German official: There will be no discount on the rule of law

German Minister of State for European Affairs Michael Roth attends the European General Affairs council meeting at the European Council, in Brussels, Belgium, 12 December 2017. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

The EU is a community of shared values, the minister of state for Europe in the German Foreign Office, Michael Roth (SPD), emphasised in an interview with EURACTIV’s media partner “Der Tagesspiegel“, referring to the anti-Soros campaign in Hungary and the rule of law infringement procedure against Poland.

Michael Roth has been the minister of state for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office in the third Merkel Cabinet since 2013. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). 

Mr Roth, Hungary’s parliament is currently discussing a legislative package that could drastically curtail the rights of refugee organisations. Is Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the process of finally leaving the path of democracy?

Viktor Orbán is a head of government who of course was elected democratically. Nevertheless, I am deeply worried that his idea of a majority democracy means that he does not have enough regard for minorities and other views. The “Stop Soros” law package, with which Orbán wants to restrict the support of American billionaire George Soros towards Hungarian civil society and the work of refugee organisations, is disconcerting.

Western EU states tell Poland time running out to restore rule of law

Western EU states told Poland on Tuesday (27 February) that time was running out for it to address concerns in a dispute over democratic freedoms, mainly related to the rule of law and the judiciary reforms in the biggest eastern EU member country.

We have the impression, that Budapest’s state-subsidised anti-Soros-campaign is serving dangerous stereotypes: Soros is being demonised as a “Jewish financial capitalist” and an illegal refugee worker. Everyone is free to criticise Soros. But demonising him, as is currently the case in Hungary – I think this is immensely dangerous and unacceptable.

Is Orbán overdoing this in his aim to be re-elected in the parliamentary elections in April?

It is part of every election campaign to try and get a more favourable starting position. Nevertheless, a few principles must apply. It is unacceptable for an EU member state to be so derogatory towards our core European values as the Hungarian government sometimes is. Especially, because the EU is more than a single market. The EU is a community of shared values that binds all its members. The German government has no interest to break a bilateral conflict with Hungary, quite the contrary. But when somewhere in the EU core values of the community are disregarded, you cannot just ignore it.

Facing the breaches of European fundamental rights, should a procedure under Article 7 of the EU Treaty for the revocation of the right to vote in the Community also be initiated against Hungary, just as the Commission has already done in the case of Poland?

The Commission is already using various instruments in dealing with Hungary. These include a couple of infringement procedures. The Commission has our full support here. Whether one could also use Article 7 in this case, I cannot tell at the moment.

Poland critical of linking EU funds to rule of law

The European Commission’s proposal to link EU budget funds to the rule of law was seen as putting Brussels on a collision course with Poland. Jean-Claude Juncker recognised that there is a chance for rapprochement in the dispute with Warsaw. EURACTIV Poland reports.

In Brussels, infringement procedures against Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have been initiated, because the three countries are refusing the EU decision to accept refugees. According to Orbán, migration is “dangerous for our security, for our way of life and for the Christian culture.”

Much would have been achieved if such propaganda were stopped in Budapest. There are currently approximately 400 refugees in Hungary. It is a distorted picture when it is claimed that a country is being overrun by refugees. Like Hungary, we believe that the protection of external borders has to be strengthened. It is not about building a “Fortress Europe”. Rather, all EU citizens have the right to know: Who is coming into the EU?

But if Orbán, despite everything, remains firm in his rejection of refugee quotas – should the responsible EU interior ministers once again have a majority vote for refugee quotas and overrule Hungary as they did in autumn 2015?

That has to be seen. One does really not have to apologize in the EU for using the usual legislative procedures. If we make use of these majority decisions, that is definitely no violation of the applicable law. In some countries, the question of integration and migration still is relatively new. There is less experience with it than in Germany. I understand that. That is why it is so important that countries like Germany serve as a good example and make it clear that while the diversity of religions, cultures and ethnicities can be exhausting sometimes, it also enriches us and makes us stronger.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has put forward the possibility to link the payment of EU subsidies for structurally weak regions with the admission of refugees. What do you think about that?

We should decouple the discussion over the EU budgetary period from 2021 onwards from the specific developments in Hungary and Poland. What we want to arrange for the future EU budgetary framework concerns all 27 EU member states. We support two considerations: First, it has financial implications if individual member states implement the structural reforms they demand or fail to implement.

Romania backs Poland in rejecting EU funding conditionality

Romania backed Poland yesterday (1 February) in vehemently rejecting proposals to tie future European Union subsidies to member states’ adherence to the rule of law.

Secondly, we also want to make the payments of EU funds generally dependent on the observance of rule of law principles. However, we should not only talk about sanctions and funding cuts. I propose to set up an own EU fund for fundamental values and the rule of law in the future. This fund could support civil society wherever the rule of law is under pressure. It would be conceivable to create such a pot of money under the existing European Fund for Strategic Investments. But we should not just talk about sanctions and budget cuts.

Speaking of Poland, what will happen next in the Article 7 procedure on the rule of law?

For a start, this is not about German-Polish dissent but about a necessary discussion between the European Union and Poland. I still hope that our Polish partners will be ready to comply with the provisions of the Commission. But on the other hand, it must also be clear that there will be no discount on issues concerning rule of law.

How do you see the role of Germany in the EU? Is Berlin a mediator between the “old” and the “new” member states?

We have to be self-critical about the fact that the “old” and “new” member states have remained very alien, even almost 14 years after the EU’s Eastern enlargement. It has not yet really grown together. We are far too little concerned with the situation in central and Eastern Europe. I am very impressed by the theses of the Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev. He rightly tells the Western Europeans that we have not really been interested in central and Eastern Europe.

In the West, people often underestimate the tremendous economic and social transformation that has been going on in central and Eastern Europe since 1989. Since 2010, about 600,000 mostly young people have emigrated from Hungary alone. In particular, the mobile and European-minded people have left central European countries in their millions since 1989. This is a painful loss for our neighbours, which we must not forget.

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