MEPs back plan to freeze funds to EU states who undermine democracy

European Parliament votes for proposals to punish governments who erode rule of law

A view of the European Parliament building in   Strasbourg, France. File photograph: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

A view of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg, France. File photograph: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images

 

The European Parliament has backed plans to cut EU funds to member states who undermine the rule of law or allow corruption to fester – a move that could raise tensions between the bloc and the governments in Hungary and Poland, which are accused of weakening judicial independence.

MEPs voted 397 to 158 for a draft law to freeze EU cash if a government was found to be eroding democratic values. The proposals will come into force if backed by EU member states and could lead to a fierce battle between national governments when they discuss the bloc’s next €1 trillion budget later this year.

“Respecting the rule of law is a fundamental prerequisite for democracy, stability, prosperity and mutual trust,” said Petri Sarvamaa, a Finnish centre-right MEP backing the proposals. “Without the rule of law, the European Union loses its credibility in the eyes of the citizens and in the eyes of the world.”

He added: “Taxpayers’ money has to be respected and spent according to the same rules and principles in all member states. We never know in which member state the rule of law will be questioned next.”

The draft law is the latest attempt by EU politicians to get to grips with member states seen to be flouting the rule of law. While the EU has already opened disciplinary procedures against Poland and Hungary over the issue, officials have been looking for a better way of dealing with it.

Critics have said the current process is slow and cumbersome, with some governments, including the UK, reluctant to condemn a fellow member state.

Creating a link between the rule of law and EU funds would have a big impact on some national budgets, especially in central and eastern Europe, where European money makes up a large proportion of infrastructure spending. In Poland, EU funds make up 61 per cent of public investment, and they make up 55 per cent of such investment in Hungary and 45 per cent in Romania.

‘Generalised deficiencies’

According to the parliament’s proposals, countries would lose EU funds for “generalised deficiencies in the rule of law”, such as failure to investigate fraud, absence of independent courts, or failure to co-operate with EU anti-fraud inspectors. The plans would empower Brussels, aided by independent experts, to judge whether a government was breaking the rule of law, although EU governments would have four weeks to stop funds from being frozen.

In an attempt not to isolate local populations, EU funds for NGOs and academic researchers would continue to flow.

The final outcome of the proposals will not be known for months, as they are tied to a yet-to-be-decided agreement on the EU’s next €1 trillion budget, a seven-year plan for 2021-2028 that will not be agreed until after the forthcoming European elections.

The rule of law plan adds another layer of complexity to the future budget debate, which is already fraught due to Brexit and the end of the UK’s annual net €10-11 billion contribution to the EU.

Member states have been weighing up less ambitious proposals, but will not make their next move until EU leaders take a view.

Countries in central and eastern Europe have already made their opposition plain, but Europe’s paymasters, notably Germany, France and the Netherlands, want tougher action against governments that flout basic values while reaping EU funds. – Guardian