It was a technical glitch that was both a sign of the COVID times and a metaphor for the broken-down state of EU politics.
As European affairs ministers convened by videoconference to discuss the stalemate over the bloc’s €1.82 trillion budget-and-recovery package, the audio broke up, then an eerie tone screeched as if from the soundtrack of a horror movie, followed by an ominous, warbling, extraterrestrial echo.
“This is really a continual test of our patience,” the chairman, Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, said in a dejected and exasperated tone. “You all deserve a medal for your patience,” Roth said, as technicians tried to get the EU budget commissioner, Johannes Hahn, online. “This is also part of Europe.”
Of course, it was not just the fritzed-out sound testing ministers’ patience, but Hungary and Poland’s obstruction of the landmark deal. The two countries on Monday blocked progress on finalizing the package because of their opposition to a new mechanism that would allow the EU to cut off funds to countries found to be violating rule-of-law principles.
The block by Budapest and Warsaw has left the 27-member bloc in a deadlock, with no clear path forward — and the historic €750 billion fund in response to the coronavirus pandemic and related economic shock in suspended animation. The EU’s new seven-year €1.074 trillion budget, which is due to start on January 1, is also stalled. Both the long-term budget and the so-called Own Resources Decision — a prerequisite for the bloc to borrow money for the recovery fund — require unanimous support in the Council of the EU.
But across Europe, there was no sign of anyone giving ground ahead of a videoconference of EU leaders that will discuss the issue on Thursday.
In The Hague, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told parliament, “For the Netherlands the agreed compromise on the rule of law is the bare minimum. We cannot accept anything less.” When the far-right leader Geert Wilders lamented that the Netherlands did not have a strong prime minister like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Rutte fired back: “Should I be more like Orbán? Should I limit gay rights, limit press freedom? I am glad that I don’t look like that man — terrible.”
Other leaders lamented the obstruction of the budget-and-recovery plan, which the European Council approved unanimously at a summit in July along with plans for the rule-of-law mechanism, though at that time without crucial details. Newspapers in Belgium, Germany and Ireland declared the EU once again in “crisis,” while noting that Hungary and Poland are relatively big beneficiaries of the EU budget. “Italy trembles,” La Stampa’s headline proclaimed. “Now, German mediation.”
While Hungary and Poland would stand to suffer economically from any delays to the package, headlines in the government-friendly press in both countries proclaimed Orbán and Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki as standing up to blackmail and tyranny while amplifying conspiracy theories about the narrowly-tailored rule-of-law mechanism.
At the General Affairs Council meeting on Tuesday, Roth decided to open the meeting for a live-broadcast public session, allowing ministers to vent their frustration, and to amp up pressure on Hungary and Poland.
“Our citizens, companies, local and regional authorities are counting on the support of the European Union, which was promised to them in July by the heads of state and government,” Roth said in his opening intervention. “All of us now have to show together that we can act.” But he quickly acknowledged that the German presidency of the Council of the EU was stuck as a result of Warsaw and Budapest’s moves on Monday.
“Unfortunately yesterday among the ambassadors there was no unanimous agreement,” Roth said, adding, “So more political contacts are needed. I regret this situation. I very much regret the delay this implies for the adoption of the urgently needed recovery package. But that is the regrettable political reality, with which we must cope.”
Many other ministers voiced similar anger and dismay.
Italy’s minister of European affairs, Vincenzo Amendola, conveyed “the deep sense of frustration that our public opinion is experiencing” after Monday’s meeting of EU ambassadors.
“The situation is extremely serious with the second wave of COVID-19 raging all over the continent,” he said.
Amendola noted that members of the European Parliament had battled fiercely in support of the rule-of-law mechanism, resulting in a hard-fought deal with the Council. He accused Hungary and Poland of double-talk in insisting they support the rule of law, but blocking the budget deal.
“Dear friends, I want to be honest and frank with you. There is a contradiction in all this blockade, because we should not fear … conditionality on the rule of law if all the member states claim to respect the rule of law,” he said.
Several ministers said the calendar was too tight for such a stand-off.
“We are running out of time,” said Portuguese State Secretary for European Affairs Ana Paula Zacarias, whose country will take over the Council’s rotating presidency in January. “We are on the verge of an economic, social and financial disaster in many member states,” Zacarias said. “This is no time for power games, we cannot have a political crisis.”
After the meeting, Finnish Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen insisted “the rule of law is a fundamental part of the deal.”
“I must admit that I do consider the situation to be extremely complex and extremely difficult — this is something that we haven’t experienced ever before,” she told POLITICO.
But the Hungarian and Polish ministers were unbowed.
“The political agreement between the European Parliament and the Council, reached on conditionality, circumvents the Treaties and does not conform to the July conclusions of the European Council,” Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and therefore Hungary is not in the position to support the MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework, the long-term budget] package as it stands.”
She said Hungary was a primary target of the rule-of-law scheme and alleged that together with other EU measures it “offers an easy way to sanction a country on an ideological basis or to exert political pressure.”
Varga said the mechanism’s “legal basis is unfounded, its scope is widely-defined, the measures are arbitrary and the procedure is without meaningful guarantees — they all go against real rule-of-law requirements.”
Polish Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymański said the rule-of-law mechanism created legal ambiguity — a point other ministers have disputed.
“I can only repeat that the conditionality isn’t a problem, the protection of the budget isn’t a problem, the rule-of-law principle — the principle of our constitution — isn’t a problem,” Szymański said. “The problem is lack of legal certainty, lack of legal guarantees for all individual member states under the Treaty, and here we still have no solution.”
Senior officials said they do not expect a resolution by the time heads of state and government hold their videoconference summit on Thursday. Some countries are advocating a tougher line against Budapest and Warsaw — believing that both governments really need their EU budget money — while others seem to have less appetite for a showdown.
But there was at least one hint of a potentially face-saving compromise. Hahn, the budget commissioner, spoke about a “guarantee” of objectivity in how the rule-of-law mechanism is implemented.
Addressing countries reluctant to accept the deal, Hahn said that “the Commission will not only do its best, but guarantee — in case there is a need to apply this instrument on the conditionality of the budgetary protection — that we will apply the highest objective standards.”
But it remains unclear if any guarantee would be enough for Budapest and Warsaw.
Pressure, meanwhile, is growing to reach a deal soon, with one diplomat noting “the next European Council [scheduled for December 10 and 11] could be too late” for an agreement.
Pierre-Paul Bermingham and Cristina Gonzalez contributed reporting