By Jan Strupczewski
BRUSSELS – The European Parliament voted on Thursday to sue the European Commission over what lawmakers say is its failure to uphold the rule of law, in a dispute that could affect the allocation of billions of euros in EU aid.
Members of the Parliament (MEPs) voted 506 to 150, with 28 abstentions, in favour of a resolution to take the EU executive to the European Court of Justice for dragging its feet over applying a new regulation – technically in force since Jan. 1 – that makes EU governments’ access to funds conditional on their respect for the rule of law and democratic norms.
The MEPs fear in particular that Commission inaction will boost the re-election chances next year of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalists even though Brussels has long accused them of eroding democratic freedoms in Hungary.
Hungary and Poland, both under formal EU investigation for breaking the rule of law, stand to lose billions of euros in EU funds when the new regulation is applied.
“People in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere need to know that the Commission is on their side and will fight for their rights as EU citizens,” Green MEP Terry Reintke said in a statement.
“We are taking action against the Commission to make them do their job and defend the rights of European citizens,” he said.
The resolution gives the Commission two weeks to act to stop the lawsuit, during which parliament will begin preparations for the legal action.
The Commission, guardian of the EU treaties, has previously said it only wants to implement the regulation after it has prepared appropriate guidelines – a process delayed by legal challenges from Poland and Hungary that could drag on for years.
This effectively neutralises for now the law designed to safeguard EU money from misuse in cases where, for example, politicised courts do not guarantee a fair trial for a complaint about a tender for an EU-funded project.
EU Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn told lawmakers on Wednesday the Commission would present to the Parliament draft guidelines on how to apply the law to lawmakers within two weeks and he urged them not to launch legal action.
But MEPs said the guidelines were not part of the law the Commission is meant to uphold and could not therefore be viewed as the executive taking the required action.
In a decade in power, Orban has used public money including EU funds to build a loyal business elite while curbing the independence of the media, non-governmental organisations and universities, his critics say.
Orban, who has a large parliamentary majority, denies undermining Hungarian democracy.