungary and Poland, mainly related to the overhaul and administration of the judiciary. However, the process is slow and requires dozens of people looking into a case over several months. In some cases the court’s decision comes too late.
The Commission and Parliament have brought cases against Poland and Hungary for serious violations of EU values. The final punishment is suspension of voting rights, but no progress has been made in either case.
A central hub in this process is the group of heads of state known as the European Council, in which Orban and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki from Poland occasionally have allies, including Chancellor Angela Merkel from Germany.
The distrust of citizens and governments in some of the richer and more mature democracies is a new threat to the unity of the bloc. The so-called thrifty nations, which make a net contribution to the budget, are leading the charge against Poland and Hungary’s push to bypass control.
Recent research suggests that citizens in Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden are not affected by their nations’ large contributions to EU spending, but that some of the receiving countries do not have the controls and balances necessary to make solid spending guarantee. Another survey found that more than 70 percent of EU citizens, including those in Poland and Hungary, want rule of law controls on the disbursement of funds.
That pressure is strong in the Netherlands, the most vocal critic of the Polish and Hungarian positions, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte faces elections in March.
And while the most acute problems lie in Poland and Hungary, constitutional problems lurk in several other states that give cause for concern that the appeasement of Warsaw and Budapest could lead to further violations elsewhere.
“You can understand how important the rule of law is when it’s gone,” Pech said. “When you have it, it’s a lot harder to evaluate.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels and Benjamin Novak from Budapest.