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27th Jun 2022

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

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the regulation will apply from 1 January 2021 and 'any breach that occurs from that day onwards will be covered' (Photo: European Parliament)

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday (16 December) pledged that the EU executive will apply the new rules on linking EU funds to respect for the rule of law, as MEPs voted to approve the new conditionality mechanism and the EU's next seven-year budget.

"It is path-breaking that for the first time the union equips itself with a mechanism to protect the budget against breaches of the principle of the rule of law," she said.

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"In essence, as I understand it, there is a fear that the application of the regulation will be delayed, and that justice delayed might be justice denied. This will not happen," von der Leyen promised - adding that the regulation will apply from 1 January 2021 and "any breach that occurs from that day onwards will be covered".

Hungary and Poland blocked the EU's long-term budget over the rule-of-law conditionality, but Germany ultimately brokered a compromise that last week EU leaders signed off.

In the conclusions of that EU summit, member states agreed that the commission will define guidelines on how to implement the new rules. It will then wait until the European Court of Justice rules on any conditionality breaches, to incorporate the judgement into the guidelines - raising fears the use of the mechanism could be delayed for years.

Von der Leyen said the EU executive will act without delay.

"And I can assure you, the commission will always act in full autonomy, full respect of the law and full objectivity," the German commission chief said.

"Crucially, any case occurring after 1 January 2021 will be addressed. No case will be lost," she said.

Von der Leyen also highlighted that the leaders' compromise did not change the new rules themselves, which had been agreed by 25 member states, with MEPs also having their final approval on Wednesday.

While the conclusions of an EU summit are not legal texts, both the Hungarian and Polish leaders described the adoption of those conclusions as the stronger document, guaranteeing Budapest and Warsaw's interests.

'Superfluous'

MEPs on Wednesday pushed back, in a resolution, arguing that the adopted legal text is what matters more, not the leaders' added interpretation.

A majority of MEPs, adopting the rule-of-law conditionality, said that the European Council conclusions were "superfluous" and "that the applicability, purpose and scope of the rule of law regulation is clearly defined in the legal text" of the regulation.

MEPs pointed out that the summit of EU leaders does not exercise legislative functions, and that "any political declaration of the European Council cannot be deemed to represent an interpretation of legislation, as interpretation is vested with the European Court of Justice".

MEPs also called on the commission to be completely independent. The resolution also said the commission is responsible to the parliament, and that the parliament has "several legal means" to make sure that the commission enforces the law.

MEPs also argue that the applicability of the new rules can't be subject to the adoption of the guidelines.

"We made it. It's the law now. No one-sided declaration can change this fact," Finnish EPP MEP Petri Sarvamaa, who negotiated the file from the parliament side, said in a statement.

"The conditionality regime will enable us to scrutinise dubious plans to apply EU funds against the EU's values", he added.

Green MEP Sven Giegold said the the commission's behaviour "borders on institutional self-abandonment".

"It is therefore unacceptable that the commission wants to make the application dependent on guidelines that are not even provided for in the rule of law mechanism," the German MEP said, adding that a postponement does Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban "the favour of ensuring that the rule-of-law mechanism may not take real effect before the next elections in Hungary".

"It is unprecedented that the commission agrees not to apply a legal act for the time being," he said in a statement.

Orbán: Summit will be 'D-Day' on rule-of-law blockade

The possible compromise would delay triggering the new mechanism originally designed to police the rule of law in member states. Legal experts in capitals are "digesting" the draft, one EU diplomat said.

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.

EU commission rejects MEPs' rule-of-law ultimatum

Some MEPs described the commission chief's letter as a "provocation" and "hair-splitting" on a rule-of-law mechanism that was meant to stop democratic backsliding in EU states.

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