"Under no circumstances" would Hungary agree to tie EU funds to rule of law criteria


26 out of the 28 EU member states in the EU's General Affairs Council supported or did not object to a conclusion evaluating the annual rule of law dialogue, but Hungary and Poland blocked the text that would have called for a more structured, result-oriented procedure that ensures proper follow-up and continuity. Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga says the EU Commission should stay out of rule of law matters, and that Hungary would not agree to tying EU funds to rule of law criteria under any circumstances.

The European Council's General Affairs Council met on Tuesday, and one of the items on the agenda was this year's annual rule of law dialogue, a framework established in 2014 to strengthen the respect for rule of law in member states. This mechanism involves all member states in a discussion centred each year on different themes concerning the rule of law. At Tuesday's meeting, the Council evaluated the past five years of this mechanism itself. 

The proposed conclusion (that was ultimately released as a separate statement by the Finnish presidency) would have called for making this mechanism "stronger, more result-oriented and better structured" and for preparations for this dialogue to be more systematic and the process to include proper follow-up. To achieve this, the text proposed the Council to undertake a "yearly stocktaking exercise" on the key developments of the rule of law situation of each member state. This stocktaking would have been aided by the report of the European Commission's annual Rule of Law Review Cycle which should be prepared in due time before the dialogue takes place, so member states have time to reflect on the report's findings.

After blocking the text, Hungarian Minister of Justice Judit Varga told Hungarian journalists outside the meeting room that 

the Hungarian and Polish delegations preventing the adoption of a joint statement should not be regarded as blocking it,

as both countries have submitted their suggestions which have been omitted from the draft statement.

The Minister also said that any such examination should be free of discrimination and should avoid unnecessary duplications, however, that is currently not guaranteed. Varga added that there are enough rule of law mechanisms as it is, and all other initiatives are futile, and the Hungarian government does not want the council to operate a new mechanism "from behind the skirt of the Commission." 

Earlier on Tuesday, Varga had elaborated her views on rule of law and its connection to EU funds in an op-ed piece published by Euronews, in which she explains that rule of law is not a set of universally applicable objective criteria, and it is "no longer a constitutional principle," as it is increasingly being used as a political weapon. Varga claims that the Commission's rule of law review "runs completely contrary" to the treaties, as they specifically say that the EU has to respect the "national identities of their member states inherent in their constitutional structures," adding:

"This enthusiasm in the EU for imposing rule of law criteria looks like Brussels asserting control in areas where it has no competence."

But the main goal of the General Affairs Council's meeting on Tuesday was to prepare for the EU summit to be held in December, where the two main topics will be achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050 and the 2021-2027 EU budget plan, but Hungary could also veto that:

Varga said that Hungary would not agree to tie EU funds to rule of law criteria under any circumstances.

The Minister explained that rule of law is a hazy term, adding that it's not the goal the Hungarian government objects to, but the method, as there are already mechanisms in place to protect the financial interests of the European Union. She stated:

"Hungary is just as committed to the rule of law as any other European member state."

(Cover: Judit Varga on 29 September 2019. Photo: István Huszti / Index)

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