The EU still has not completely sorted out its messy post-divorce relationship with Britain — but it has already been plunged into another major crisis.
This time the 27-member union is being tested as Poland and Hungary block passage of its budget for the next seven years and an ambitious package aimed at rescuing economies ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their objection? A new “rule-of-law mechanism” that would allow the bloc to deny funds to countries that breech democratic norms — something that Poland and Hungary have been accused of doing for years.
EU member had planned to share the lessons learned in the first year of the pandemic and discuss a strategy to prevent a third wave of infections in the first months of next year, as well as take the temperature of post-Brexit trade talks.
However, this week Warsaw and Budapest — now with the support of Slovenia — blocked the adoption of the bloc’s combined 1.8 trillion euros (US$2.1 trillion) post-virus recovery plan and long-term budget.
The nationalist governments accuse their EU partners of mounting a power grab by tying the disbursement of EU funds to respect for Brussels’ view on the rule of law and European values.
“It will be the elephant in the room,” one senior European diplomat said.
The plan to tie EU funds to the rule of law, strongly defended by the European Parliament and several member states, including France and the Netherlands, could be passed by a qualified majority of members.
However, under EU procedure members need to give unanimous backing to a plan to allow the EU to raise funds to finance its 750 billion euros recovery plan and the 1 trillion euros 2021-2027 budget that follows it.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that a “European oligarchy” was trying to bully weaker EU members, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called the plan “blackmail” against member states opposed to immigration.
There is exasperation in Brussels that governments receiving large net contributions from Europe spend so much time and political capital opposing reform efforts.
No breakthrough was expected from yesterday’s three-hour meeting.
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