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Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, speaks with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a round table meeting at an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, December 10, 2020.  © 2020 Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP

It smacks of irony that on Human Rights Day, the European Union caved into pressure and granted another concession to Hungary and Poland’s rights-abusing leaders in order to reach a deal on the EU budget. Germany, in one of its last acts as rotating EU president, brokered the compromise with an “interpretative declaration” that ties the European Commission’s hands when it comes to conditioning EU funding upon respect for the rule of law.

The declaration, agreed last night, will likely have the effect of delaying for months, even years, the use of this innovative and once-promising tool. It commits the Commission to draft additional guidelines before applying the conditionality regulation, but then also says that the Commission should wait for a ruling of the EU Court of Justice before finalizing such guidelines, if Hungary or Poland decides to contest the legality of the regulation.

While the new concession won’t be a long-term victory for Hungary and Poland’s leadership, it offers them a chance to buy considerable time and consolidate their autocratic power with little consequences for years.

At the very least, the European Council should insist that any case before the EU Court be expedited to minimize delays in the effective use of rule of law conditionality. The European Commission should also make it clear that it could apply the conditionality regulation right from its entry into force – because the declaration is a non-legally-binding mechanism.

Although the German government had put the protection of fundamental values and rights in its top priorities for its presidency, it failed to propel forward the Council’s scrutiny of Hungary and Poland under Article 7 – the EU’s process to deal with governments putting the Union's values at risk – and even declined recently to participate in a European Parliament debate on the rule of law in both countries. It is disappointing that Germany’s time in the EU rotating presidency ended with yet another concession to the bloc’s authoritarian-minded rulers.

The last weeks have shown that leaders who violate human rights have no shame in bullying and blackmailing the whole EU to shield themselves from any consequences for their actions. Now that the budget saga is over, EU leaders should urgently give Hungarian and Polish citizens fighting for their rights the attention they deserve, give full way to the new conditionality mechanism, and revive their scrutiny under Article 7.

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