European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 28, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

It’s not every day the European Commission proposes something truly ground-breaking.

But yesterday, when the EU announced a new plan to link EU funds given to member states to the health of their judiciary, it did just that. The plan calls for states receiving funds to uphold judicial independence, functioning courts, and the rule of law.

Historically, richer EU countries have transferred money to poorer ones through cohesion funds. Hungary is one of the largest net per capita recipients of EU funding, and Poland is the largest overall net recipient. But their governments have recently weakened democratic checks and balances, undermined judicial independence, and sought to curb civil society groups and independent media – all moves that are hostile to EU values.

If agreed to, this measure could be a new tool to hold governments like those currently in power in Hungary and Poland to account.

It would allow the EU to “suspend, reduce or restrict access to EU funding” to a member state over rule of law failings. The logic is that an independent judiciary that protects the rule of law is a necessary condition to ensure EU taxpayers’ money is used responsibly.

The measure would take effect during the 2021-27 budget cycle. A decision to suspend or cut funds would be proposed by the Commission and could only be blocked if a majority of member states agreed.

The rule, applicable to all member states, should not just be tied to functioning courts, but also to democratic checks-and-balances, and a free media and civil society that can investigate public policies and funding. The EU should also make sure withholding funding doesn’t harm the economic and social rights of people living in those countries.

Poland’s government has been criticized for pushing through as many as 13 laws that weaken its judiciary. And in addition to Hungary’s weakening of its constitution and crackdown on free media, the European Union’s anti-corruption agency is investigating the fraudulent use of EU funds there.

The EU is already moving down a path that could potentially strip Poland of EU voting rights, and the European Parliament has recommended the same for Hungary.

Getting agreement on this new rule of law measure is tied up with wider budget negotiations, so it will not be easy. But if it goes ahead, it could be a game-changer for defending rule of law and human rights in the EU.