EU threatens to sue itself for going soft on strongmen leaders

Viktor Orban has been at loggerheads with Brussels over the rule of law - Rex
Viktor Orban has been at loggerheads with Brussels over the rule of law - Rex

The EU effectively threatened to sue itself on Thursday as MEPs said they would take the European Commission to court unless it takes punitive action against the bloc’s authoritarian leaders.

The European Parliament attacked the commission for not triggering new clauses that tie huge amounts of EU cash to respect for the rule of law.

It passed a resolution, aimed at the illiberal governments of EU members Poland and Hungary, with a large majority of 506 with 150 against and 28 abstentions.

It is the first step towards taking the EU executive to the European Court of Justice in what would be just the third time and exposed deep divisions in the bloc over how to handle the autocratic strongmen.

“Playtime is over. We expect you to apply the rule of law conditionality without delay, or see you in court,” said Sophie in t’ Veldt, a Dutch liberal MEP.

“We, as the Parliament, will not allow the Commission to sit idly by as far-right populist governments rip apart the rule of law in Europe," said Terry Reintke, a German Green.

MEPs believe Brussels is going soft on countries such as Hungary and Poland, which are criticised over issues such as gay rights, media freedom and the independence of the judiciary.

The rule of law clauses were agreed by EU leaders after marathon discussions over the seven year €1.1 trillion EU Budget that was bolstered to help the bloc’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. It entered into force on January 1.

European Parliament sources accused Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, of watering down the clauses in order to get Polish and Hungarian backing for the stimulus package. Mr Orban had blocked the deal but eventually agreed to it.

The European Anti-Fraud Office has accused Mr Orban’s son-in-law, Istvan Tiborcz, of embezzling €40 million in EU funds. Mr Orban pulled his Fidesz party out of the centre-Right European Parliament group before it could be expelled over concern for his respect for democracy.

MEPs also backed by 506 votes a resolution calling on the commission to act over Czech premier Andrej Babis's alleged conflict of interest over EU farm subsidies.

The billionaire populist is accused of being the beneficial owner of the Agrofert food, chemicals and media holding - a company that receives farm subsidies from the EU budget.

A Commission report published in April said those payments should not have been made when Mr Babis, as an EU leader, was one of those responsible for negotiating and approving the budget.

Mr Babis said the resolution was nothing more than a political stunt.

“This is the continuation of the European Parliament's interference in the internal affairs of the Czech Republic. We are a sovereign country and a political struggle is going on here," he said, according to the CTK news agency.

"The elections are approaching and the European Parliament is attempting to influence them. This initiative naturally comes from the Czech opposition, which is organising this," he added.

Monika Hohlmeier, the centre-Right MEP leading the resolution, said, “We expect the Commission to take clear action... and to prevent future Czech ministers or prime ministers from influencing the allocation of EU funds in favour of companies belonging to their family members or to themselves."

Before the Commission can be taken to court, there will need to be three further votes in parliament committees.

A commission spokesman said, “The Commission is of course fully committed to enforcing the Regulation and is already monitoring possible breaches of the rule of law principles that would be relevant under the Regulation. In parallel, we are also preparing guidelines to ensure that this mechanism is applied in fair and objective way.

“Any breach occurring after 1 January 2021 will be covered. No case will be lost,” he said.