14th Aug 2022

MEPs press ahead with suing Commission on rule-of-law tool

  • MEPs have been upset by EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen asking for specific rule-of-law cases the parliament thinks the executive should pursue (Photo: European Parliament)
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The leaders of the majority of political groups in the European Parliament have decided to press ahead with taking the EU Commission to court - over what MEPs see as the executive's "failure to act" on the rule-of-law mechanism, linking EU funds to the respect for the rule of law.

The group leaders decided on Monday (30 August) to pass the ball to the legal affairs committee, which will now draw up a recommendation to the parliament president, David Sassoli, on the case.

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The decision comes after last week commission president Ursula von der Leyen dismissed the parliament's call for action on rule of law, saying the parliament did not specify which cases it think fall under the new regulation.

The regulation was adopted by MEPs and the council of member states last December. But a deal among EU leaders meant that the application of the new rule has been delayed - despite being in force since January.

Hungary and Poland, which have argued against the mechanism, challenged it at the European Court of Justice in March, and the case is still pending.

The new rule allows for the suspension of EU funds in cases of rule-of-law breaches which have direct links to European subsidies.

It has been seen as a potentially effective tool in stopping the erosion of democracy in the bloc. The EU has been struggling for years to stop democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland.

The commission has been arguing that no case will be lost and that it has started preparing cases. However, MEPs have said for months that implementing the new rule should not be delayed.

'No democracy, no money'

On Monday, the majority of group leaders agreed with moving the procedure against the commission ahead.

"We won't give up until the rule-of-law conditionality mechanism we campaigned for is applied! No democracy? No EU money!," tweeted liberal Renew leader Dacian Ciolos.

"This is a question of consistency, we didn't do all that work for months to stop now," said one Renew source, arguing the issue is a matter of principle for the parliament.

"Political pressure works [on the commission]," the source said. Liberal MEPs argued in a letter to von der Leyen earlier this summer not to approve Hungary's recovery plan until the government of prime minister Viktor Orbán comes up with guarantees to fight corruption. Hungary's plan has not been approved since.

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) made a suggestion during Monday's meeting of not proceeding legally, but sending the issue back to the budget and budget control committee, which had been responsible for negotiating the regulation.

However, the EPP in the end supported the majority decision to take the matter further. "We have always supported political signal, but the legal avenue will not help us," as one source explained the thinking behind their more cautious approach.

Meanwhile, the conservative European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) and the right-wing Identity and Democracy (ID) group have argued against stepping up the pressure on the commission, a third source said.

According to the rules of the parliament, the legal affairs committee will now examine the case, discuss the issue behind closed doors, and put together a recommendation to Sassoli.

There is no clear timeline, but it likely to take weeks or months. The commission could, in the meantime, launch a case, making the parliament's legal action futile.

EU commission rejects MEPs' rule-of-law ultimatum

Some MEPs described the commission chief's letter as a "provocation" and "hair-splitting" on a rule-of-law mechanism that was meant to stop democratic backsliding in EU states.

Commission pledges autumn launch of new rule-of-law tool

"We simply cannot afford to make mistakes and bring cases that when they are endorsed by the council, are then annulled by the court, this would be a terrible disaster," the commission's budget chief told MEPs.

Von der Leyen seen dragging heels on Hungary and Poland

Lawmakers vented frustration that the EU Commission might delay action against the nationalist leaderships in Poland and Hungary despite a court victory. Experts on EU affairs sounded a more cautious note.

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