EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is one of two Germans who the US news magazine “Time” counts among the 100 most influential people on the planet. The other is Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both women now have to prove how far their influence extends within the European Union alone.
Because it is facing a serious credibility and budget crisis since the European Parliament made it unequivocally clear that it no longer wants to accept violations of the European rule of law by member states such as Hungary and Poland and punish them by blocking EU funds.
Negotiations as tough as Brexit talks
On Thursday, von der Leyen’s 62nd birthday, renewed explorations began on how Parliament, the Commission and the European Council currently led by Germany can defuse the conflict over the EU’s multiannual financial framework. The talks are under great time pressure, but are just as tough as the haggling over a follow-up regulation for Brexit.
At stake are the adoption of the EU budget for the next seven years as well as the planned corona support payments for particularly affected countries. In total, it is around 1.8 trillion euros, including a corona aid package worth 750 billion.
“Shameless attacks on the values of the Union”
With a sharply worded resolution passed by a large majority, Parliament has struck the ground. In it, it warns that “the Union is facing an unprecedented and escalating crisis of its core values that endangers its long-term survival as a democratic peace project”. MEPs complain that “there have been shameless attacks on the values of the Union in several Member States over the past decade”. They demand “an objective and evidence-based monitoring mechanism” against such attacks, which must be linked to the possibility of withholding money in the EU pots.
“Budgetary conditions” would certainly be more effective than the previous clumsy action against rule-of-law offenders, said the parliamentary rapporteur for the issue, the liberal MP Michal Simecka from Slovakia. You should act according to the ideas of the parliament, if an annual rule of law TÜV brings to light deficiencies in EU member states.
“Europe is waiting for an agreement”
On the other hand, there is the negotiating position of the German Council Presidency, which the Permanent Representative of the Federal Republic of Germany to the EU, Michael Clauss, outlined in a letter to budget experts in Parliament.
“Europe is waiting for an agreement between our institutions”, the top German diplomat pointed out to the urgency of the matter.
Clauss lured the parliamentarians into investing a few billion euros more than previously planned in research programs. He also agreed to set up a timetable for fulfilling their wish for more of the EU’s own resources – taxes, for example – which he himself described as a “huge concession”. But regarding the rule of law, Clauss said in no uncertain terms: There could not be a separate financial sanction mechanism in the interests of Parliament due to the EU treaties.
“Butterweicher” German proposal
The governor of the Foreign Office in Brussels is pursuing realpolitik here that bows to the facts: It is unlikely, if not impossible, that, for example, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has repeatedly been the target of criticism from the European rule of law, would agree to a mechanism in the European Council that could impose severe sanctions on him. So the Hungarian can take one complaint after the other unmoved, only this week that of the European Court of Justice for the expulsion of the private university of the businessman George Soros from Budapest.
It is now left to the political fate of von der Leyens and Merkels to find a way out of this dilemma. Parliament sees itself – in the words of the Green MP Sergey Lagodinsky – as a “bulwark of democracy and the rule of law”. What the German Council Presidency has proposed so far to uphold the rule of law is considered “buttery soft” even in parliamentary circles that are well-disposed towards the Federal Government.
“From laptop to aquarium” everything on the wish list
Hungary is by no means the only problem. The Polish government is under strong suspicion of putting together a compliant judicial system. Bulgaria, like Romania and Malta, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, repeatedly draws attention to itself with its susceptibility to corruption. “The taxpayers must be able to rely on the fact that the money will be used for European goals and not flow into dark channels,” demands the head of the German Social Democrats in the EU Parliament, Jens Geier.
When using Corona aids, Parliament also wants to have a decisive say, because it wants to monitor how sensibly they are used at all. The CSU MEP Monika Hohlmeier, chairwoman of the budget control committee, sees the worst fears confirmed after the first presentations in Brussels: “From the laptop to the aquarium”, for example, everything possible was found on the Italians wish list for corona aid.
EU money for the same beneficiaries over and over again
Suspicion is also called for when the same companies repeatedly emerge as potential recipients of subsidies, or again and again the same people who are behind such companies – as happens in the Czech Republic, for example, warns Hohlmeier. This is not always based on corruption, but rather the information advantage of certain entrepreneurs who are familiar with tricky application procedures. “The“ badness of an administration must not lead to only certain circles getting money ”, demands the MP. This phenomenon is widespread in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, Italy and Spain.
Is Orban just bluffing?
For the negotiations between the Commission, the European Council and the Parliament, Hohlmeier foresees the danger “that MEPs whose countries are urgently dependent on funds will be put under pressure”. The FDP MEP Moritz Körner confirms: “The Council is now putting enormous pressure on.” Parliament has no interest in delaying urgently needed payments. “But we’re not going to roll up the flags now.”
Poker is now being played with partners like Orban at the table who, like Parliament, could still torpedo the EU budget. However, Körner believes that the Hungarian cannot overstrain either: “Orban is a good player. But he’s also bluffing right now. There is also a lot of money involved for him. ”