Recent developments in the Article 7 proceedings against Hungary and Poland
On 5 May 2022, the European Parliament called for the Council and the Commission to take more action to address the deterioration of EU values in Hungary and Poland in a resolution adopted with 426 votes to 133 and 37 abstentions.
In the ongoing Article 7 procedures, the French Presidency of the Council organised one hearing with the Polish government in February, while another with Hungarian authorities will take place in June. In the case of Poland, the procedure was originally initiated in December 2017 by the European Commission with the Parliament formally backing this move in a resolution adopted in March 2018, while in the case of Hungary, the procedure was triggered by the Parliament in September 2018. Despite the deteriorating situation in both countries in recent years, member states have thus far avoided voting to determine whether there is “a clear risk of a serious breach” of the EU’s common values.
In the resolution of 5 May, Members of the Parliament (MEPs) welcome that the Presidency of the Council resumed conducting hearings under Article 7(1) of the Treaty but express regret over the fact that the hearings have not yet led to an improvement in the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights in Poland and Hungary, and that the situation in both countries has continued to deteriorate since the procedure under Article 7(1) TEU was triggered, as documented in numerous reports and statements by the Commission and international bodies, such as the UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe, and as confirmed by numerous rulings by the Court of Justice of the EU and the European Court of Human Rights.
The resolution urges the Council to show “genuine commitment” and make “meaningful progress” to protect European values. The resolution insists that Hungary and Poland’s failure to implement the numerous judgements made by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights is unacceptable and something that the Council should take into account when assessing “a clear risk of a serious breach of the values set out in Article 2 TEU”.
The text calls for the hearings to be conducted with a more consistent, transparent and firm approach. The hearings should be organised in a regular, structured and open manner and must entail concrete follow-up, swift adoption of recommendations, with clear deadlines, to the member states in question. It emphasises that “unanimity is not required in the Council to identify a clear risk of a serious breach of Union values”.
MEPs once again demand that the Council keep the Parliament promptly and fully informed at every stage, which has not been the case so far. There is an imminent need for a comprehensive EU mechanism for EU values, they reiterate, condemning the refusal of the other institutions to enter into negotiations with the Parliament to devise such a tool.
The Commission must also do better, according to the Parliament, which notes that it started a formal procedure against Hungary under the Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation in April, but not for Poland. In the case of Hungary, MEPs expect Commission to continue to make steps forward as soon as possible and expect the Council to bring the procedure against Hungary to a successful conclusion without delay and as a matter of priority. In the case of Poland, MEPs implore the Commission to depart from its narrow interpretation of the Conditionality Regulation which effectively excludes “a serious risk affecting the financial management of the Union and its financial interests” as a condition under which the conditionality mechanism should be activated when assessing breaches of the principles of the rule of law in a Member State, even though the Regulation clearly establishes that endangering the independence of the judiciary constitutes a breach of the principles of the rule of law.
Further, MEPs call on both institutions to refrain from approving Hungary and Poland’s national plans under the Recovery and Resilience Facility. This should only happen when both countries comply fully with all European Semester recommendations in the field of rule of law, and only after they implement all relevant judgements of the Court of Justice of the EU and the European Court of Human Rights. The Commission should also use all tools at its disposal to ensure that the citizens and residents of the Member States concerned are not deprived of the benefits of EU funds due to their governments’ violation of the rule of law.
In the case of Hungary, the first response to the reopening of the Article 7 procedure comes from justice minister Judit Varga, who, following a meeting of EU affairs ministers in Brussels on 23 May, reiterated that Budapest is standing firm and does not intend to take any steps to please Brussels.
“The most important message is that on April 3 Hungarians have decided," Varga said. "People are also following European events, and their response to the Article 7 procedure is that they support the Hungarian government's policy on Europe and on all other issues related to the rule of law. They know that what the Hungarian national conservative government is doing, is good for the Hungarian people. And a mandate of more than three million voters overwrites everything and gives the right answers to everything."
This position is not without risks, however, given that Brussels has recently approved the so-called budget conditionality mechanism, which means that beyond the vague threat of suspension of voting rights, Hungary could soon find itself facing the very real consequence of losing access to EU funds if it fails to demonstrate a commitment to fight corruption.