EU’s ‘nuclear option’ against Poland and Hungary dismissed as ‘dead-end mechanism’

Hungary Foreign Minister says EU is ‘slow’

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The EU was embroiled in a tense standoff over its budget at the end of last year after Hungary and Poland vetoed the coronavirus recovery fund. Brussels wanted national governments to be allowed access to the money only if they committed to upholding the rule of law. Hungary and Poland could have fallen foul of such a provision, as the governments of Victor Orban and Andrzej Duda are widely believed to have eroded the independence of the courts and the media.

After days of intense negotiations, a compromise was eventually reached but the resolution did not please everybody, as expert on Swedish politics, Mikael Sundstrom told

He said that some Swedes were frustrated with the “lack of action” from Brussels over Hungary and Poland’s contravention of the rule of law.

Mr Sundstrom said: “There is a frustration that the EU, particularly among the elites, less the average voter – they would care about the fact we have to pay more Swedish krona into the EU.

“This is the main leverage for the anti-EU people.

“When it comes to Hungary and Poland, Poland is a neighbour that concerns Swedes – the main concern is why can’t the EU do anything more powerful to keep them in check.

“Why can’t the EU do more to uphold liberal democratic rules in these countries.”

Brussels has tried in vain to make the two countries fall in line – even by using its most powerful mechanism.

Beginning with Poland in 2017, the EU sought to safeguard its founding principles and commitments by invoking Article 7 procedures for the first time against a member state.

In 2018, Hungary followed.

Article 7 is a mechanism for ensuring that the values of the European Union are upheld.

The procedure is sometimes called the EU’s “nuclear option” as it provides for the most serious political sanction the bloc can impose on a member country — the suspension of the right to vote on EU decisions.

There are two parts — Article 7.1 would allow the Council to give a formal warning to any country accused of violating fundamental rights.

If that doesn’t have the desired effect, Article 7.2 would impose sanctions and suspend voting rights.

There have been significant hurdles for activating the procedure, though.

So far, the only consequence has been a handful of hearings before the Council of Ministers – the last in December 2019 – and a series of increasingly impatient resolutions in parliament.

Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld wrote on Twitter last month: “The EU is good at making laws but far less effective at enforcing them.”

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Slovenia’s foreign minister, Anže Logar, said during a recent visit in Brussels that he had been “informed” by prior Council Presidents that the Article 7 procedure “is more or less a dead-end, in a way, so one should rethink how to proceed with the issue”.

He described Article 7 as unworkable but, by contrast, praised a system set up last year under which EU member states conduct peer reviews of others’ rule-of-law records.

Mr Logar called the system a “good instrument in order to offset all those … emotions that are connected with the question of rule of law”.

The peer reviews are not formally linked to any sanctioning mechanism, raising concerns that they won’t safeguard democratic norms.

But Mr Logar said he would prefer to “invest a lot of energy in this new peer review instrument,” arguing it provides a “broader perspective,” while “the member state has a possibility to explain their view”.

In a 2017 report for The Conversation, Maria Fletcher, a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Glasgow, warned: “Even if the significant hurdles for activating the procedures could be surmounted, it is thought the political fall-out would be incredibly toxic.

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“For that reason, triggering Article 7 has long been regarded as politically unfeasible.

“EU law scholars have persistently pointed out, however, that this is little more than a politically convenient excuse for inaction.

“That excuse is not only intellectually dishonest, it undermines the letter and the spirit of the treaties and the EU’s commitment to upholding the rule of law.

“Many people agree that it’s high time to end Article 7’s days as a political gesture.

“It is a tool in the EU’s box and should actually be used when it is needed.”

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