“Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.” The words of Robert Louis Stevenson. That that banquet should also include just desserts seems a given. And when it comes to certain plans on EU funding, the Polish Prime Minister’s office is hinting at feelings of indigestion.
On Friday, Michał Dworczyk, the head of the Prime Minister’s office, criticised what he called a “political initiative”, namely the plans to link payments under the European Union budget to the observance of the rule of law in member states. On the day following the approval of those plans by the EU parliament, Dworczyk said in an interview with public broadcaster Polish Radio that one of the politicians behind this plan was Frans Timmermans, the European Commission Vice-President, “who has ambitions to become the head of the European Commission in the next term.”
MEPs voted 397 to 158 for a draft law which would freeze EU funds if a government were found to be eroding democratic values. “Respecting the rule of law is a fundamental prerequisite for democracy, stability, prosperity and mutual trust,” said Petri Sarvamaa, a Finnish centre-right MEP, who co-authored the parliament’s proposals. “Without the rule of law, the European Union loses its credibility in the eyes of the citizens and in the eyes of the world.”
According to these proposals, member states would lose EU funds for “generalised deficiencies in the rule of law”, such as failure to investigate fraud, the absence of independent courts, or failure to cooperate with EU anti-fraud inspectors. The plans would give the EU, aided by independent experts, the power to judge whether a government was breaching the rule of law. The EU parliament and EU governments would have four weeks to stop funds from being frozen. The changes were opposed by MEPs from Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), although MEPs from the opposition Civic Platform (PO) voted in favour.
Establishing a link between the dispensing of EU funds and the rule of law could have a large impact on some national budgets, especially in central and eastern Europe, where such funding has supported extensive infrastructure spending. For example, cohesion policy funding makes up 61.17 per cent of all Polish public investment, one of the highest rates in the EU.
The final result of these plans will not be known for months since the proposal is linked to agreement on the EU budget for 2021-2028 which will not be agreed until after this year’s European parliamentary elections. Even without these proposals the budget debate is already more complicated given Brexit and the end of the United Kingdom’s net annul contribution of some €11 billion.
This draft law is the latest attempt by the EU to deal with countries which it sees as flouting the rule of law. Last December the EU commission began action against Poland under article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, but this procedure is seen as slow and cumbersome and some governments, including the UK, are reluctant to condemn fellow member states. The Hungarian prime minister has said Hungary would veto any action against Poland.
For its part, the Polish government has consistently argued that the changes it has instigated to the Polish judiciary are not an attack on the rule of law but rather a needed reform of Poland’s inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system which remains tainted in parts by the communist past. This argument is not accepted by opponents who have accused PiS of aiming to stack the courts with its own supporters and to dismantle the rule of law.
Be that as it may, despite opposition from member states in central and eastern Europe, the EU’s larger budget contributors, notably Germany, France and the Netherlands, wish to see tougher action against those they see as happily accepting EU funds while flouting those values that are the foundation of the EU.
He who pays the piper may well call the tune, but it is not difficult to understand, political differences aside, the sense of frustration that the EU seems always ready to accommodate France and Germany while not always understanding the particular problems faced by some newer and smaller member states.