The core values of the European Union are currently the focus of fierce debate. Nationalist governments in Poland and Hungry, for instance, have been criticized of late for what the European Commission - and many members of the European Parliament - considers as attacks on the rule of law. What impact is this seismic political shift having on the direction of the EU and what does the future have in stall for its member states if nothing is done to correct its current course? Euronews put these very questions to one of the EU’s most vocal champions, Guy Verhofstadt.
Euronews: Do you think Hungary and Poland respect the European Union's values?
Guy Verhofstadt: The nationalist governments in Budapest and Warsaw have been playing with fire for the last couple of years. These countries were prisoners of history for much of the 20th century, living under dictatorial regimes, losing out on economic opportunities and depriving their citizens of fundamental rights for four long decades until the fall of the Iron Curtain. Having embraced the idea of a reunited Europe, and with a strong desire to live in freedom and in respect of each other - after a relatively quick transition period - they became members of the EU 15 years ago. It is painful to see that those very politicians who had been fighting for these freedoms have now decided to take a 180-degree turn to best serve their political and personal agenda. When we are talking about breaching fundamental EU values, we do so because of very concrete facts: judiciary and public service media put under political control, the space for civil society narrowed down. These steps have the potential to fundamentally change Polish and Hungarian society, and lead to authoritarianism and intolerance. We must not let that happen in Europe again.
Euronews: On 21 November, the Law and Justice party (PiS) proposed a legislative amendment backtracking on Supreme Court reforms. Are you satisfied with Poland’s reaction to the CJEU’s order to suspend changes to the country’s highest court?
Guy Verhofstadt: I am satisfied with this preliminary outcome, to the extent that ignoring the CJEU's decision would have been a de facto breach of the Treaties - and the Polish government was wise enough not to go down that path. But let's be frank, the political pressure PiS developed on the judiciary goes sadly far beyond the Supreme Court legislation. They also paralysed the Constitutional Court and adopted legislation opening the door for political pressure on the common courts. All these issues are raised in the Commission proposal for activation of Article 7 of the EU Treaties, and all will have to be addressed to remove any doubts regarding the independence of the Polish judiciary. The Polish Constitutional Court must again be in the position to fully guarantee the compliance of law with the Polish Constitution and the EU Treaties.
Euronews: Can compliance with EU values be the subject of a compromise? In other words, can a member state choose to comply with some European values while rejecting others?
Guy Verhofstadt: Compromising on EU values would mean selling out on our integrity: these values were not up for negotiation when Poland, Hungary and others joined the EU and they are not up for discussion today either. They have been a pivotal part of the acquis, and just as it is proposed now to candidate countries on a take it or leave it basis, it was a sine qua non of membership approval in 2004, too. The recent discussions brought about by Brexit regarding the benefits and obligations of belonging to the EU showed it clearly: Europe à la carte is not on the menu, and values and fundamental rights are also part of the very same package. No member state will be allowed to start cherry picking, whether they are economically or ideologically motivated. Moreover, how could we credibly promote fundamental rights abroad if we do not enforce them within the EU itself?
Euronews: How can the enforcement of the rule of law be reconciled with the sovereignty of each member state?
Guy Verhofstadt: It is only in the playbook of nationalists and populists to portray this debate as an attack on the nation state's sovereignty. When we see that some governments are doing everything to remove all checks on their power, when the last bastions of a country's independent media are bought up and silenced, when space for civil society activities is alarmingly shrinking, when obscene amounts of EU cohesion funds are ending up in the hands of dubious oligarchs, then how on earth are we not going to say that things must stop? To simply retort with the pretence of sovereignty is standing on very flimsy ground; everyone can see. Besides, these are not theoretical discussions, member states are legally bound by the Treaties and by the judicial oversight of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). No one is here to question the legitimacy of member states' governments, but these governments must also recognise that there are limits to their powers.
Euronews: What means should (or could) the next President of the European Commission use to convince countries like Hungary and Poland to fully comply with the EU's values and the rule of law?
Guy Verhofstadt: As I said, the ultimate power lays with the ECJ, but we have to create new means to respond faster when things go wrong. My political group in the European Parliament has been strongly advocating a comprehensive and evidence-based approach. We already came forward with the proposal of a so-called Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Pact two years ago but the Commission and the Council have been persistently obstructing the set-up of an EU-wide mechanism.
Sooner rather than later - and in any case the very latest before the next round of accessions we need to get this done - the EU must be able to prevent and correct breaches of Union values. We should create the powers to apply sanctions if necessary - including financial sanctions - that can act as effective deterrence.
Guy Verhofstadt is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group, Brexit Co-ordinator for the European Parliament and a Member of the European Parliament for Belgium.
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