Adrián Vázquez Lázara is chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee. Sergey Lagodinsky is vice-chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs and its permanent rapporteur for contentious issues of the European Parliament.
Our European Union has been built step by step. No architect has proposed a master plan. Instead, this unprecedented project gradually evolved over time, adapting to the challenges but still pursuing its original goal: to preserve peace and stability in Europe.
We have to admit that, despite setbacks and imperfections, this has been a success. Member countries have collectively mitigated a number of political and economic crises with a successful blend of determination and compromise. The results weren’t always perfect, but they were always acceptable to everyone.
The current crisis is of a different nature.
This is a crisis of both European democracy and European efficiency, and it has two consequences that should give us pause for thought: first, the fundamental obligations of the Treaties – the duty to defend democracy, the rights fundamentals and the rule of law – are blatantly ignored by some, at everyone’s expense. Second, and no less fundamental, the EU’s distinctive approach to resolving disputes through the search for compromise has at times proved powerless in the face of this alarming trend.
Last week, the Polish Constitutional Court rejected the primacy of EU law over its national law, and this is not the only example. We seem doomed to see the governments of member countries – once seen as models of democratization – sink into the sewers of authoritarianism and corruption.
This trend is self-defeating for the respective governments and, unfortunately, for the EU as a whole. The EU needs its member countries and the member countries need their union.
Brexit demonstrated how populist propaganda and anti-European sentiment can lead to an economic crisis. That is why even though the governments of Poland and Hungary reject fundamental European values, the citizens of these countries remain committed to the EU and its fundamental principles. After all, membership of the EU implies not only freedom, but also economic and social opportunities, as well as the common power necessary to succeed in a globalized world.
Indeed, for citizens of countries at risk of falling into authoritarianism, the EU is more than a market; they rely on it to protect their rights. And so, we must act.
The toolbox at our disposal is vast but also largely ineffective: regular reports on lengthy infringement proceedings against Article 7 procedures blocked in the Council, none of the instruments have shown enough teeth to guarantee respect for the rule of law.
But there is hope, and it belongs to the European Commission. The Commission was designed to play the role of ‘guardian of the treaties’, and if it takes that role seriously, it can do so.
This is what we in the European Parliament expect and demand.
Last year, negotiations on the Union’s seven-year budget offered a window of opportunity for the protection of fundamental European values. In a long process, the EU finally adopted the rule of law conditionality mechanism, a brand new tool linking respect for the rule of law to EU funds. This legislation has been in force since January 1, 2021, but unfortunately the Commission has not made use of it.
The Commission has taken some steps in the right direction. He called for the imposition of financial sanctions on Poland for its ill-advised judicial reforms, and he suspended the Polish and Hungarian stimulus packages. However, faced with a challenge of such magnitude, these measures are not enough. Now is the time to implement what could be the last hope for the many pro-European citizens of Hungary and Poland.
So far, the Commission has refused to apply this cross-compliance mechanism. But the European Parliament, as the most passionate supporter of the principle of conditionality, will not ignore its own responsibility.
If the Commission is not prepared to act, we are ready to take it to the Court of Justice for its failure. Even before the ruling in Poland, our Legal Affairs Committee was and is still working to define the grounds for this future legal action and is about to issue a recommendation to the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.
The time to act is now. The European Parliament must lead by example and use all available means to ensure that the EU remains a fully democratic bloc of countries. Only then can we save the democratic soul of the EU.