European lawmakers across the political spectrum lashed out on Tuesday (3 May) at the French delegation heading the EU Council for not showing up at a long-delayed debate on the procedure against Hungary and Poland for their alleged breach of EU values.
The procedure has been stuck at the level of EU ministers for years and Paris maintained on Tuesday the European Parliament had been informed ahead of their absence.
The programme for France’s six-month Council presidency, from January to July, had offered promises to “resolutely contribute to strengthening the rule of law” in the EU.
It also said Paris “will support the Commission in its role as guardian of the EU Treaties and, by drawing on the instruments provided for by Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union in the search for a solution to identified problems”.
Article 7 outlines procedures for suspending certain rights from a member state in case of a breach of EU values countries signed up to when joining the bloc.
Yet, the French delegation, representing the EU-27 ministers, was nowhere to be found at the start of the European Parliament’s plenary debate on Tuesday.
“The Presidency had notified the European parliament that, due to scheduling difficulties, France would not be able to send a representative to the debate”, a French diplomat told EURACTIV.
Christian conservative MEP Jeroen Lenaers from the European People’s Party (EPP) said the “empty chair to the left of him” was very disappointing as “we all know that the main challenge when it comes to Article 7 procedures lies with the Council.”
Both Hungary and Poland have been in the Article 7 procedure since 2018 and 2017, respectively, however, the highly political procedure has gone nowhere with the European ministers.
“The French presidency has promised to protect the rule of law and the European Union. Where are they? Where are they to protect the rule of law now that we discuss this very important topic,” said MEP Katalina Barley speaking for the Social Democrats (S&D).
Green lawmaker Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield called the French absence “very sad and concerning”.
The sentiment was echoed by leftist MEP Malin Björk. “We just wanted to talk about democracy and the rule of law, but they’re not even here, unfortunately. So if you see them, then tell them to come. That would be good”, she said.
The European Commission launched the Article 7 sanctions procedure against Poland over its handling of the judicial system in 2017, while the European Parliament triggered the same procedure against the government in Budapest for breaking EU rules and values in 2018.
The Council will require a four-fifths majority to make recommendations, which would be the first in a long list of steps toward applying sanctions. Sanctions under Article 7 of the EU treaty could result in a suspension of voting rights.
Speaking at the plenary debate, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said: “I do very much regret that I’m not in a position today to be able to report back to you about positive trends when it comes to the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.”
One of the main bones of contention is Poland’s disciplinary chamber responsible for dismissing several judges critical of the government, which last July, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled should be suspended.
Since then, its operation has been costing Warsaw €1 million a day, after the EU’s highest court imposed a running penalty for non-compliance, a clock that has now run over an unpaid €160 million.
Meanwhile, the Council has only held two hearings on the Hungarian procedure. The first hearing was held on 16 September 2019, almost a year after the European Parliament triggered Article 7 proceedings against Hungary.
*Mathieu Pollet contributed to reporting.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]