Poland, Hungary face EU regional funds blockage over fundamental rights charter

Anti-LGBT manifestation 16 August, 2020 in Warsaw, Poland. [Shutterstock/MOZCO Mateusz Szymanski]

Respect for the EU charter of fundamental rights could be used to withhold EU money going to projects that trample over democracy or discriminate on the basis of gender or race, an EU official has said.

Under a deal struck in December, the European Parliament pushed through a reference to the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and adherence to gender equality and non-discrimination in how EU funds are spent.

Those provisions “could be a potential hook” to “withhold money if we see that something is not going in the right direction,” said an EU official when asked how the European Commission could prevent money going to projects that chip away at democratic institutions.

“When you’re supporting EU-funded projects in member states, there is an obligation – both, by the EU, and also by the member states –  to ensure that these projects are complying with the Charter of Fundamental Rights,” the official told EURACTIV.

“In the context we’re in right now in Europe, we are debating these values and the backtracking in a much more vibrant way – so it’s important to stress that,” the EU official said.

Lawmakers strike deal on cohesion rulebook amid looming payment cuts

EU lawmakers reached an eleventh hour deal on Tuesday (1 December) on the legislation laying out the rule book for the structural funds that make up almost a third of the future EU budget, after two years of negotiations.

The EU’s structural funds rulebook was agreed in December, laying down  detailed provisions governing regional spending that makes up almost a third of the EU budget.

Respect for the Charter through all phases of EU regional spending has been an obligation since its adoption, but until recently, the EU executive did not use this to keep cheating countries and regions in line.

The previous Commission’s mandate has seen “concrete examples in which we were doubtful of the support for certain institutions, or even so-called civil society institutions in certain member states where there was an issue of potential abuse,” the EU official said.

Last summer, the EU has rejected a grant under the twinning programme Europe for Citizens to several Polish cities that openly declared themselves ‘LGBT-Free zones’.

In announcing the decision, the European Commission said it was affirming that the European Union stands for equality for all people. “EU values and fundamental rights must be respected by member states and state authorities,” European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, said.

In December, the Hungarian parliament approved amendments to the constitution proclaiming, among other things, that “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.” A bill was passed on the same day obliging single people to request a special ministerial permission to adopt a child, a move that makes it almost impossible for gay and lesbian couples to adopt children.

‘Mother – woman, father – man’ constitutional amendment passes

The Hungarian parliament approved on Tuesday amendments to the constitution that proclaim, among other things, that “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.”

It also now states that “Hungary protects the right of children to self-identity according to …

Revised strategy

In December, the European Commission had adopted a revised strategy for the implementation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

According to the EU official, putting such an option so prominently in the strategy will “ensure that in the EU’s ‘future spending era’, fundamental rights adherence will be taken much more into account than in the past”.

Speaking at a recent event, Věra Jourová, the Commission vice-president for values and  transparency, confirmed that the EU executive will be publishing an annual report on the charter with a stronger focus on its application in the member states, each time with a different thematic issue.

At the same time, Jourová also acknowledged that the COVID-19 crisis widened the equality gap in EU countries, putting fundamental rights to the test.

According to the internal database of the European court of justice, 135 out of the 865 cases settled in 2019 involve the interpretation of one or more provisions of the charter.

Approximately 15% of the cases brought before the court of justice concern the interpretation of the charter.

“Qualitatively, the charter has strengthened the role of judges as guardians of democracy, liberty, and justice in the EU legal order, in cases brought before them in which EU law applies,” said Koen Lenaerts, President of the Court of Justice of the EU.

“We should indeed raise the level of our ambition,” Lenaerts added.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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