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On Tuesday, members of the European Parliament debated on the state of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary in the context of Article 7 proceedings.

- The situation in Poland still raises very serious concerns. I am unable to report today on any new, positive trends regarding the state of the rule of law in both Poland and Hungary - said Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders.

He emphasized that new plans to alter the structure of Poland's judicial system would be closely monitored by the Commission in light of EU law and CJEU rulings.

Wartime unity more important than rule of law?

In the past several years, Poland’s notorious rule of law violations has been a topic of many debates in the European Parliament. In the face of the ongoing war in Ukraine, however, the Polish government has come up with a new argument to continue dismantling the country’s judicial system: it is asking Brussels to let it off the hook for the sake of European wartime unity.

Joachim Brudziński (member of the Law and Justice party), who spoke on behalf of the conservative faction, argued that Poland is now "on the lips of the entire world" because of its solidarity with Ukrainian refugees and its key role in helping its war-torn neighbor.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brudziński argued, Western Europe is trying to silence its conscience with attacks on Poland because "French and German politicians were the ones hanging on the phone with a war criminal" (i.e. Putin).

Representatives of the main parliamentary groups argued that the war in Ukraine should not be an excuse for ignoring attacks on the rule of law.  

- I am astounded by the voices urging us to relax our policies aimed at defending democracy in Europe during the war in Ukraine. The exact opposite is true. Following Putin's invasion, we are caught up in a much greater conflict between autocracy and democracy, between Putin’s model and the European model, between tyranny and freedom, between brute force and the rule of law. And that is why we cannot relax our principles if we are to win - said the Slovak MEP Michal Šimecka speaking on behalf of the liberal Renew Europe faction.

Fighting for our common principles

Speaking on behalf of the European People's Party, the Dutch MEP Jeroen Lenaers, also argued against calls to "stop bothering Hungary and Poland with rule of law proceedings when Poles and Hungarians are making such great efforts to welcome Ukrainian refugees".

- While Ukrainians are fighting and dying for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, it would be cynical to turn a blind eye to an attack on those very same values here in the EU- Lenaers said.

Moreover, German MEP Katarina Barley (Social Democrats) pointed out that despite the fact that election campaigns in Hungary have been taking place under very unequal conditions for nine years, and an attack on Poland’s judicial independence has been going on for seven years, representatives of other EU members states are unable to react properly, although now the EU is also being closely watched by Ukrainians who are fighting and risking their lives in the name of European values.

- As the European Parliament, we ask the EU Council to finally take the Article 7 procedures to the next level, instead of continuing with pointless hearings, and statements that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law and European values by Poland and Hungary. The EU Council must also adopt concrete recommendations for both countries, Barley said.

On Thursday (May 5), the EU Parliament intends to adopt another resolution on Poland and Hungary urging EU governments to act under Article 7.

Pressure, pressure, pressure… but little more than that

The imposition of sanctions under Article 7 is subject to (practically unachievable) unanimity, but most MEPs want the EU Council to start making concrete corrective recommendations to Poland and Hungary with specific deadlines. A majority (22 out of 27 EU countries) is required for their adoption. Even so, the recommendations would in fact be just another form of political pressure.

Poland’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan remains on hold

Commissioner Reynders, on the other hand, reminded MEPs that:

  1.  the European Commission had already launched a "rule of law conditionality mechanism" against Hungary
  2.   The Polish fine for non-compliance with the CJEU decision on the "muzzle law" is increasing by one million euros a day (the total is already close to 100 million euros),
  3. and last autumn an infringement proceeding was initiated against Poland because of the politicized Constitutional Tribunal, which may also lead to a complaint before the CJEU and even a possible fine.

- It is not only about undermining the primacy of EU law, but also the lack of independence of the Constitutional Tribunal- Reynders emphasized.

However, in the short term, the most effective tool Brussels has at its disposal remains the freezing of National Recovery and Resilience Plans, i.e. 7.2 billion euros of subsidies for Hungary and as much as 23.9 billion euros for Poland to be gradually spent until 2026.

By the end of this year, as much as 70% of the money from each plan must be allocated to specific programs, or else it will be lost. According to experts, if the Polish plan is approved by July, the money could still be saved.                                                                                                             

The European Commission was betting on the approval of the Polish plan. But at almost the last minute, Mateusz Morawiecki's government demanded that as part of a settlement on the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, Brussels drop its anti-fraud proceedings against Poland and - this would require boycotting the CJEU decision - free Warsaw from paying penalties for the Disciplinary Chamber. The Commission refused to do so.

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