MEPs voted en masse to trigger Article 7 proceedings against Hungary on Wednesday (12 September), although Jean-Claude Juncker’s early morning Strasbourg speech failed to send much of a clear signal against Budapest’s alleged rule of law violations.
The European Parliament voted on Article 7 with 448 in favour and 197 against. Forty-eight chose to abstain but the required two-thirds majority was achieved.
The can is now kicked across the road to the European Council, which will have to vote as well on whether to continue proceedings over a serious breach of the EU’s core values in Hungary. A 4/5ths majority is required there. The same proceedings were activated against Poland in last December.
During his last State of the Union address in Strasbourg before EU elections in May, where populist parties are expected to gain stronger support, Juncker called on national governments to show more willingness to compromise and bridge sharp differences.
“Let us decry knee-jerk nationalism, which attacks others and seeks scapegoats rather than looking for solutions,” Juncker said in his annual speech, which he confirmed will be his last. “Unchecked nationalism is riddled with both poison and deceit.”
On Tuesday (11 September), a highly incendiary debate about the rule of law in Hungary exposed deep internal divisions in the EU house – especially in the European People’s Party (EPP), which is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s political home.
In the same boat
Poland’s controversial reform of the country’s judicial system is already facing an ongoing Article 7 procedure, which was triggered in December last year.
Juncker’s 2015 address to the Parliament included hopes of “finding the Union stronger than ever before” when he leaves office.
But the threat of losing voting rights in the European Council, which is the most extreme sanction envisaged by Article 7, means the Union finds itself a bit short on domestic bliss.
Those who expected Juncker’s final oration to turn into a comprehensive swipe at all the troubles the bloc is facing and to name and shame the culprits were left disappointed.
“We continue to be very concerned by the developments in some of our member states. Article 7 must be applied whenever the rule of law is threatened. Respecting the rule of law is not an option but an obligation,” the Luxembourger told MEPs.
He added that “the Commission will resist all attacks on the rule of law” and that “judgments from the Court of Justice must be respected and implemented. This is vital.”
“Court decisions are not optional,” Juncker warned, in an apparent reference to statements made by Polish officials earlier this month, suggesting that they may ignore an unfavourable ruling against Warsaw.
Remarkably, Juncker made no direct references to Poland, Hungary or Romania – the countries that are currently in the line of fire over alleged breaches of the EU’s fundamental values.
He did, however, back those tasked with resolving the rule of law disputes: “First Vice-President Frans Timmermans is doing a remarkable job in defending rule of law, the whole Commission supports him fully. But all too often he stands alone in defending it.”
It marks a form of rapprochement between the Commission’s two leading figures, as some reports earlier this summer indicated a difference in opinion between Juncker, who was said to be ready to back away for the sake of political peace in the Council, and his Dutch deputy’s more hardline approach.
Next week, the European General Affairs Council will again discuss the Poland case.