Democracy in Europe EU Commissioner Pushes for Hard Line on Poland

The EU has been unable to find an effective lever to combat the flouting of democratic values in Poland and Hungary. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Justice Commissioner Vera Jourová proposes cutting funding to the countries.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is head of Poland's Law and Justice party.
AP

Jaroslaw Kaczynski is head of Poland's Law and Justice party.

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In the Netherlands and France, right-wing populists are well positioned to make a splash in upcoming elections. In Hungary and Poland, they are already in power and have weakened the rule of law in those countries. In Warsaw, for example, the governing Law and Justice Party has reined in state media and the intelligence services while firing adversarial civil servants and paralyzing the country's constitutional court.

In response, the European Commission triggered the rule-of-law mechanism for the first time in EU history. The mechanism is designed to address systemic threats to the rule of law in EU member states. In its most recent letter to the Commission, however, the Polish government once again proved uncooperative, essentially bringing the rule-of-law proceedings to an end. The next step would be the activation of Article 7 of the EU treaty, which could ultimately lead to the suspension of Poland's voting rights. That eventuality, however, is unlikely. Doing so would require unanimous support from the rest of the EU member states and Hungary has already made clear it would veto the measure.

In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, European Commissioner for Justice, Vera Jourová, proposes a different approach. She suggests making the distribution of EU funds, on which the Polish economy is heavily dependent, contingent on the upholding of fundamental values - or to eliminate such payments entirely.

About Vera Jourová
  • DPA
    Vera Jourová, 52, has been European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality since November 2014. Prior to her post in Brussels, she was minister for regional development in the Czech Republic. She made headlines in Germany recently for her demand that VW should pay damages to European customers affected by the diesel emissions scandal.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Commissioner Jourova, right-wing populists seem to have become the greatest internal threat to the European Union. In Poland and Hungary, they are already in power and are attacking democratic institutions. Are EU rules too weak to uphold fundamental values across the bloc?

Jourová: This is not just a matter of rules. This is also about societal development, which has its own rules. Fundamental rights are for everyone and have to be respected by everyone. But we can't be naïve in dealing with those who are abusing the principles protecting fundamental rights. Everyone who chooses to live in Europe must accept the basic values. This includes the rule of law as well as equality of men and women and non-discrimination against religious and other minorities. People who are not willing to respect not only the given law, but our democratic way of life, should not live in Europe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Polish government seems unfazed. The Commission's activation of the EU rule-of-law mechanism has had little effect. Is the Commission toothless on this issue?

Jourová: We have to stay within the competencies we have been given. After finalizing our assessment of the latest letter by the Polish government, we may have reached a point where we have exhausted our possibilities to change things with friendly dialogue. We may then ask the member states to get involved in the dialogue with Poland. This case cannot remain with the Commission forever. It has been ongoing for more than a year now.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are referring to Article 7 of the EU treaty, the activation of which could lead to the suspension of Polish voting rights. That is hardly realistic, but in a recent speech you hinted at another possible measure.

Jourová: Yes, I have introduced into the discussion the option of making EU funding dependent on the rule of law and fundamental rights.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Poland is by far the EU's largest net recipient of funds. It receives almost one fourth of all EU funding, accounting for 2.3 per cent of its gross domestic product. Losing that funding would be a catastrophe for the Polish economy.

Jourová: Which is why this issue it is important for Poland. This is not, of course, something for the current budgetary period, which ends in 2020. But the preparatory work for the next period will begin as early as this year, and we have to discuss the conditions for any further massive funding - funding which is based on solidarity. I have worked for almost 20 years in the field of structural funds, and there have always been conditions, but only related to economic factors or technicalities. We have to look at the basic values again and take them into consideration.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The European Commission cannot make such decisions on its own. The European Parliament and the member states have a say in the budget as well.

Jourová: Of course, but with the UK, as one of the largest net contributors, leaving the EU, we need a reassessment of the mechanisms and the criteria for further funding. There will be two decisive factors. One is the limit which determines when a country is eligible for structural funding. So far, this has been the case when a country's GDP is less than 75 percent of the EU average. But it doesn't have to stay that way. We are going to start from scratch.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Raising the GDP bar could massively influence funding for some member states.

Jourová: Yes, and this is the reason why it must be discussed with the Parliament and with member states.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the second factor?

Jourová: The amount of money available for future cohesion policy, if there will be one at all.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that the cohesion policy, which ensures the transfer of money from richer EU countries to poorer regions, could end altogether?

Jourová: There could be changes. Look at the White Book the Commission just published. In one of the scenarios, regional policy would be defined as something which could be left to the member states in the future. Or perhaps we will redefine whether future funding will come in the form of subsidies or loans. But for now, this remains a theoretical discussion, of course.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Nevertheless, it could cause considerable alarm in countries whose economies massively depend on the EU's cohesion funds, Poland and Hungary among them.

Jourová: These countries will be sitting at the table as well, so they have a say in it. But they must understand that we have to uphold the EU's core values. These days, people are nervous and uncertain because of security threats. In this kind of atmosphere, fear and hatred are on the rise. We need to safeguard security, but we also have to be vigilant and avoid handing over all power to those who say they are here to ensure security. Fundamental rights are not a given today. We have to protect them.

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Cal_105 03/07/2017
1.
Merkel is getting a coalition together to oppose Trump and his " so called madness" so maybe it is the time to start working on a coalition to contain Poland. Might even want to throw in a coalition against Turkey while she at it, even though they are not in the EU and likely never will be if she keeps blackballing them. How long before the EU has all of its members in a coalition against all the other members and allies?
iwonastephenson 03/07/2017
2. EU Commissioner Pushes for Hard Line on Poland
Rule of law in Poland? Please, give me a break! We're just starting to get it. Pleaas report the real estate scandals, involving dozens of judges in cahoots with city officials and "Liberal" politicians. You're avoiding this story to protect your narrative. BILLIONS OF EUROS stolen. Or the VAT scandal, involving scores of tax officials, leading to BILLIONS OF EUROS stolen. Or Amber Gold, a pyramid scheme involving the Tusk family, leading to BILLIONS OF EUROS stolen and half of Poland's economi growth cancelled? Unreported in your censored German press! Incidentally, Donal Tusk knew about Amber Gold and refused to do anything about it - opening him up to criminal charges.
Inglenda2 03/07/2017
3. Its high time to scrap the EU Commission!
For years now, the European Commission, with its overpaid and under qualified commissioners, has done nothing whatsoever to benefit the European cause. The EU parliament should get rid of the whole lot and start doing the necessary work itself. That is after all what the politicians have been voted into power for. Not just to have a good time at the expense of the taxpayers. It is no wonder that so many want to leave an organisation, which is run by bureaucrats instead of the representatives of the people. Trying to teach countries such as Poland, Britain, or Hungary, what democracy is, instead of increasing a co-operation between individual states, is bound to lead to failure anyway.
from_the_UK 03/07/2017
4. A Dangerous Development
This story illustrates with absolute clarity one of the great dilemmas of the EU. A sovereign nation is taking actions of which the EU disapproves, so it is being suggested that the EU - that's the EU, not a nation state, imposes financial 'sanctions', which do not require the agreement of its members. Whatever we think of the Polish Government, this must count as a fundamental violation of principle, or at least a major advance in the scope of EU sovereignty at the expense of member states by the back door. The fact that the Polish government is acting in a manner which we in Western Europe disapprove of course legitimises the situation in our minds, and so the attack on sovereignty which this represents is covered up. Personally, I find the actions of the Polish government disturbing, however I don't think this legitimises this suggestion. This conflict encapsulates exactly why some people in Europe are attacking the EU - and those who believe in the EU should understand that using the EU to impose values, rightly or otherwise, is resulting in conflict and alienation across the Europe.
bicester55 03/07/2017
5. The problem is the core not the periphery.
The problem with election results in peripheral states is only a reaction to the rotten Brussels core. If Brussels was fixed then these governments would each be thrown out in the next election.
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