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25th Aug 2019

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

  • Frans Timmermans would not say, however, if he wants to continue with his rule of law portfolio in the next commission (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The EU Commission's vice-president for rule of law, Frans Timmermans, said on Thursday (18 July) he has "no doubt" the new commission under Ursula von der Leyen will be just as tough on the breaches of rule of law as the current EU executive.

"I have no doubt whatsoever that [the ]next commission under the leadership of von der Leyen, will be as forceful, as concrete, as clear, as determined as the present commission, on the basis of what she said publicly," the Dutch commissioner said.

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Timmermans has for the past five years been leading the charge against Poland on their judicial reforms which ended in political interference in the court system, and against Hungary on the country's various breaches of domestic rules of law.

"I couldn't possibly be part of a commission that would relinquish the fight against the threats to the rule of law, the fact that I am considered to be in the commission is an indication that new commission will be as clear as the current commission," he added.

Timmermans himself had been running for the commission top job as the Socialist & Democrats lead candidate, and was - briefly - considered by EU leaders for the presidency, during their marathon summit this month.

But opposition to Timmermans, both from some conservative leaders who wanted to see one of their fellow party members in the top position, plus fierce rejection from Hungary, Poland (who had both been the brunt of his criticisms) and Italy, paved the way for von der Leyen to become the compromise commission president.

Timmermans was however tight-lipped on whether he wanted to continue as the commission's top man on rule of law, as he continues as vice-president on the EU executive, saying that that was for von der Leyen to decide.

Annual review

Timmermans was speaking to reporters after EU affairs ministers held their first discussion on the commission's updated rule of law toolkit under the Finnish EU presidency.

"The one issue that led to a discussion was our proposal to have a yearly review of all member states, to have a basis based on the commission report to discuss this issue also in a preventive way, to see issues coming up, that could to be corrected," he said, adding that "it creates a form of interactions between the institutions and also between the member states that could improve the common understanding of rule of law and to create a stronger rule of law culture," Timmermans said.

"Not one member state is above criticism," he said, adding that it wa not an alternative to the instruments the EU already has at its disposal.

Hungary's justice minister Judit Varga, however, said there are enough instruments to address rule of law issues.

"There is no need to come up with new mechanism or new monitoring systems which have no basis in the treaty, and which could easily become a dangerous political weapon in the hands of institutions or other member states," she told reporters after the meeting.

She added that a commission-led general rule of law monitoring also goes against the EU treaty.

Hungary on the spot

The Finnish presidency will also hold the first Article 7 hearing on Hungary in September, a year after a European Parliament report outlined the ways prime minister Viktor Orban's government breached EU rules and values, putting the issue on the council's agenda.

The preceding Austrian and the Romanian presidencies had been reluctant to launch actual hearings into Hungary, and dwelled on procedural issues.

Tytti Tuppurainen, Finland's European affairs minister said, however, the presidency will not invite the parliament's representative to the hearing.

The parliament's report will most likely be presented by the presidency itself, after the council's legal team argued the parliament cannot be present at the member states' hearing.

The ministers also agreed on a "modality" of how to conduct such hearings, as the never-ending and technical Article 7 hearings on Poland has created frustrations among ministers.

This means that Hungary will have one hour to present its case in the first hearing, there will be two-minute questions and 10-minute answers to them.

Poland at the court

Timmermans also updated ministers on the latest developments in the ongoing Article 7 sanctions procedure against Poland, as the ECJ recently ruled that the Warsaw government's measures on the retirement of judges go against the EU rules.

Timmermans said the court confirmed the commission's position, and added that the ruling also underlines that EU institutions have a right to be part of the procedure of reforming a national justice system.

"It is a national competence [to reform the judiciary] but in doing so they have to comply with the treaty and the commission has a right to act in this context," he said.

Timmermans also pointed out that while some member states might argue that rule of law issues should be dealt with by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the top court cannot act unless the commission or a national judges first ask a specific question.

"The council and member states cannot avoid the issue by pointing to the court," the Dutch commissioner said.

The Finnish EU presidency has pushed for better rule of law compliance among member states, as ministers also discussed linking funds in the next EU budget.

"We are adamant about it, we are hoping to find a balanced solution where everyone can be happy, some countries insist on having it in the budget, other countries insist on other things," Tuppurainen said.

EU proposes yearly rule of law 'reports'

EU states ought to undergo a yearly "Rule of Law Review Cycle" to help stop countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Romania from backsliding on EU norms, the European Commission has said.

Finland's EU presidency wants to push rule of law

The Nordic country sees the rule of law as an existential guarantee in a rule-based international order, and wants to tackle the concerns raised in several member states during its EU presidency.

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.

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.

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.

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