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Disputed EU tool to sanction democratic backsliding clears key hurdle

A decisive majority of EU states on Wednesday signed off on a tool to sanction certain rule-of-law infringements detected within the bloc, despite opposition from Hungary and Poland.

Brussels, 30 September 2020 (dpa/MIA) – A decisive majority of EU states on Wednesday signed off on a tool to sanction certain rule-of-law infringements detected within the bloc, despite opposition from Hungary and Poland.

The proposal put forward by Germany, which holds the rotating EU presidency, allows for EU budget funds to be restricted if such infringements damage budget management or the financial interests of the European Union.

The step kicks off negotiations with the European Parliament, which may push to make the tool stronger after a number of EU lawmakers criticized the mechanism as toothless.

“It is encouraging that a broad majority of EU states supported the conditionality mechanism,” EU presidency spokesman and German diplomat Sebastian Fischer wrote on Twitter, acknowledging that the debate is “very polarized.”

Poland and Hungary vehemently oppose the mechanism and have threatened to block the passage of the EU’s long-term budget and coronavirus economic recovery package should it move ahead.

The proposal was originally put forward by the European Commission in 2018 in response to concerns about the independence of the judiciary or the press in several EU states.

The tool is seen as a way to overcome frequent deadlocks resulting from the current high threshold for approval.

Both Poland and Hungary are facing so-called Article 7 procedures, which can ultimately see a member state stripped of its EU voting rights, a move unlikely to gain the backing of enough EU countries to ever go ahead.

The development comes the same day as the European Commission – which is responsible for upholding the bloc’s founding values and can launch infringement proceedings accordingly – published for the first time country-by-country reports on the state of key values in the EU.

“Today we are filling an important gap in our rule of law toolbox,” commission vice-president Vera Jourova said, adding that the reports will help prevent problems and identify trends.

“Each citizen deserves to have access to independent judges, to benefit from free and pluralistic media and to trust that their fundamental rights are respected. Only then, can we call ourselves a true union of democracies,” she said at a Brussels press conference.

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