Portugal is moving forwards with cases against Hungary and Poland, both ‘suspected of violating European values’.
This issue blew up last July, when Member States were discussing the ‘Brussels’ bazooka of post-pandemic recovery and resilience funding’ and how it should only be made available to countries that comply with the ‘rule of law’.
Hungary and Poland disagreed – for reasons that are all too clear.
As Euronews explains, both countries “have been at odds with the EU for years over accusations their governments have been eroding judicial and media independence”.
Two months ago the two nations filed a complaint with the EU’s supreme court, furious that the bloc has indeed agreed a mechanism that “ties respect for the rule of law with EU funding”.
At the time there were fears that the challenge would delay the ‘firing of the bazooka’ by up to two years. A last-minute ‘agreement’ saw issues ‘settle’ with both countries’ leaders content to see the mechanism reviewed in court.
But Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga has already said that, in her understanding, the mechanism “seriously infringes legal certainty”.
And in the meantime, the two prime ministers – Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki – have teamed up with Italian populist Matteo Salvini to create a new political alliance, which Orbán has described as a ‘European Renaissance’.
Now, Portugal – as the presidency of the Council of the European Union – is returning to the matter.
Foreign Affairs minister Augusto Santos Silva said today that “the rule of law is one of the fundamental themes of the programme of the Portuguese presidency” underpinned by the Council of Justice which is working on the application of a Letter of Fundamental Rights, and the Council of Social Affairs, focused on “inclusion strategies” and “plans of action to combat discrimination, racism, antisemitism and hate speech”.
Consecrated in article 7 of the Treaty of Europe are preventative measures that can be undertaken when “there is a manifest risk of serious violation of the values of the European Union”.
Sanctions can be applied, said the minister, if the violation is “serious and persistent – issues that have been suspected in the case of Hungary and Poland in 2017 and 2018 respectively”, he said.
“The rule of law is a matter for all of us”, he said – hardening his message with the obvious: “it is a necessary condition to our belonging to the European Union”.
And there we have it.
The EU conference on the Future of Europe went ahead last week in Strasbourg – and now it is up to the 27 Member States to ‘peer review’ each other’s compliance with the rule of law and ‘report back’ at the General Affairs Council on June 22.
Bloomberg has been following these twists and turns, saying that if found ‘wanting’, Hungary could miss out on as much as €7.2 billion in grants.
“What’s more the timeline (for sanctions being applied) described by (the European Commission’s vice president) means that the new powers would be operational before Hungarian elections early next year”.
The ruling party of nationalist Mr Orbán is “trailing in the polls against a united opposition”. Financial penalties “could hurt his chances of turning that situation around”.
They could also have long-lasting effects on the fragile European brotherhood.