EU throws down gauntlet! Hungary and Polands bid to challenge bloc dismissed

Ursula von der Leyen 'concerned' over Polish court ruling

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A legal opinion released on Thursday said that the European Union’s top court should dismiss a challenge by Poland and Hungary to a new tool aimed at cutting cash payments to member states violating the bloc’s rules on democracy.

While the advocate general’s opinion is not binding, the Luxembourg-based ECJ usually follows it when making its final ruling, which is expected early next year.

Contrary to arguments presented by Warsaw and Budapest, the opinion said the new policing mechanism does not overstep competencies of the EU and its central institutions in Brussels as laid out in the bloc’s treaties.

A Polish deputy justice minister criticised the opinion.

Sebastian Kaleta said on Twitter: “It was a naivety to trust EU institutions would be capable of self-restraint.

“This is an assault on the rule of law.”

Hungary’s self-styled “illiberal” Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his allied eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party in Warsaw have battled liberal EU countries and the bloc’s executive in Brussels over the rights of women, LGBT people and migrants, as well as the freedom of media, courts and academia.

While rights activists have sounded the alarm over damaging the rule of law, Mr Orban and the PiS enjoy steady support on the back of broad public spending, nationalist rhetoric and conservative policies.

The EU has all but failed to force the two formerly communist member countries on its eastern flank to change tack, but last year agreed the new mechanism to withhold financing from the bloc’s shared budget to those violating joint laws, including on human and citizen rights.

The tool is yet to be used and the eventual ECJ ruling will determine if it has any more teeth than those democratic safeguards previously in place.

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Last month, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “no measures will be taken” against Poland until the ECJ rules on the latest case brought by Warsaw and Budapest against the Commission.

Speaking to reporters after a two-day Council summit, she said: “The European Court of Justice has to judge on a request from Hungary and Poland, whether this conditionality mechanism is legally sound.”

The bloc’s executive could trigger the policy if it has concerns over rule of law shortcomings that could affect the management of the EU budget, such as a lack of independence of national courts from their governments.

Since joining the EU in 2004, Poland has been a leading beneficiary of the bloc’s development funds, which are meant to help poorer member countries catch up with those better-off.

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As the country of 38 million people gets richer, it would become a net contributor rather than a beneficiary of EU funds.

An MP with a junior coalition party known for its hard-line rhetoric said last month that Poland could hold a referendum on leaving the EU in 2027 when the current long-term budget ends.

Poland’s premier dismissed any talk of a “Polexit”.

In an interview with the Financial Times in October, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the EU was putting a “gun to our head”.

He added: “What is going to happen if the European Commission will start the third world war?

“If they start the third world war, we are going to defend our rights with any weapons which are at our disposal.”

He added that the European Union has large competencies but these were not boundless and that the bloc could only function within those assigned competencies.

The comments came after Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that elements of EU law were incompatible with the country’s charter, challenging a central tenet of EU integration.

Speaking at the end of her last EU summit, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel said EU countries need to deepen talks about where the 27-nation bloc should be heading to mitigate and solve disputes such as the current row with Poland.

She told reporters: “There is the issue of the independence of justice, but also underlying (the question) … which way is the European Union heading, what should be a European competence and what should be tackled by nation-states.

“If you look at Polish history, it is very understandable that the question of defining their national identity plays a big role…, which is a different historical situation than the one countries find themselves in that have had democracy since World War 2.”

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