Wednesday

30th Sep 2020

Finland's EU presidency wants to push rule of law

Finland aims to put defending the rule of law at the centre of its six-month EU presidency, which starts on 1 July.

Poland and Hungary has been at the forefront of rule of law concerns in the EU for several years, but member states and EU institutions have been unable to address the issue with tangible consequences.

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The EU commission launched a so-called Article 7 procedure against Poland in 2016 for having breached the independence of the judiciary, while the EU parliament triggered the same procedure against Hungary calling on member states to holding the country accountable for sliding back on democratic freedoms.

Feeding into the concerns over the rule of law, the EU's top court on Monday said that Poland's lowering of the retirement age for its judges beached EU law, which is a blow to its nationalist Law and Justice party-led government.

In the council of member states, EU presidencies are responsible for organising the meetings on Article 7 - but the previous Austrian and Romanian EU presidencies have been reluctant to increase the pressure on Warsaw and Budapest.

Romania's government has been dealing with its own rule of law issues, and had earned scolding from the commission. Austria's previous right-wing coalition government shied away from stepping up political pressure, as it had also received criticism for including a far-right party in its coalition.

Finland's incoming presidency says it will act differently when it takes over the EU presidency on 1 July.

"Of the many important political priorities, I wish to emphasise the principle of the rule of law, both within the union and its member states and within the rule-based community of nations," Finland's European affairs minister Tytti Tuppurainen told journalists Wednesday (26 June).

Existential question

"A small member state - such as Finland – sees the rule of law in international politics as a most important principle. Indeed, the rules-based international order is an existential question for us," Tuppurainen said.

"We need a multilateral rules-based international order in trade for our economic well-being. We need a rules-based geopolitical system for our security. It is far from self-evident that these systems are preserved," she added.

The incoming presidency hopes to have a more structured debate in the council on the rule of law that will not single out the two central European countries.

Such rule of law issues have now also become part of the negotiations of the EU's long-term budget, which the Finnish presidency will chair for the next six months.

Based on the commission's proposal, the EU could suspend cohesion funds to countries where the rule of law is breached.

The issue has become hotly contested in the council with Poland calling the planned financial penalty measure a "massive power grab".

While countries being targeted by the procedure suggest it has political motivation, the member states that pay into the budget more than they get out (so-called net payers) are growing increasingly annoyed by the possibility of EU funds propping up rule-breaking governments elsewhere in the bloc.

But Hungary and Poland have suggested they could reject the EU budget, which requires unanimity, if the so-called "conditionality" is part of it.

Other EU diplomats said net-payer countries could also veto the budget if conditionality is not part of it - a sign of tough determination on both sides.

The government of Hungary's premier Viktor Orban has been accused by the EU's anti-fraud agency Olaf, of possible irregularities related to 35 lighting projects implemented in Hungary and co-financed by the EU.

Tens of thousands of Czechs demonstrated last week in Prague to demand the resignation of prime minister Andrej Babis and his justice minister, over allegations of misuse of EU funds.

EU commission plans bolstering rule of law toolbox

As EU concerns over rule of law in some member states grow, the commission opens a debate on tools to discipline unruly member states. The EU executive has launched a new probe against Poland, and put Romania on the spot.

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.

EU countries push for new rule of law surveillance

Germany and Belgium have put forward a proposal for a "peer review" of EU countries' legal systems as member states and EU institutions struggle with disciplining member states that break EU rules.

Timmermans: von der Leyen will be tough on rule of law

The Dutch rule of law top man said the new commission would be just as tough on the issue as the current one, but would not say whether he wants to hold onto the portfolio in the next executive.

Von der Leyen aims to 'rebalance Europe'

The German EU Commission president-elect hopes to bridge divisions within the EU, as she meets with EU leaders setting up her team of commissioners.

Hungary's breaches back on EU agenda next month

EU affairs ministers will have a second round of hearings on political and legal developments in Hungary. But the MEP in charge of the file worries that the next commission will be less vocal on Hungary's breaches of EU rules.

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