The main decisions of the European Court on the possibility for the EU to freeze aid to Poland and Hungary

BRUSSELS — Europe’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that the European Union may withhold funding from member countries failing to upho...


BRUSSELS — Europe’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that the European Union may withhold funding from member countries failing to uphold the rule of law, arming the bloc to step up its efforts to defend its core values.

The decision knocks down a lawsuit brought by Hungary and Poland, the two countries most directly and immediately affected, whose governments are increasingly at odds with the European Union, and opens a new chapter in the dispute that could see countries lose tens of billions of euros in aid.

The judgment of the European Court of Justice, which is final, provides ample legal and political cover for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, to show force and deny vital aid to the two countries for this which she has long considered a pernicious and deliberate act. illiberal drift from EU standards.

The timing of the decision makes the court’s decision politically explosive. National elections in Hungary are only weeks away and the European Union is trying to close ranks in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine, a major threat of war on its eastern borders, although any real reduction in funding could be in months.

The court had been called upon to decide whether a European Commission mechanism that would link the disbursement of funds from its budget to the condition that a recipient member state meet standards such as judicial independence and transparency in the expenditure of funds, had a solid legal basis. The decision cannot be appealed, but Member States will be able to appeal a possible decision to withhold funds, when and if it happens.

For Poland, the biggest recipient of EU money, and Hungary, where the population is overwhelmingly pro-European Union, the decision bites real and symbolic.

“The power of the EU is where the money is. And attaching some rule of law conditionality to EU funds is a very concrete way to ensure that the EU does not send money to countries that actively promote rule of law violations. and destroy democracy, because otherwise the EU also supports these types of policies,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center.

In the 2014-2020 EU budget, Poland received more funds than any of the 28 member states (Britain left the EU in 2020 and the bloc now has 27 members), with 104 billion euros – or $118 billion – in total aid. Hungary, a much smaller country, got 40 billion euros, or $45 billion. Both would be eligible for even larger amounts in the five-year budget that ends in 2027.

Separately, the commission froze the two countries’ access to a special EU post-Covid recovery plan due to concerns about corruption and the independence of the judiciary.

The use of the mechanism is the latest in a series of legal and political battles over what EU officials see as a deliberate attempt by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government to capture the state apparatus. and funding for the benefit of itself and its allies. Poland’s case is quite different, but it also clashes with the EU over the government’s moves to control the judiciary and dismantle its independent function.

Wednesday’s decision introduces real risks for Mr. Orban at a precarious time. He faces his toughest challenge of a six-party coalition in Hungary’s national elections on April 3, and Hungary’s ability to tap into EU funding has significant implications for the country’s economic prospects.

Losing EU money is a very sensitive subject for Mr Orban, whose management of Hungary since 2010 has led to a dramatic qualitative drop in ratings of Hungarian democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press and corruption.

“They are waging a holy war, a rule of law jihad,” he said in an address to the nation on Saturday. “And words, my friends, rarely help in the face of jihad. You have to be strong! Let the Reconquista begin!

Since joining the EU in 2004, Hungary has benefited from generous subsidies to help its economy close the gap with its wealthier western neighbours. But critics have long argued that since Mr Orban returned to power in 2010, those funds have been used to support his quest to transform Hungary into what he proudly called an “illiberal state”.

While Hungary’s prime minister has used a vast propaganda machine to shield Hungarians from the nuances of his conflicts with the EU, the strategy highlights a particular domestic constraint. “The Hungarian electorate is extremely supportive of EU membership,” said Balint Ruff, a Hungarian political strategist. “It’s almost a historic record.”

Laurent Pech, professor of European law at the University of Middlesex in London, said: “There is a greater awareness of corruption on an industrial scale, and it has become much more costly for European actors to ‘Ignoring Corruption in Hungary’.

“It would be easier for the commission to start with Hungary,” he added, calling it a “clearer case”.

Poland, which wants European support as the risk of Russian aggression increases, is less clear-cut, experts note, and the Ukraine crisis could dampen the decision.

“The Ukrainian crisis is already distracting from that, and there will be very strong pressure to stay united if the situation with Ukraine gets worse,” said Daniel Freund, a German member of the European Parliament with the Greens.

Mr Freund said he was also concerned that the commission was trying to find ways to soften the impact of the decision, to protect itself from accusations of political interference in the Hungarian elections.

Any real impact on funding based on that decision would be months later, he said, so it was imperative the commission take the first step to trigger the process as soon as possible after the court’s decision.

“If I have to make a bet now, I’m afraid not much will happen before the Hungarian election,” he said, which Mr. Orban always wanted, “so that he can to be re-elected without anyone saying so”. something bad.

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Newsrust - US Top News: The main decisions of the European Court on the possibility for the EU to freeze aid to Poland and Hungary
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