Tuesday

1st Dec 2020

EU ministers urge Poland and Hungary to unblock budget

  • Germany's EU minister Michael Roth said: "This not the time for vetoes, but for acting swiftly and in the spirit of solidarity" (Photo: Council of the European Union)

EU affairs ministers urged Hungary and Poland on Tuesday (17 November) to lift their blockade on the EU's €1.8 trillion long-term budget and coronavirus recovery fund.

"This is no time for power games, we cannot have a political crisis on top of all this, this is the time to show EU unity," Portugal's EU affairs minister Ana Paula Zacarias said, echoing the message of 24 other ministers, who also called for Hungary and Poland to agree to the package.

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Hungary and Poland, on Monday, blocked a key step in giving the green light to the massive financial deal, aimed at mitigating the economic effects of the pandemic, over their objection on linking EU funds to the respect for rule of law.

The EU ministers, in a rare show of frustration, called on Hungary and Poland not to hold the recovery stimulus hostage, amid a second wave of the pandemic in Europe.

Italy's minister of European affairs, Vincenzo Amendola, whose country has been keen to secure EU subsidies quickly to deal with the fallout of the pandemic, said objections from Poland and Hungary were "contradictory".

"There is a contradiction in all this blockade ... If all the member states claim to respect the rule of law, there is no concrete reason to oppose conditionality," he argued.

"A compromise cannot satisfy everyone," Amendola added.

Hungary and Poland are already under EU scrutiny for curbing judicial independence and breaching EU rules and values.

But Poland's EU minister, Konrad Szymański, argued that the two countries had warned that they could not agree to the rule-of-law conditionality, and that their blockade should not have come as a surprise.

"The problem is the lack of legal guarantees and certainty for all member states under the treaty," he said.

"We simply need a better compromise," Szymański added.

Hungary's justice minister, Judit Varga, said the rule-of-law conditionality targetted her country.

"Hungary has been a primary target of the proposed measure," she said, adding that it created an "easy way" to sanction Hungary on an ideological or political basis.

"We are fortunate not to live in a political system anymore where one could be sanctioned for ideological and political 'deviations' without breaking any rules", she said, alluding to the former Soviet Union, which had held de facto rule in Hungary for decades.

And Germany's EU minister, Michael Roth, later fired back, saying that "putting the EU on the same footing as authoritarian regimes and dictatorships is totally unacceptable".

Way out

EU leaders are holding a videoconference on Thursday where the issue is expected to be raised.

But such sensitive topics are usually left for face-to-face meetings, which now depend on the pandemic situation.

The next regular EU summit of leaders is scheduled for December.

The rule-of-law conditionality was agreed by 25 member states on Monday, and is due to be approved by the European Parliament in plenary next week.

There is little appetite among member states or MEPs to renegotiate it with Hungary and Poland.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, one of the key supporters of linking EU funds to the respect of rule of law, told the Dutch parliament on Tuesday that the compromise was already the "lower limit" for him, and that the conditionality cannot be watered down.

He said there were options "if the Hungarians and the Poles cooperate", however.

Rutte also said a "nuclear option" would be to do the recovery fund and the EU budget with 25 member states, but he acknowledged that would turn the EU into an "intergovernmental union".

Meanwhile, far-right opposition politician Geert Wilders said Rutte "does not have half the guts, or the political balls" of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán.

But Rutte retorted by saying: "Should I follow Orbán's example? Should I limit gay rights, limit freedom of the press in the Netherlands, and limit the right of smaller parties to participate in the election? I am glad that I don't look like that man - terrible."

Budget deal struck, with Hungary threat still hanging

Ultimately, the European Parliament managed to squeeze an extra €16bn in total - which will be financed with competition fines the EU Commission hands out over the next seven years, plus reallocations within the budget.

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.

Hungary and Poland unfazed by EU outcry over budget block

France's EU affairs state secretary Clement Beaune said his country and Germany are looking into "technical clarifications" on rule-of-law conditionality to resolve the issue, but floated the idea of doing the recovery fund without Poland and Hungary.

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