EU urged to withhold funding from governments that flout rule of law

MEPs say they will veto €750bn Covid recovery package unless strict guarantees are made

Members of the European Parliament have threatened to veto a €750 billion recovery package aimed at counteracting the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic unless it is tweaked to include strict rule of law guarantees.

Watchdogs have raised the alarm over a retreat from democratic norms in several European countries, with threats to judicial independence, media freedom and civil society particularly in Hungary and Poland, but there is pressure to approve the package quickly to avoid worsening economic turmoil in hard-hit Italy and Spain.

The main political groups in the European Parliament on Tuesday jointly called for strict conditions to be placed on the recovery fund agreed in July that would bar money from being released to governments that flout the rule of law.

"Don't underestimate the will of this parliament to protect the rule of law in Europe, " Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Parliament's largest political group, the European People's Party, said on Tuesday.

“We call on member states to deliver on their commitments. Rule of law should be a precondition for EU funds.”

Joint statement

The call was supported in a joint statement by the leaders of the four biggest political groups in the European Parliament: Weber’s right-leading EPP, the left-leaning Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the liberal Renew Europe and the Greens-European Free Alliance, which together represent a majority in parliament.

“Our values are not for sale. It is critical that we stand by the commitment to tie funding to the rule of law and not bend to pressure from national governments who resist it,” the four leaders wrote.

“Too much is at stake. In some countries, attacks on press freedom and civil society, and the takeover of media groups by a ruling oligarchy are becoming the norm, undermining the functioning of EU democracy. Efforts by some governments to muzzle their judges . . . is calling into question the EU’s entire legal regime,” it read.

“Furthermore, when a handful of people take control of public funds and public procurement, and corruption becomes par for the course – as has happened in some countries – this threatens the integrity of our internal market.”

It came as the EU's highest court ruled that Hungary broke EU law by introducing rules that effectively forced out of the country the Central European University, a one-time bastion of liberal values backed by the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros.

Watering down

MEPs have accused Germany of watering down rule of law protections with a compromise proposal put forward to member states in recent days in a bid to forge agreement and allow funds to start flowing as soon as possible to the hardest-hit countries.

The EU's member states are divided on the issue, with a group of countries including Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands demanding stricter rule of law guarantees, while Poland and Hungary threaten to veto the package if such conditions are included. The package must also be approved by majority vote in the European Parliament.

The right-wing populist parties in power in Poland and Hungary characterise the rule of law debate as left-wing forces using the issue as a political weapon against conservative governments.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times