At first glance, it might look like European Union member states allowed themselves to be bullied into dropping the requirement that EU monies be tied to respect for the rule of law in the seven-year budget and emergency recovery package agreed on July 21. The agreement contains vaguer language than earlier drafts, and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is crowing victory.
But the EU budget deal says two crucial things on the rule of law.
First, money flowing from the EU budget should be used in line with the common values on which the EU is founded. Those include democracy, respect for the rule of law, and human rights, as well as nondiscrimination and tolerance. Hungary and Poland have failed miserably in each of those areas – that’s why both countries face possible sanctions under article 7 proceedings for breaching those core EU values.
Second, the “European Council will revert rapidly to the matter.” This means EU leaders still have a chance to translate the European Commission’s vision for a robust rule of law mechanism into action, and the next few months will be crucial. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, whose government holds the bloc’s rotating presidency until the end of the year, should make this a key objective.
Abandoning the idea to tie access to EU money to respect for the rule of law would be bad news for people living in increasingly authoritarian member states. In Hungary, Orban and his enablers have spent the past 10 years successfully demolishing the rule of law – compromising courts, attacking civil society, academic institutions, and independent media, fanning xenophobia, restricting rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and downplaying women’s rights. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party has undermined the judiciary, targeted LGBT people with smear campaigns, and attacked independent media.
An effective mechanism to review access to EU funding with the possibility of cutting, reducing, or diverting it – if there is a risk funds would be used for purposes other than intended due to democratic deficits – is needed more than ever.
Don’t believe Orban’s hype, and don’t let him off the hook.