Rule of law: The suspension of cohesion funds from Hungary poses a dilemma for EU countries

Rule of law: The suspension of cohesion funds from Hungary poses a dilemma for EU countries

On the eve of a vote that could result in the suspension of around a third of Hungary’s cohesion funds, some EU countries are clinging to pragmatic realities. On the other hand, other Member States are unlikely to support this measure once they find a valid reason not to do so, risking the rule of law defenders being held accountable.

Amid concerns over Hungary’s autocratic drift led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the European Commission in April triggered its conditionality mechanism, which allows the EU to suspend payments to member states in the event of right-wing violations.

On September 15, the European Parliament called Hungary a “Hybrid regime of electoral autocracy”.

Three days later, the Commission proposed suspending a third of Hungary’s cohesion fund allocation – the equivalent of €7.5 billion – if its reform efforts remain insufficient over the next two months. The EU members are expected to vote on the proposal in the Council in mid-December.

If the Council decides to vote against the suspension of Hungarian funds, this will be demonstrated “that there is no remedy for a Member State’s illiberal drift, even where democracy is a condition of membership of the Union”, said Susanna Maria Cafaro, professor of EU law at the Università del Salento. She added that no certain predictions can be made about the outcome of the vote at this time.

The Netherlands, Sweden and Finland, who are generally among the strongest supporters of the rule of law in the European Union, have been relatively quiet on the proposals but signaled satisfaction that progress is finally being made.

“Right now we can generally say that we welcome the proposal”commented on the position of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

For Sweden yes “Too early to tell, we are studying the details of the proposal”a permanent representative told EURACTIV.


But experts warn that dogged defense of the rule of law could fall victim to pragmatism.

Finland aspires to membership “solution-oriented”Tuomas Iso-Markku, researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs, told EURACTIV. “It is possible that Finland’s defense of the rule of law and its desire for pragmatic solutions will eventually conflict, forcing Finland to make difficult decisions”he explained.

At the same time, other populous countries like Spain are likely to be thoroughly pragmatic. “Spain played and still plays the most pragmatic card and did not want to adopt an apparent position either towards Hungary and Poland or through a rapprochement with the Netherlands.”said in an interview Daniel Sarmiento, expert in European law and law professor at the Complutense University of Madrid.

The Spanish hesitation

Spain’s position could possibly be dictated by its desire to keep domestic politics, such as the crisis in Catalonia, more of an internal issue than an international one.

Catalonia is reportedly urging the Spanish government to reach a new agreement on holding a binding referendum on the region’s potential independence. Such a referendum would be recognized by both Spain and the international community, the separatist leader said in reports on Tuesday (September 27). Reuters.

All rule of law issues and the EU’s desire to ensure that all member states abide by the rules have always made Spain “very anxious because she is aware of the ability of social movements (to create disorder)”said Mr. Sarmiento.

He believes this has caused the various Spanish governments to adopt a suspicious and proactive attitude towards these issues, not because they have something to hide, but because “the risk of things getting tangled”.

Although Spain has pledged to resolve this conflict diplomatically, its official position is that it will not negotiate the issue of values. Mr. Sarmiento believes that this would nevertheless be inevitable because a “elective autocracy” “I would not negotiate with you about milk quotas, but about values. »

The proposal presents Member States with a complex problem linked to their respective national and diplomatic concerns.

“This attitude is not only found in Spain, but also in Germany, France and Italy, among others. This attitude represents an almost moral problem that the big EU states have to solve.”a conclusion M. Sarmiento.

The decision of the big countries will be key: the countries, representing 65% of the bloc’s total population, must support the proposal for it to succeed.

Spain (10.59%) and Italy (13.38%) alone account for 23.97% of the total EU population, around 10% less than a blocking minority.

Italian-Hungarian Relations

For Giorgia Meloni, the conservative candidate for prime minister in Italy, “A vote against Hungary after so many clear positions for Hungary would be too obvious a change of position”Mme Cafaro of the University of Salento to explain.

Nevertheless, «The meaning of Forza Italia [pour une coalition]which is part of the PPE Group [centre-droit]could prevent or mitigate an overly pro-Hungarian Italian position and perhaps encourage diplomatic abstention.”says the researcher.

The Commission recently approved the disbursement of the second tranche of EU recovery funds related to reform commitments to Italy, which Ms Cafaro said: “Sent a clear message of credit to the next government in a spirit of continuity in relations, despite campaign promises of renegotiation [des engagements de réforme] which – also legally – would have justified a suspension of the transfers. »

For the researcher, this gesture of goodwill by the Commission could provoke a positive reaction from the Italian government, “But it’s still too early to know. »

Eastern Europe is looking for excuses

Poland has long openly supported Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Warsaw “does not want to take any action against Hungary because it wants to receive similar support from Hungary for itself”Professor Artur Nowak told EURACTIV.

Other Eastern European countries – which tend to be wary of explicit criticism of Hungary – have not yet implemented the proposal.

Romania has not yet made a decision but hopes that reconciliation will take place without outside intervention.

“I continue to hope, and I said so in a recent public statement, that there are still lines of communication between Brussels and Budapest and that solutions to these problems can be found, otherwise the fronts will strengthen and the divisions will increase.”said President Klaus Iohannis in New York at the United Nations General Assembly.

Bulgaria has a similar position to Romania. The country “hopes for a positive result of the ongoing dialogue between the Commission and Hungary, the possibilities and stages of which have not yet been exhausted”the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry told EURACTIV Bulgaria.

[Federica Pascale, Bogdan Neagu, Krassen Nikolov et Bartosz Sieniawski ont contribué à cet article]


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