The European Commission presses Poland and Hungary on the rule of law

Poland and Hungary have two months to answer a series of questions about alleged violations of the law that could threaten EU funding as Brussels ramps up pressure for judicial independence.

On Friday, Brussels sent a letter to the Polish and Hungarian ambassadors to the EU, asking a series of detailed questions about possible violations of the rule of law in Warsaw and Budapest and their impact on the EU. with the protection of EU money.

The letters, seen by the FT, mark an informal step towards Brussels’ decision in the coming months on whether to activate a new rule of law mechanism that would allow EU funds to be withheld. or not.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said activating the mechanism was one of the options on the table as Brussels reacted to concerns about the rule of law in Poland.

The letter was sent to Warsaw regarding judicial and prosecutorial services, while the commission asked Hungary for information on its public procurement system and the independence of its courts.

The Commission has been engaged in a protracted legal battle over changes to Poland’s court system that it says threaten judicial independence and the fundamental legal constraints that bind the EU together. .

Poland’s ruling Justice and Law Party says the changes are needed to increase efficiency and that Brussels has no right to interfere in what it sees as domestic affairs.

Tensions between Brussels and Warsaw escalation in October when the country’s top court ruled that key elements of EU law were inconsistent with its constitution.

The impasse has delayed the approval of Poland’s 36 billion euro Covid-19 economic recovery package from Brussels.

Several member states and parts of the commission have called for the activation of the new conditions mechanism, which could threaten tens of billions of euros in annual EU payments to Warsaw.

Hungary will receive 7.2 billion euros from the recovery fund.

The letters sent to Warsaw and Budapest do not mark the official launch of the mechanism, but they are a step in that direction.

Hungary has been asked to clarify “persistent” shortcomings and weaknesses in its procurement rules that have raised concerns about corruption related to the dispersal of EU funds.

Brussels has asked the government of Viktor Orban to provide a list of the 10 people or groups that receive the highest share of the billions of euros in EU agricultural subsidies that Hungary receives.

The letter to the Polish government contains a set of detailed questions about judicial developments.

Among the issues raised was a Polish court ruling this fall that found parts of EU law incompatible with the country’s constitution, as well as a July ruling on provisional measures. ordered by the European Court of Justice. The letter asks how Poland will ensure respect for the laws regarding the protection of EU money, based on those decisions.

The letter also raises questions about Polish prosecutorial services, including the merger of the Polish Attorney General’s office with the prosecutor general, as well as the dismissal of several prosecutors in recent years.

If the prosecution service is not efficient and fair, this could have implications for cases involving the management of EU funds, the letter reads.

The Commission also questioned the pursuit of corruption and conflict of interest cases in Poland, questioning whether cases involving the use of EU funds were properly handled.

The Commission said challenges to the independence of the Polish judiciary could also affect the “effectiveness and fairness” of proceedings related to the management of EU funds, ” creates a risk to the protection of the financial interests of the European Union”.

Poland is under pressure to dismantle a controversial disciplinary chamber for judges that the European Court of Justice has found illegal.

Polish officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment

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