Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Visegrad Four 'nothing to hide' on rule of law issue

  • Rule of law 'conditionality', ie linking funds to respect for judicial independence, is proving to be one of the most controversial proposals in the new EU budget plans (Photo: snorski)

Visegrad countries are not afraid of discussing the European Commission's controversial rule of law conditionality proposal in the next long-term EU budget, Hungary's state secretary said.

"We, in Hungary and in all three other V4 [Visegrad] countries, we certainly believe that safeguarding the rule of law is of key importance. At the same time, central Europe should not be afraid of that, we have no reasons to fear on debates on rule of law or the budget," state secretary of EU affairs Szabolcs Takacs told reporters on Thursday (24 May) in Brussels.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

"We look forward to such debates, we don't have anything to hide, we have no fear to do that," he added after a conference on the EU budget.

Hungary holds the rotating presidency of the Visegrad Four, a loose cooperation of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

The EU executive in its 2 May proposal on the next long-term EU budget outlined controversial plans for linking the distribution of EU funds to the well-functioning of justice systems.

Poland and Hungary, which have had rule of law run-ins with the commission, feel targeted by the proposal and question the plan's legal basis.

Takacs said Hungary needs to analyse if the proposal complies with the EU treaty and whether it is equally applicable to all member states.

He said Hungary had some legal concerns that the commission might be trying to create new 'competencies', that is, centralised powers for Brussels.

"Everybody has to respect the rule of law, not only the member states, but also the institutions, the European Commission and the European Parliament as well," he added.

Takacs added that Hungary is the one of the "most audited countries" and that Budapest has "proof" that its justice system is in order.

Peter Javorcik, Slovakia's ambassador to the EU said at the same event that - as a principle - Bratislava has no problem with rule of law as a condition for the implementation of EU funds, adding it has to apply to all EU funds and all countries.

'Think twice'

Justice commissioner Vera Jourova last week told EUobserver that member states should think twice about whether the rule of law conditionality is something they, particularly Hungary and Poland – where government action had raised rule of law concerns in the commission - will refuse to guarantee.

"If I want to get the EU money I have to guarantee that there will be the court which will deal with fraud and corruption. I think if some country says we cannot guarantee it, then we have a problem and this is what I will try to explain again and again in Poland, in Hungary, in whatever member state," Jourova said.

"I will do my best to convince the member states to agree with it because this is important, this is not about EU money only, it is about trust of the taxpayer and about some fairness in the system about the division of obligations and rights," she added.

Poland has been at the forefront of accusing the commission of overreaching its competencies, calling the proposal a "massive power grab".

Hungary has said the proposal's legal base is questionable and the conditions for triggering the suspension of EU funds is too vague.

According to the commission's proposal the EU executive could launch the procedure if it detects "generalised defences" in the member states' judiciary that would impact the use of EU funds.

"Generalised deficiencies" could mean national authorities not following up damning reports by the EU's anti-fraud agency, Olaf, or judges systematically being biased, or judgements not being enforced in practice.

The commission would have the power to suspend EU funds if the member state does not address these problems, and the council - the body of member states - could only stop it with a qualified majority.

Officials from Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden, however expressed support for the new instrument last week.

The commission launched the so-called Article 7 sanctions procedure against Poland last year for threatening the independence of its judiciary.

While Hungary has settled its earlier rule of law issues with the commission, the European Parliament's civil liberties committee in a draft report proposes launching the Article 7 process, which in theory can lead to the suspension of the voting rights of a member states.

The European Parliament's budget control committee last month said in its opinion that the "current level of corruption, the lack of transparency and accountability of public finances, and the ineligible expenditure or overpricing of the financed projects affects union funds in Hungary", and supported the call for launching the Article 7 procedure.

No member states has been sanctioned before under Article 7. Indeed, the EU has been reluctant to use any sanctions in its toolbox against member states, other than the so-called infringement procedures for specific breached of EU rules.

Commenting on the rule of law conditionality Zsolt Darvas, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Bruegel Institute pointed out last week to an audience at the European Economic and Social Committee that while the proposed conditionality makes sense, the commission has not used its numbers-based economics sanctions either, for instance for macroeconomic imbalances in member states, arguing a more political tool might be even more difficult to put into use.

Poland, Hungary push back at EU budget 'conditionality'

EU affairs ministers held their first discussion on the Commission's long-term post-Brexit budget plans - with cohesion and agriculture cuts, phasing put rebates, and the overall size emerging as major divisions.

Tying EU funds to politics could be double-edged

EU taxpayer money to countries challenging EU core values? The answer might seem obvious, but not to those on the receiving end of the EU subsidies, who argue that most of the money trickles back.

EU leaders face major clash on rule of law budget link

One major issue dividing member states in the ongoing budget negotiations is inserting a direct link between EU subsidies and the rule of law. While the biggest battle will be over figures, the rule of law conditionality also creates tension.

News in Brief

  1. Putin holds out olive branch to Europe
  2. US snatched Russian anti-air system from Libya warlord
  3. UK to extradite alleged trafficker to EU despite Brexit
  4. EU puts trust in Boeing 737s after post-crash ban
  5. EU animal-export trade under harsh spotlight
  6. City of London wants to set rules for EU
  7. MEPs want 2030 targets to reduce consumption footprint
  8. Coronavirus cases worldwide pass 100m

MEPs chide Portugal and Council in EU prosecutor dispute

The Belgian and Bulgarian prosecutors who were appointed had also not been the experts' first choice. Belgian prosecutor Jean-Michel Verelst has challenged the council's decision at the European Court of Justice.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. Poland imposes anti-abortion law amid EU concern
  2. The EU's vaccine strategy - the key points
  3. EU-AstraZeneca row flares up after vaccines shortfall
  4. First Covid, now McKinsey - how austerity hit EU healthcare
  5. Frontex suspends operations in Hungary
  6. Cyprus: a heavy caseload for new EU prosecutors office
  7. MEPs: Portugal 'risks undermining' trust in EU prosecutor
  8. EU to control vaccine exports in row over delays

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us