Frustration over violations of the law in both countries has prompted the EU to halt payments in an effort to strengthen legal action.
BRUSSELS – For the past few years, Hungary and Poland have repeatedly raised against the long-established rules and values of the European Union, regardless of whether they are members.
They have challenged the supremacy of EU law and sidestepped decisions of the bloc’s Supreme Court. Brussels has responded with reprimands and warnings, but in Budapest and Warsaw, they have been received as empty threats.
Now, however, Brussels is using another tool at its disposal: money.
At a time when Europe is trying to recover from the pandemic, the EU has withheld tens of billions of dollars in grants to Hungary and Poland, and Poland is looking at hefty fines for flouting decisions from the bloc’s highest court, the European Court of Justice. Is. Justice.
For the EU, the fight is an existential issue. For the bloc to function properly, all member states need to follow the same principles. But Hungary and Poland are led by right-wing populist parties, for whom defying Brussels is often a good politics.
Both countries have now been hit by mounting financial pressure from the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, which has long been frustrated by repeated interruptions of its legal efforts to counter its rule of law violations, notably Changes in the system in the last six years with respect to judicial, freedom of the press and minority rights.
The European Commission acknowledged this month that it was withholding $42 billion in payments to Poland from the $857 billion Coronavirus Recovery Fund because of that country’s challenges to the supremacy of EU law. The commission also said it could cut more funding in Polish regions that have declared themselves “LGBT free zones”.
It also withheld an $8.4 billion payment from the virus fund to Hungary after the European Commission said Budapest had not done enough to address corruption.
And both countries are at risk of losing even more money because of a mechanism agreed in December that links all EU funding to the independence of the judiciary and rule of law standards such as anti-corruption measures. The rules are already in place, but Hungary and Poland have challenged the mechanism in the European Court of Justice.
While facing those challenges, the Commission has faced intense pressure from the European Parliament to immediately use the mechanism against Hungary and Poland.
Sophie in te Weld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said, “This is an important stage in European integration, because if we prove unable to get all member state governments to respect EU law, the whole Things will fall apart.”
With Hungary and Poland “we have to break this deadlock somehow”, she said.
Last year, the commission withheld funding to several municipalities in Poland that had declared themselves “LGBT-free”. The Commission also initiated legal action against Poland on the grounds that such territories were contrary to EU values. This month, the commission sent a letter to the governors of those regions saying it was postponing further funding of about 130 million euros, or about $150 million.
The efforts seem to be working: on Wednesday, the Polish Press Agency reported that one of the regions targeted was withdrawing its LGBT-free declaration due to the withholding of European funds.
EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said in a recent interview that the bloc’s goal was to “establish a real culture of the rule of law”. He said the democratic backwardness in Poland and Hungary is an opportunity to draw attention to the rule of law in all member states.
To counter any allegations of double standards, the commission recently began evaluating the democratic standards of all member states. But in countries where violations are more systematic, the report has had little effect.
Poland in July ordered the dismantling of a disciplinary “chamber” by refusing to effectively implement two decisions of the bloc’s top court, which critics say was used by the country’s government to intimidate judges to their liking. has been used for.
Warsaw argued that in a direct challenge to the supremacy of the European Court, the national judiciary system fell outside the scope of the EU’s authority. The decision was “unlawful”, Polish Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta said in an interview, citing a recent ruling by a constitutional tribunal in his country.
“The European Court of Justice is expanding its jurisdiction illegally,” Mr Kaleta said. “These are not legal proceedings, but a political process.”
“Poland has a different ideological vision of the EU, and we are being blackmailed because of that,” he said.
The Hungarian government said the commission was withholding money on political grounds. “EU funds are not aid-type donations, the money is due to Hungary, which should be provided by the EU on a contractual basis in principle of mutual benefit,” said Zoltan Kovacs, secretary of state in the Prime Minister’s Office. . .
Poland is not the only country to question the legal order of the bloc. Last year, Germany’s highest court made a similar challenge, arguing that the European Court had exceeded its ability to rule on the legality of European bond issuance.
For the European Commission, challenging the supremacy of EU law threatens the bloc’s core. According to Mr Renders, “If you want to form a federation, you need to apply the same EU law equally to all member states.”
It seems that the Commission has no intention of backing down, and asked the European Court of Justice to impose heavy fines of up to $1.2 million per day on Poland. “It is normal that member states disagree with the commission,” Mr Renders said. “But when the court has a final decision, it’s the end of the game.”
This week, Poland refused to shut down operations at a coal mine in Turo, in the country’s southwest, despite a daily fine of 500,000 euros, or about $590,000, ordered by a European court. “We cannot allow ourselves to shut it down,” said the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, risking “the health and life of the Poles”.
Analysts say that legal action to tackle violations of the law is too slow to be effective.
“The real problem is that the commission is always too late,” said analyst Sophie Pornschlegel at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think tank. “Once freedoms are restricted in a country, it’s really hard to go back. That’s why the EU is always one step behind.”
The Commission says processes are slow because EU institutions themselves are bound by the rule of law, and cannot expedite legal matters.
Although Hungary has largely complied with the decisions of the European Court of Justice, the country’s respect for democracy and the rule of law continues to deteriorate, critics say.
“They pretend to enforce orders, but keep passing new rules against EU law,” said Laurent Peach, professor of European law at Middlesex University in London. “They want to humiliate critics through a tsunami of legislation. Then the damage happens.”
Therefore, analysts say that the strategy of fund withholding can prove to be more effective.
“A momentum is building,” said Professor Pech. “Many have had enough excuses from the Commission and the Council, and Poland and Hungary burned enough bridges.”