It was eagerly anticipated: a new tool to tackle violations of the rule of law in the European Union more effectively. After years of negotiations, the new ‘mechanism’ came into effect last January. Finally, the European Commission could actually financially cut Member States that violate the rule of law.
But just over six months later, the new tools are still sitting unused in the coffin – while concerns about violations of the rule of law are not diminishing in the least. The Commission says it is waiting for a ruling from the European Court of Justice, which is currently assessing whether the legislation will stand legally.
A growing group of MEPs find it unacceptable. During a debate Tuesday, several parties expressed harsh criticism. “The only obstacle is political,” said Finnish Christian Democrat Petri Sarvamaa. “No more delays, no more excuses.”
On Wednesday they received support from three professors who specialize in the EU and who examined whether and on what grounds the Commission could already cut Hungary. Their conclusion: the Commission should no longer linger on the basis of the accumulating evidence and should immediately squeeze the funds. The proceedings before the Court should not be an obstacle: until then, the new regulation is simply already in force.
The professors conducted their research on behalf of the Green group in the European Parliament and were presented on Wednesday by a broad coalition of MEPs. In the report, the professors meticulously describe the developments in Hungary over the past decade that mean that the correct spending of EU money can no longer be guaranteed. The three refer extensively to numerous studies that show the high risk of corruption. The number of ‘irregularities’ found in Hungary by the European Anti-Fraud Office OLAF in 2019 is significantly higher than in other EU countries.
Their report comes at an explosive moment. Not only has the conflict between the EU and Hungary escalated at an unprecedented rate since the government in Budapest passed a new law restricting the rights of LGBT people. The Commission is also expected to take a decision this week on approving Hungary’s plan to receive money from the EU recovery fund.
In their report, the professors point to three central shortcomings in Hungary. John Morijn, professor by special appointment of law and politics in international relations in Groningen and one of the authors: “First of all, there is a lack of a transparent tendering system, which greatly increases the risks of corruption. That would be all the way there, if proper investigation into possible abuses could be done by an independent prosecutor. But that is no longer the case either. And that would be all the way up to that point, if there were still an independent judge to pass judgment, but that is no longer the case either.”
Nothing you describe is new. Some developments go back years. How is it possible that nothing has been done about it all this time?
“Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long been under the wing of the European People’s Party, but that has only recently come to an end. In addition, Hungary is a relatively small country, which means that the corruption concerns quite limited amounts. There are also not enough EU officials who understand Hungarian and manage to dig through the tangle of new Hungarian legislation. And this instrument is, of course, new.”
The Commission says it needs time to carefully build a case and not go down in front of a judge.
“That is a political choice. The problem isn’t that it’s complicated. We have now prepared a letter of notification that the Commission can send to Hungary in no time. As a signal: this is what the procedure can look like.”
Again, if it comes down to political will, aren’t the expectations of this instrument too high?
“This may change something. The legal basis is now not the EU treaty, but protecting the money. But expectations should not be too high. I have yet to see whether the Commission dares to do it and whether a large majority of Member States will support it. Countries can hold each other’s hand again. Moreover, you cannot tackle the new LGBTI law with this, nor can restrictions on press freedom.”
Your report was commissioned by the Greens. How convenient is it for independent scientists to do such a thing?
“We conduct our research completely independently, it is not the case that the conclusions have been ordered. And: I can write articles for obscure magazines all my life, or I sometimes make an analysis that I think can nudge the debate in the right direction.”
Law professors are increasingly vocal about the deteriorating rule of law. Where is the line between science and activism?
“I asked the same question of judges who took to the streets in Poland. If you feel that you have zero impact with your good articles, because the people at the controls don’t feel enough urgency, then you become more activist. That applies to scientists and to judges.
“But real activism means that I would only express my own views. Our research is based on numerous authoritative reports, from the UN, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.”
Also read: EU barks louder at Orbán, but still doesn’t bite