War in Ukraine covers EU’s rule of law battle at home – POLITICO

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The EU’s campaign to uphold the rule of law has been temporarily hit by a war-torn backdrop, raising fears that the bloc is neglecting to protect democracy at home even as it does so. taking historic steps to do just that in Ukraine.

In the months leading up to the war, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, ramped up the heat on wayward members like Poland and Hungary. It has blocked each country’s pandemic recovery funds and has begun to lay the groundwork to unleash a previously unprecedented amount of power that could cost both countries more substantial EU payments.

In mid-February, the EU’s top court even upheld the bloc’s right to cut budgets as legitimate, raising expectations that further action could be imminent.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine. War broke out. And the EU’s attention has changed.

“Understandably, everyone is so preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis that it is impossible to predict when we will act.” an EU official said. “But the intention is to do so as soon as conditions permit.”

That’s not to say the EU is dodging its rule of law, officials stressed. A senior Commission official noted that staff were still working on an announcement to Hungary that could trigger the EU’s power to cut long-term budget expenditures.

However, this delay has raised alarm bells among MPs, judges and academics, who fear Budapest and Warsaw could use Kremlin aggression – and the EU’s desire for wartime unity – as a cover to further undermine their own democratic checks and balances.

“The Polish government,” warned Judge Dariusz Mazur, who traveled to Brussels this week to describe the plight of the Polish justice system to Commission officials, “will use this war in Ukraine as a smokescreen for the ultimate assassination of the rule of law in Poland. ”

Berlaymont lost focus

During her more than two years as Commission chair, Ursula von der Leyen has repeatedly pledged that the defense of democratic norms is a top priority.

However, it has been more than a month since the EU’s highest court allowed the Commission to use its budget-cutting powers over concerns about the rule of law.

The EU passed power at the end of 2020 amid concerns that existing tools were not effective in stopping a democratic setback across the Continent. It allows the EU to reduce funding to countries where violations of the rule of law negatively affect the money of European taxpayers.

The EU waited to deploy power while legal challenges from Hungary and Poland worked their way through the Court of Justice. The two countries consider this mechanism illegal and politically motivated.

Two weeks after the court ruled against the argument, the Commission published its guidance on how it would use the so-called conditional mechanism.

But since then, it hasn’t made any more public moves. And officials have indicated that the plan to activate the mechanism has been cooled down – at least temporarily. So for now, the only money withheld is from pandemic recovery cash; The regular EU budget remains for Budapest and Warsaw.

The inaction has caught the attention of the European Parliament, where many MPs have long argued that Poland and Hungary should face budget cuts for eroding the basic tenets of democracy. , including a justice system free from political interference and rigorous checks against democracy.

Over the past weeks, experts say, the problems facing Polish judges have become deeper and deeper – in a alphabet This week, Polish civil society groups pointed out that since the beginning of the fight, a judge has been suspended for applying EU law and scores of new judges have been appointed despite concerns. about the independence of the body that nominates them.

And, civil rights groups added, Poland’s proposals to address the EU’s continued concerns about how Poland disciplines its judges will only lead to aesthetic changes, not really restoration. judicial independence.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, civil rights groups and opposition politicians argue that the ruling party has enjoyed an uneven playing field ahead of the April 3 general election, using state resources. and government-controlled media to promote Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s election campaign.

The Russian invasion “will certainly get attention,” said German Green MEP Daniel Freund.

Economic concerns and the Continent’s biggest refugee crisis since World War Two have taken over the agenda, engulfing almost everything else. There are also complicated views about the EU withholding more money from Poland and Hungary as it takes in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

However, Freund said it would damage the EU’s image if the bloc halted the rule of law dispute while war broke out.

“In Ukraine, people are fighting and dying for democracy, the rule of law and the chance to one day join the EU – and we want them to know that really this is about the rule of law, we don’t care. so much? ” he say. “That seems to be exactly the wrong message to send, including to our Ukrainian neighbors.”

Long game

Officials upholding the rule of law were not shelved.

A Commission official said the war “would not play a significant role” in whether the EU would cut funding for any country. The official added that jurisdiction is considered “an age-old procedure”.

“Von der Leyen has had other issues to deal with over the past two weeks,” the official said. “I can say that conditions are still very much on the table.”

A spokesman for the Commission echoed this sentiment.

“The committee is continuing its assessment,” a spokesperson said. “What’s important here is quality over speed in particular because we can reasonably expect any step we take to be challenged in court.”

There are also differences in how Berlaymont approaches Warsaw and Budapest. For example, it has taken a more optimistic approach to negotiations with the Polish government.

For Poland, the commission’s first senior official said, there is “positive momentum” towards “effective milestones” to address the bloc’s concerns about the disciplinary system for judges and bring in coming up with a pandemic recovery plan that EU officials are pleased with will ensure funds are granted. aside. Politicians from Poland’s ruling Justice and Law party are also increasing pressure on the EU to release the funds.

In contrast, with Hungary, the Commission is studying its announcement to activate the funding reduction mechanism, according to the official.

“I believe it is too late now to still send it before the election as it could work in Orbán’s favor. But we will be getting ready for the election after the election, which is not a bad thing,” the official said. “In my view, issues of the rule of law are out of the question, while we all acknowledge that EU unity is now key in regards to the war with Putin.”

Among the diplomats working on the Council of the EU side, which will have to approve any regulatory funding cuts, some have a similar view.

An EU diplomat said the war in Ukraine and the war on the rule of law were “two separate issues”.

To put it bluntly, the work on unlocking the pandemic recovery fund for Budapest and Warsaw will be “inactive” until Warsaw and Budapest first implement policy changes, diplomat said.

“I don’t think it will move before they move,” the diplomat added.

But the diplomat acknowledged that “other considerations may play some role” in the EU’s larger decision on whether to withhold regular budget funds, such as the possibility that Hungary could block future Russian sanctions in retaliation.

Legally, however, the diplomat argues that the Commission is required to activate its budget-cutting agency if it determines the EU’s finances are at risk.

“It is the Commission’s duty to protect the EU’s budget,” the diplomat said. “If they have enough evidence EU money has been misused, they have to eventually move it out.”

Zosia Wanat contributed reporting. War in Ukraine covers EU's rule of law battle at home - POLITICO

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