Irish Times view on EU rule of law: A new tool in the armoury

It is a power that can change character of EU, qualitatively deepening political union

Under the mechanism ‘breaches of the principle’ of the rule of law will be sanctioned if there are sufficient budgetary implications and as long as a decision to suspend or reduce money is approved by a super-majority of states, a high bar, but one required by the EU summit in July. Photograph: iStock

Under the mechanism ‘breaches of the principle’ of the rule of law will be sanctioned if there are sufficient budgetary implications and as long as a decision to suspend or reduce money is approved by a super-majority of states, a high bar, but one required by the EU summit in July. Photograph: iStock

 

Attempts by the EU to police rule-of-law standards in increasingly authoritarian states like Hungary and Poland have been stymied by the unwieldy sanction tools at its disposal.

On Thursday negotiations between member states and MEPs on the next long-term budget and the €1.8 trillion coronavirus rescue package produced a welcome breakthrough that should strengthen that armoury – a right to link budget payments to compliance with the rule of law. It is a power, some argue, that can change the character of the EU, qualitatively deepening political union.

Under the mechanism “breaches of the principle” of the rule of law will be sanctioned if there are sufficient budgetary implications and as long as a decision to suspend or reduce money is approved by a super-majority of states, a high bar, but one required by the EU summit in July.

Although “conditionality” will ostensibly be limited to potential abuse of the union’s finances some MEPs insist the language agreed allows latitude for the Commission to go further. Petri Sarvamaa, the lead MEP in the talks, said the mechanism would define “breaches” of the rule of law in a way that would allow the Commission to target broader violations of EU values and not just those that had a direct financial impact on the budget.

“For example,” he said, “when the independence of national courts is undermined, there is a clear risk that judges may take arbitrary decisions or disregard cases of corruption and fraud.”

But the battle is not over. Although Hungary and Poland had agreed the mandate given by member state negotiators in the conciliation talks with MEPs, Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga on Thursday described the mechanism as an “ideological blackmail tool.”

And she appeared to warn that Budapest is prepared yet to veto the overall budget agreement which is still some way from agreement. “There is no agreement on any element of the EU budget until all its elements have been agreed,” she said. Several member states have also said they will not agree to the budget without a rule-of-law mechanism in place.

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