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24th Jul 2021

MEPs set to take EU Commission to court on rule-of-law

  • Budget commissioner Johannes Hahn: 'Honestly I don't see any justification for bringing court action against the commission, but of course its your decision,' he told MEPs (Photo: European Commission)

MEPs voted on Wednesday (9 June) on taking the EU Commission to the bloc's highest court - unless it moves to use its new mechanism linking paying out EU funds to member states' respect for the rule of law.

MEPs pledged to take the commission to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if it does not act within two weeks, according to the resolution. The result will be made known on Thursday, but with five parties backing it, it appears certain to pass

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European lawmakers previously set a deadline of 1 June for the commission to take action.

The new rules have been in force since 1 January, and allow for the commission to propose the suspension of EU funds if it finds that breaches of rule of law in an EU country impact the management of EU subsidies.

Poland and Hungary, the two countries under EU Article 7 scrutiny procedures for backsliding on the rule of law, previously threatened to veto the EU budget and Covid-19 recovery fund over the issue.

Last December, the two populist-nationalist governments managed to secure pledges from fellow EU leaders, which call on the commission to adopt guidelines on how the new mechanism will be used.

Budapest and Warsaw also challenged the new mechanism at the ECJ themselves, and argued that any commission action must first wait for the court's opinion.

Portuguese EU affairs state minister Ana Paula Zacarias, whose country holds the EU presidency, also argued on Wednesday that it would be important to wait for the court's conclusions before triggering the new tool, arguing it would increase its "legal solidity".

'Few days' promise

Budget commissioner Johannes Hahn told MEPs that the commission will put forward draft guidelines in the next "few days", and by mid-June at the latest.

He said the draft guidelines will "bring clarity and predictability" to the application of the mechanism, and pledged that they will not change the original legislation.

Hahn said the guidelines will deal with "the conditions of the adoption of measures", the new mechanism's relation to other EU tools protecting the rule of law, and with the rights of final beneficiaries of EU subsidies.

Hahn also said the commission is working on identifying rule-of-law breaches that could fall under the new mechanism.

"In this light, honestly I don't see any justification for bringing court action against the commission, but of course it's your decision," he told MEPs.

EU officials have been arguing that they need to be careful when putting together the first cases, as they need to be able to defend and win them in court.

But several MEPs have urged to the commission not to wait any longer.

'Take off velvet gloves'

"The time has come for the commission finally to do its homework," liberal German MEP Moritz Körner said. "It is time to take off the velvet gloves and finally defend the rule of law robustly."

Körner said his Renew Europe group will not accept the adoption of draft guidelines as action by the commission.

Green german MEP daniel Freund said 24 parliamentary debates on Hungary's democratic backsliding since 2010 have not stopped its prime minister Viktor Orbán from "turning Hungary into a corrupt autocracy right at the heart of the Europe".

"First the commission looked away, then it said we don't have the tools, but now you do have the tools and you are not using it," he said.

Reminding the commission that Hungarian elections are only next spring, he called on the EU executive to make sure that EU money "is not contributing to rigging or stealing that elections".

"The inaction of the commission is highly political," he said.

Hungarian liberal MEP Katalin Cseh said Orbán's son-in-law "continues to pocket fortunes of EU subsidies" - despite EU investigators saying he was "defrauding" the bloc.

She also referred to a childhood friend of Orbán, a former gas-fitter who is now the richest man in Hungary, "with a company growing faster than US tech giants", and "who pocketed over one billion worth of subsidies".

"This is the reality on the ground,", she said.

Far-right and conservative MEPs argued that the mechanism breaks the EU treaty, and rule-of-law efforts only serve to stigmatise Poland and Hungary.

Deal reached on linking EU funds to rule of law

The deal means MEPs and the German EU presidency unblocked a major political hurdle to agreeing on the €1.8 trillion long-term EU budget and coronavirus recovery package.

Commission pledges autumn launch of new rule-of-law tool

"We simply cannot afford to make mistakes and bring cases that when they are endorsed by the council, are then annulled by the court, this would be a terrible disaster," the commission's budget chief told MEPs.

Von der Leyen pledges to use rule-of-law tool next year

MEPs on Wednesday pushed back against the conclusions of the EU leaders' summit of last week, arguing that the adopted legal text on rule of law is what matters - not the leaders' supplementary 'interpretation'.

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