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17 Feb, 2022 10:06

The EU’s bullying of its most problematic members shows its disregard for democracy

A court decision that could deprive Hungary and Poland of access to EU Covid funds sets a very dangerous precedent
The EU’s bullying of its most problematic members shows its disregard for democracy

Poland and Hungary are now well and truly at the mercy of the unelected Eurocrats. Both are accused of flouting European Union law, and on Wednesday, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rejected their legal challenge against the mechanism that allows Brussels to withhold funds from member states.

Poland is alleged to be breaking the EU’s rule-of-law because of the lack of independence of its judiciary, and Hungary is claimed to be in breach on the grounds of corruption. The ECJ judgement stated that “the Court dismisses the actions brought by Hungary and Poland in their entirety,” and when it comes to democratic principles “the European Union must be able to defend those values, within the limits of its powers.” As a result, billions of euros of Covid recovery funds can now be withheld from Warsaw and Budapest.

This landmark judgement, however, could have more profound consequences than merely the withholding of these funds. The decision sets a very dangerous precedent, because now the Brussels bureaucracy has the ability to withhold money from member states that it decides are not following the rules.

It is generally recognised that the EU has always been intent on centralising power by siphoning it away from member states. But this is usually done incrementally, and often behind closed doors. Not this time, however, as this ruling represents an important change in the balance of power between Brussels and the EU’s member states.

The ECJ judgement makes clear who the bosses really are, and it is not the democratically elected leaders; instead, it is bureaucrats who are answerable to no one. The decision therefore raises questions about democracy and accountability. In effect, unelected Brussels officials will now have the ability to judge the actions of democratically elected governments, and then withhold monies as they see fit. It is an extremely dangerous development and flies directly in the face of the EU’s claims to be democratic.   

Indeed, even this week MEPs have been waxing lyrical about how they are determined to stand up for democracy in Ukraine. Yet I find it somewhat hypocritical that although they are prepared to protect the so-called democracy of a non-member state, they cheer when democracy is subverted within the EU. The obvious irony is lost on these MEPs, as they are blinded by their hatred for the Eurosceptic governments in Warsaw and Budapest.   

Unsurprisingly, off the back of the ECJ judgement, the MEPs are now demanding swift action be taken by the European Commission. German Green MEP Daniel Freund tweeted, “It’s time to finally act against the rule-of-law violators in our union.” Similarly, another German MEP, Moritz Körner of the Free Democrats, said, “The EU Commission must now fulfil its legal duty and initiate the rule of law mechanism. There must be no more rebates on the rule of law in the EU.”

The attitude of the MEPs should come as no surprise, as the European Parliament has been urging the European Commission to penalise Poland and Hungary for some time. Indeed, in October, the European Parliament launched legal proceedings against the Commission for its reticence to act. However, while the MEPs may well gloat, they should be aware that although this time it is Poland and Hungary on the receiving end of EU bullying, next time it could be their own countries.

More importantly, how have Poland and Hungary reacted to the judgement? The simple answer is, not by lying down. The Poles have already indicated that they will refuse to acknowledge the decision, and Polish Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Kowalski said, “This is the end of the EU as we know it. We must defend Polish sovereignty.”

The Hungarians, too, have denounced the ruling as a “political judgement.” Moreover, last weekend Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced, “For them [the EU], the rule of law is a tool with which they can mould us in their image… they are now fighting a holy war: a rule-of-law jihad.” This was perceived in some quarters as Hungary’s first step out of the bloc, although this was swiftly denied by Orban’s government.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that relations between the troublesome twosome and Brussels have hit rock bottom. The Poles and Hungarians will not only appeal the decision, but will look to expand the debate about the legitimacy of the ECJ to make such a judgement. This has the potential of bringing the whole EU legal order into question, so the stakes will be higher than ever. 

Eurocrats and federalist MEPs may well be rejoicing at the moment, but they might not have the last laugh. When the EU reveals its dictatorial and undemocratic tendencies, it often backfires. One only has to think about when it failed to force through the EU Constitution as a prime example, or indeed Brexit. This latest judgement could represent another one of those moments when it oversteps the mark and experiences a democratic kick in the teeth, which will probably come first in April’s Hungarian general election.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.