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23rd Oct 2021

Poland and Hungary sanctions procedure back after pandemic

  • Germany's EU affairs state minister Michael Roth (l) with Hungary's justice minister Judit Varga (c) at a previous general affairs council meeting (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU affairs ministers will quiz their Hungarian and Polish counterparts on Tuesday (22 June) under the Article 7 sanctions procedure for the first time since the pandemic started.

The Article 7 sanctions procedure - aimed to establish whether there is a "clear risk of a serous breach" to EU values by a member state - was launched against Warsaw in 2017 by the EU Commission, and triggered by the European Parliament in 2018 against Budapest.

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EU affairs ministers from countries vocal on defending rule-of-law issues want to raise the latest developments in Hungary: the anti-LGBTIQ legislation wrapped into a law on child protection, the fight against corruption, and media freedom.

Ministers of the Benelux countries are also expected to publish a statement expressing concerns over the anti-LGBTIQ legislation.

With regards to Poland, issues concerning the controversial Constitutional Tribunal, the disciplinary regime against judges, a muzzle law against judges who criticise the government's judicial overhaul, and the dismissal of judges, are expected to be aired.

Poland had its last hearing in December 2018, while Hungary's was in December 2019.

The Hungarian government had described the procedure as a politically-motivated "witch-hunt" carried out by the "pro-migration elite" against countries rejecting taking migrants.

Poland, meanwhile, has been arguing that the issues raised are currently being deal with by the European Court of Justice.

French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, who is in charge of the Hungary file in the European Parliament, told reporters last week that she was "relieved" that the Portuguese EU presidency is organising the hearing.

Delbos-Corfield added she does not expected much from the incoming Slovenian EU presidency. Slovenian prime minister Janez Jansa is a political ally of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán.

The MEP pointed out that the EU Commission launched 16 probes into Hungary - although not all rule-of-law related - earlier in June.

She said she plans to visit Hungary with other MEPs to report to the parliament on what has happened in the country since the original 2018 European Parliament report.

Majority then unanimity required

It is unclear where the Article 7 procedure is heading - that had been a dilemma even before the pandemic hit.

Member states have been struggling with how to move forward: dropping the procedure while concerns over rule of law and democratic backsliding persist in the two countries seems politically impossible.

But the council of member states also lack the four-fifth majority to establish the "clear risk", which would mean stepping up the process.

Technically, that could lead to sanctions, such as the suspension of voting rights, but this requires unanimity - which has been ruled out since Poland and Hungary pledged to mutually back each other.

"Article 7 should go on as long as there are concerns," one EU diplomat said.

The council can also issue recommendations to member states under scrutiny.

Nevertheless, Delbos-Corfield thinks more member states are determined to press ahead with the procedure than before.

"Two years ago maybe 12 member states would have supported [establishing a clear risk], it would have been a poor show, and indeed a sign perhaps of weakness. Now much more than 12. I'm not saying there would be a qualified majority, but more than 12," she told reporters.

"It is still not a united council on what is happening in Poland and Hungary, but [there is] more and more thinking about recommendations, and what should be in the recommendations, and that is a huge step," she added.

Top EU court rejects Hungary's challenge to sanctions probe

Hungary has lost a legal challenge against a European Parliament vote that opened the way for the Article 7 sanctions probe into the erosion of democratic standards under prime minister Viktor Orbán's rule in the country. Budapest queried the abstentions.

EU rule-of-law report slams Poland and Hungary

The rule-of-law report comes in a crucial moment as Brussels is currently approving member states' recovery plans, conditional on having a robust justice system and anti-corruption framework.

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