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14th Aug 2022

EU commission rejects MEPs' rule-of-law ultimatum

  • Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán (l) and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen met for talks on the country's Covid-19 recovery plans (Photo: European Commission)
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EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has dismissed the European Parliament's call for action under a new rule-of-law conditionality mechanism, which links EU funds to respect for legal norms.

In a five-page letter, dated Monday (23 August), to European Parliament president David Sassoli, the commission chief argued that, in its call for action, the parliament had not been clear enough on what cases it wanted the EU executive to act.

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The conditionality mechanism was adopted last December and entered into full force in January.

However, EU leaders, under the threat of a veto on the EU's long-term budget by Hungary and Poland, attached political conditions to its application, such as a requirement for the commission to set up guidelines on the use of the mechanism and to wait for a European Court of Justice ruling on it.

Many MEPs have become furious that EU leaders' political haggling would delay the application of an already adopted legislation, which was seen as possibly the most effective tool with regards to governments, particularly in Poland and in Hungary, whose measures have breached EU law.

In March, MEPs warned in a resolution that they would take the commission to court if it did not act under the rule-of-law mechanism.

In June, they adopted another resolution, with the backing of five parties, saying it will take the EU executive to court if it did not act. This Tuesday was their deadline for the commission to do so.

But Von der Leyen argued in her letter on Monday that there were "no constraints" and "no suspension" of the application of the regulation.

She said the commission was working on a detailed analysis required for launching the procedure and had taken the necessary action under the regulation. Previously, the commission had hinted it might launch cases in the autumn.

"The Parliament's request to act is not sufficiently clear and precise to enable that institutions to ascertain in specific terms the content of the decisions that it is asked to adopt," von der Leyen said.

"The commission, therefore, finds itself unable to define its position as regards the European Parliament's request … to open the procedure under the regulation 'in the most obvious cases'," she wrote, adding that the parliament should explain "in concrete terms" which those cases where and why they fell under the mechanism.

A key MEP on rule-of-law issues called Von der Leyen's letter a "provocation".

"I have seen a lot of legalistic rubbish in my time, but this is the bluntest provocation ever. The lawyers of the EU Commission may be high-fiving, but they miss the point: it is not an insult to Parliament. It is an insult to the European citizens," Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld commented in a tweet.

Another top MEP on the issue, German Green MEP Daniel Fruend, said: "Keep in mind that this hair-splitting is happening in the midst of a European rule of law crisis. Berlaymont knows about the massive rule of law violations in Hungary. They require immediate action by the commission."

"Shameful non-reply," tweeted John Morijn, a law and politics professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is also a co-author of a 56-page long study detailing possible legal cases under the regulation with regards to Hungary.

However, the commission's reply puts the parliament in a tough position, because court action against the EU executive may become irrelevant once the commission triggers the rule-of-law mechanism.

Meanwhile, behind the complicated, procedural bickering lies a fierce battle for the efficiency of the rule-of-law tool.

The first-ever EU tool linking the disbursement of EU funds to the respect of rule of law - if a direct link to spending of EU money can be established - was hailed as a potentially potent mechanism to stop the erosion of democratic principles within the bloc.

The EU has struggled to adequately deal with concerns over judicial independence, systematic corruption, and democratic backsliding in both Hungary and Poland, which have been under EU scrutiny for years.

EU rule-of-law report slams Poland and Hungary

The rule-of-law report comes in a crucial moment as Brussels is currently approving member states' recovery plans, conditional on having a robust justice system and anti-corruption framework.

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

MEPs on Wednesday pushed back against the conclusions of the EU leaders' summit of last week, arguing that the adopted legal text on rule of law is what matters - not the leaders' supplementary 'interpretation'.

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