The European Parliament needs a rule of law lesson, as well

3 min read

For the last few weeks, MEPs and foreign ministers have repeatedly expressed their “discomfort” at the looming Hungarian and Polish EU presidencies. As Hungary’s own round is closer, the focus is more on Budapest, but Warsaw is in the same shoes.

The latest was Germany’s Anna Lührmann, who said “I have doubts about Hungary’s ability to properly carry out its presidency.”

Petri Sarvamaa, the EPP spokesman on budgetary control expressed the worries of the group that “during these unprecedented times, it is crucial that the Council is led by a country capable of upholding the strong collaboration among member states in decision making”.

The resolution proposed in the European Parliament had the support of several groups: besides the EPP, the Socialist and Democrats, and Renew Europe, the Greens and Lefts also consented to it.

Some referred to the latest comment of the Meijers Committee, a Dutch team of experts (a “unique team of professors, lawyers, judges” according to their self-definition, focusing on immigration, refugee and criminal law, lately also busy with the rule of law debate), itself about as transparent as a black hole.

Its annual reports (available only in Dutch) are about 14 pages long, including cover page, list of contents and greetings from the chairman. Its website lacks in depth information. The list of its members is there, but the bio for each is only a picture with a few sentences, without data, qualifications, publications lists, etc. There is nothing to know about its finances (not even in rough numbers), except for the vague and rather short list of organizations that had, in the past, sponsored its activities. Including, among others the Foundation for Migration Law Netherlands, The Dutch Refugee Council, and the Foundation for Refugee Students.

It also might say a lot that its headquarters (Surinameplein 124, by appointment only) are in the same building as the Vluchtelingenwerk Nederlands, a pro-migration NGO.

There’s nothing wrong with promoting those values, only withholding such information as finances doesn’t serve as a best example coming from people supposedly fighting for transparency and rule of law.

The vote took place on June 1.

But, in the end it doesn’t really matter how the European Parliament decided, given that its decision is non-binding in this case.

The fact that the debate could happen itself is a proof that the European Parliament often walks the talk and talks the walk when it comes to its own functioning.

As of now, there is nothing in the relevant legislation (first and foremost Article 16(9) of the TEU, Article 236 of the TFEU, a European Council Decision and the Council’s Rules of Procedure), that would give the right to the Council itself, let alone the Parliament, to ban a country from exercising its rights in holding the presidency.

There are no “if”-s, “when”-s or “but”-s, only the very clear wording, “the Presidency of Council configurations, other than that of Foreign Affairs, shall be held by Member State representatives in the Council on the basis of equal rotation, in accordance with the conditions established in accordance with Article 236 [TFEU]”.

While rules and regulations can be modified, an important rule of law principle is that it should be done with giving enough time for any entity affected by it to prepare for it. Changing the already established schedule based on previously not specified criteria qualifies as moving a goal post during the race.

Though the Presidency is an important position and provides visibility to the holder, it is far from the most influential bodies of the European Union. In fact, the Treaty of Lisbon reduced its significance by separating the European Council from the Council of the European Union, and created separate institutions for foreign policy.

The main function of the holder of the presidency is to organize and coordinate, according to a pre-established agenda.

While there are chances to influence the process, in the end, the fate of the EU is in the hands of all of the member states, and its own institutions. Starting with the fact that “the Member States within each group will by common accord determine the practical arrangements for their collaboration”.

If the other members of the troika experience that they are sidelined or oppressed, they can take the necessary steps. But that should happen based on objective observations not fears, especially not in advance.

Thus, it is a gross overreaction to claim that any presidency would ever be in the position to ruin the EU.

The European Commission took a more sensible approach. EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders (himself a regular critic of Poland and Hungary) declared that the Commission had no business in determining the order of the presidency, but was “attentively following the events”. Chief spokesperson Eric Mamer also told reporters, reminding everybody that “the list of countries holding the Council presidency is within the remits of the Council so it is not for the Commission to take a position on that area”.

So did Sweden and Austria.

Austria’s Europe minister Karoline Edtstadler declared that it was “not expedient to deny a country the EU presidency”, adding, “We have clear rules: There is nothing in the EU Treaty to deny a presidency”.

Swedish minister for European Affairs Jessika Roswall also said that the issue of Hungary’s presidency was not on the agenda and that the “expectation was that all countries assuming the EU presidency have to “keep the interests of all the union’s members”.

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