By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The EU commission has carefully avoided some controversial decisions in the run-up to this week’s European elections, in what could be seen as a way of avoiding interfering in the votes but which has also drawn criticism for inaction.
Europeans who go to the polls on May 23-26 to elect members of the European Parliament will likely do it without knowing what the EU executive has decided over long-standing cases of alleged abuses of EU funds by Eastern European leaders, over Western countries’ compliance with fiscal rules and a crucial reform of bank rescue rules.
EU officials say they are assessing the cases, but it takes time to reach a definitive decision.
“While I understand that the commission wants to avoid anything controversial right before the elections, this is not good public policy making,” German centre-right EU lawmaker Markus Ferber said.
ORBAN ON HOLD
The commission has been pondering for months over the possible recovery of EU funds after an investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office last year found serious irregularities and a conflict of interest in projects to modernise street lamps in Hungarian towns.
The projects, which the European Union co-funded with Hungary, were run from 2011 to 2015 by a company that Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s son-in-law Istvan Tiborcz was on the board of from 2009 to 2014. He sold his stake in the firm in 2015, company records showed.
Hungarian police closed their inquiry in November, saying they had uncovered no crime. Neither Orban nor Tiborcz has commented.
Orban’s Fidesz party is suspended from the centre-right grouping in the EU parliament over concerns Hungary has violated EU principles on the rule of law. If it quits the group altogether, it could strengthen eurosceptics with whom it has flirted for years.
The commission has refrained for months from deciding whether the billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis had a conflict of interest over EU funds worth millions of euros received by companies linked to him. Babis has denied any wrongdoing.
The commission’s legal services concluded in January that Babis, who also leads the Czech liberal ANO 2011 party, had a conflict of interest, but the political endorsement to that legal analysis is pending, an EU official said.
If wrongdoing is found, funds to the companies involved could be suspended.
The regular mid-May assessment of euro zone countries’ budgetary plans has this year been postponed to the first week of June, when the commission is expected to decide over the possible opening of a legal battle against Italy over its expanding debt.
The commission could also urge France to lower its deficit which is forecast to exceed EU limits next year – a sensitive move that the Commission has postponed to after the EU election in which President Emmanuel Macron is vying with far-right leader Marine Le Pen for France’s top spot.
Another highly anticipated decision concerns the possible appeal to an EU court’s ruling that in March overturned Brussels’ decision to block the bailout of Italy’s Tercas bank.
The ruling could facilitate future bailouts, but its application is dependent on the commission’s possible appeal against the verdict.
Antitrust Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who is also the top candidate for the European liberal party at the elections, is taking her time to decide on the case, which in Italy is closely watched by eurosceptic politicians who have campaigned for years against EU bank rescue rules.
The deadline for an appeal has just expired but Vestager is using an extension of 10 days before making her decision public – that would be just after the EU vote.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest; Editing by Alison Williams)