Hungary and Poland block EU's COVID-19 recovery package over new rule of law drive

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By Sandor Zsiros, Joanna Gill
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks to journalists during a news conference following an European People's Party meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednes
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban talks to journalists during a news conference following an European People's Party meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednes   -  Copyright  Francisco Seco/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Hungary's prime minister has called the EU's rule of law mechanism for the EU budget a 'political and ideological weapon' designed to punish anti-immigration governments.

Viktor Orban released a statement to state news agency MTI saying:

“In Brussels today, they only view countries which let migrants in as those governed by the rule of law. Those who protect their borders cannot qualify as countries where rule of law prevails."

On Monday Hungary and Poland vetoed the EU's trillion-euro coronavirus recovery package because they object to linking access to Brussels cash with countries' respect of the rule of law.

Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs told Euronews that the recent changes to the rule of law proposal amounted to "political blackmailing".

He explained that the Hungarian government had not changed its stance and that the recent proposal did not include "objective criteria".

The EU's Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn tweeted that he was 'disappointed' and urged member states to 'assume political responsibility' and finalise the package.

"This is not about ideologies but about help for our citizens in the worst crisis since WWII," he added.

On Monday afternoon, EU ambassadors met in Brussels to discuss the current proposal, which has raised concerns from both governments in Budapest and Warsaw.

Both countries have been at loggerheads with Brussels in recent years over perceived democratic backsliding.

The talks on the long-term budget (2021—2027)— which involve the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission — come amid a long-running dispute between countries and MEPs regarding spending and respect for the rule of law.

After much wrangling, European leaders finally agreed on the amount the EU can spend over the next seven years in July. This was set at €1.8 trillion — of which €750 billion is for the coronavirus recovery fund, otherwise known as Next Generation EU.

The rest of the money, €1.074 trillion, makes up the EU's long-term budget, also known as the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).

MEPs insisted on making funding transfers conditional upon adherence to democratic values, human rights and the independence of the judiciary.

Under the new mechanism, individual EU countries could lose their veto and have funding cut if a majority of other member states back such a move.

Last week, the EU negotiating parties came to an agreement in order to move forward with the process with the aim to disburse funds to Covid-struck economies in the EU by January 2021.

However, Hungary and Poland voiced objections to the deal.

"We have not changed our stance on these issues," Kovacs told Euronews. He claimed that the responsibility for the budget being blocked lies with 'those who have created the situation we are in now.'

"That risk is being run by the European parliament and the German presidency," added Kovacs.

For Kovacs, if the EU wishes to add new conditions to EU funding, access must require a treaty change.

Daniel Freund, a German MEP, and the Green Party's negotiator, noted that the stakes are high when it comes to blocking the budget.

"There (are) thousands of small companies that are on the brink of bankcrutpcy, that are waiting for this money. Millions of citizens are waiting for this money. We dont have much time.

"Orbán is holding the entire union, the entire response to the economic crisis hostage. And not to fight for anything meaningful, but to continue stealing EU funds for his personal gain," he added.

EU leaders will next meet via videolink on Thursday. The pressure will be on the German Chancellor who leads the rotating presidency of the EU, to find a way out of the impasse.