The Brief – Rule of law proxy war

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE]

The European Commission’s rule of law assessment could increase the drive to link the distribution of EU funds with adherence to rule of law. Yet under the surface of that discussion, a sinister storm is brewing that could threaten the EU’s coronavirus recovery hopes.

On Wednesday, the EU executive said that its assessment will create a “preventive” mechanism to guard against backsliding in countries across the bloc.

Commissioner Vera Jourova bluntly told reporters after the presentation that she was not concerned about whether its findings might affect the timeline of EU budget negotiations.

However, some member states were quick to make the link.

The fruit of the marathon month-long EU budget negotiations this summer was a recovery fund attached to the EU’s upcoming seven-year budget.

A weighted majority of member states is needed for the rule of law conditionality for EU funds to be approved. At the same time, the EU’s recovery package requires unanimity, which some countries, including Hungary, have so far refused to grant.

EU leaders had agreed in principle in July to a mechanism to protect EU funds from fraud in cases where institutions are weak, a German proposal was turned down by Poland and Hungary, while frugal Finland and the Netherlands argued that it doesn’t go far enough.

The Commission’s publication came as EU ministers began negotiations with the European Parliament about linking the rule of law to the pay-outs of EU funds, which EU ambassadors gave the German presidency the green light to launch on Wednesday, with a position that many perceive as a watered-down version of what the Commission proposed two years ago.

They can expect strong headwinds from EU lawmakers and won’t get an easy pass on this one.

“Looking at what the German presidency has tabled as a proposal, this is a quite honestly a disgrace,” Green MEP Sergey Lagodisky told reporters the following morning. “This proposal decapitated the rule of law conditionality proposals so far, it is not about rule of law anymore, and it is not functional anymore the way we hoped it would be.”

“We will not be supporting the proposal as it is, and I think this goes for many political groups, but especially ours, we did not envision it this way,” he added.

We observe with concern that the number of different blockades in the budget negotiations seems to be increasing rather than decreasing,” a German presidency spokesman said after the meeting, adding that “a delay of the EU budget and the recovery fund is becoming increasingly likely.”

Before taking off to Brussels, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suggested that if the debate about rule of law conditionality delays the establishment of the EU recovery fund, then it is possible to make bilateral deals, outside the EU framework.

Likewise, the Frugals’ stance goes in the same direction but serves a different interest; namely to slow down the recovery fund’s approval process.

In turn, the four Frugals, fiscally conservative as they are, harbour the hidden hope that the European Parliament will do the dirty work for them.

Common goal, different interests, so to speak: The bickering over rule of law is a convenient excuse for the Frugals to slow down the process. For the Netherlands in particular, the rule of law question seems to be less of a national interest than buying time until its spring elections.

A massive delay would be a no-no to Southern member states that suffered the most from the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the biggest red flag would be untying the thin ribbon that holds together the EU budget and the recovery package.

The Roundup

As you read this, EU leaders meet for an extraordinary in-person summit in Brussels in an attempt to break the deadlock over imposing sanctions on Belarus and resolving a standoff with Turkey, both crucial for the EU’s credibility on the international scene.

Europe needs to adopt a robust mechanism of sanctions on Turkey but at the same time push forward a tempting positive agenda in case Ankara decides to follow the path of logic, the former Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, said in a letter to EU socialist leaders.

While you’re waiting, make sure you have a read of our latest edition of the Global Europe Brief.

The European Commission launched the first step of legal proceedings against Boris Johnson’s government over its controversial Internal Market Bill that threatens to break the terms of the country’s Withdrawal Agreement.

EU countries which have not assigned 5G spectrum frequencies by the end of 2020 will be in breach of EU law and could face legal action from the Commission, the EU executive has warned.

To monitor the spread of the new coronavirus, EU member states have taken additional surveillance measures at the expense of fundamental rights.

Paul Tang has been elected chair of the new permanent tax subcommittee the European Parliament has created. In an interview with EURACTIV, the Socialist MEP recalls that the Parliament has been the most outspoken institution against EU tax havens, including his own country the Netherlands.

Look out for…

  • A long EU summit night on foreign affairs tonight. EURACTIV will follow and provide you with the latest once we know it. 
  • Tomorrow EU leaders will focus on single market, industrial policy and digital transformation and touch upon EU-UK relations.

Views are the author’s


[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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