Brussels opens the way to withhold funds for Hungary as punishment for violating the rule of law | International

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán celebrating his election victory last Sunday.LEONHARD FOEGER (REUTERS)

Two days after the Hungarian elections that gave another resounding victory to Viktor Orbán, the European Commission announces its intention to activate the so-called conditionality mechanism to sanction Budapest for violating the basic values ​​of the European Union. The Community Executive takes for the first time the step of implementing the community regulation that allows, from January 1, 2021, to suspend European funds to countries where the fragility of the rule of law does not guarantee its proper management.

Brussels has long awaited the moment, with ammunition loaded. He was waiting for the opinion on the mechanism of the Court of Justice of the EU, which gave its endorsement in February this year, and also for the responses from Budapest to an exchange of communications started at the end of last year. The answers have not been satisfactory, as explained on Tuesday by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who announced the launch of the mechanism in a speech in the European Parliament.

Gergely Gulyas, Prime Minister Orbán’s chief of staff, has reacted to the announcement by accusing the European Commission of “singing the same tune as the Hungarian left” and has demanded “not to punish Hungarian voters for not expressing an opinion to their liking.” of Brussels in the elections on Sunday.

The President of the Commission has indicated that the Hungarian authorities have been informed of the decision. “We have carefully studied the answers”, she has detailed during a question session of the MEPs. “Our conclusion is that we have to move on, go to the next step,” she added. The formal notification letter to initiate the conditionality mechanism will now be sent to Budapest. “The process is underway now”, she has settled before the European Parliament, an institution that even threatened last year to take the Commission to European justice for not activating the mechanism.

A forced wait

Waiting for the executive arm of the EU was, in any case, obligatory. Or at least a political compromise. The tool was approved in December 2020 to ensure that not one euro from the multi-million dollar recovery funds ends up in the hands of those who violate the rule of law. But the European Commission had promised Poland and Hungary not to activate it until the CJEU gave its approval, something that took more than a year.

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These two countries challenged the case before the European courts as soon as it was approved, leaving them in a kind of legal limbo. The hearing, held in October, was a high-voltage political event, with extraordinary repercussions and held before the plenary of judges: Hungary and Poland accused the Council of the EU and the European Parliament of having approved a regulation without a legal basis with the sole object of punishing certain countries under the guise of protecting the Community budget.

For Budapest and Warsaw, Brussels had gone too far and sought to punish both countries by avoiding the procedural procedure of article 7 of the EU Treaty, which requires the unanimity of all community partners to sanction countries that violate the fundamental values ​​of the EU. . And whose consequences are much more radical: it can lead to the suspension of the right to vote of the sanctioned Member States.

Brussels is now taking the step after ascertaining that there is a solid basis to present a case. He has always maintained that, before pressing the button, he would make sure that he had a real chance to pull it off, to minimize the chances of missing the shot.

The use of this tool marks a quantum leap in the way the Commission can put financial pressure on countries that are going down the illiberal slope, such as Hungary and Poland. Brussels has a long history of confrontations with both at the expense of the rule of law, with multiple fronts that range from respect for the LGTB community to political control of the judiciary or corruption linked to the elites and whose actions could drain European funds. Hungary and Poland are also among the few countries that have not yet received the approval of the EU Executive for their recovery plans.

“We have been very clear, the issue is corruption,” Von der Leyen detailed before the MEPs. The mechanism requires proving that the contested facts directly affect or threaten to seriously affect the sound financial management of the Union budget or the financial interests of the Union.

“Better late than never!” Celebrated the Social Democratic family in the European Parliament. “After months of delay, the Commission will finally activate the rule of law conditionality mechanism against Hungary. It is a belated but important reminder to Orbán that no amount of votes will ever legitimize the violation of the rule of law in the EU.”

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