If we do not step up efforts to defend the rule of law, the EU will be at risk, outgoing Rule of Law Commissioner Frans Timmermans told EU lawmakers on Thursday (5 September), followed by a confrontation between the Dutchman and Polish MEPs from the country’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Timmermans lobbied MEPs on the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to support the European Commission’s proposal to combine the application of the rule of law with access to EU funds.
“The European Commission calls on the Council and Parliament to rapidly adopt the regulation on the adoption of the protection of the EU’s budget in connection to the rule of law,” Timmermans urged MEPs.
The European Parliament has long been demanding the strengthening of mechanisms to protect the rule of law in EU countries.
Although MEPs have supported this proposal over the past five years, member states have not yet given the green light.
Timmermans also restated the Commission’s plans to monitor member states through an annual rule of law report and to further develop the Commission’s justice scoreboard.
Earlier this week, the Commission asked for a rule of law item to be included into the agenda of the General Affairs Council meeting in two weeks, where Timmermans is supposed to update European affairs ministers on the state of play in the rule of law and Article 7 procedures.
According to EU sources, both Poland and Hungary objected to this, while some Polish diplomats dismissed the move as a ‘political decision’, noting that there is a general election coming up on 13 October in Poland.
Although it is not yet known whether Timmermans will keep the portfolio in the new European Commission, Brussels sources earlier this week suggested Czech Commissioner Vera Jourova was being considered by von der Leyen for the portfolio.
If true, it could be seen as a gesture towards the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, whose leaders have been widely criticised over the misuse of European funds and breaches of the rule of law.
“Let me be very clear: I am absolutely convinced that we will continue along the same lines for the last five years. In the speech that Ms von der Leyen gave to the European Parliament there is no doubt that the Commission will continue to be the guardian of the Treaties and therefore to fight in defended the rule of law”, he said.
During the discussion, tension erupted between the Dutchman and Polish MEPs of the Law and Justice (PiS) party as he made several references to the situation in Poland, mentioning the ongoing rule of law infringement procedures.
“You focused your attack mainly on Poland, Hungary and other countries that are coming out of communism. You are defending a justice system that has not been reformed since we regained independence in 1989,” MEP Beata Kempa criticised Timmermans.
“We survived the Soviet commissioners. I assure you that we will outlive you,” she added.
The Commission has accused the government in Warsaw of curtailing the independence of the judiciary and undermining the separation of powers.
Opponents of the law believe the reforms are intended to stack Polish courts with pro-government supporters and have called them a political “purge.”
The Polish government insists the changes are needed to tackle corruption and clean up the judicial system.
“Having a parliamentary majority does not give a mandate to break the rule of law,” said Timmermans.
“This argument is unacceptable, because it is an argument that was used by dictators in the 1930s in Europe. Let me remind you that every vile decision of the Nazi courts was based on law. They were in fundamental contradiction with the rule of law, fundamental rights, but were based on the law,” Timmermans argued.