EU urges Poland, Hungary to sign up to big money budget

BRUSSELS (AP) — With the European Union on the verge of an embarrassing crisis, Germany on Tuesday urged all member states to put divergences aside in a bid to break a stalemate on the adoption of the bloc’s €1.8 trillion ($2.1 trillion) budget and coronavirus recovery package blocked by Poland and Hungary.

Speaking ahead of a video meeting of European affairs ministers, Germany’s Europe minister Michael Roth said there is no time to waste as the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 remain a top priority of the six-months German presidency of the EU Council.

Following a hard-fought agreement with the European Parliament last week, Roth said “we must now make sure that the funds reach those who need them as quickly as possible. Our citizens, in all member states, count on our support. There are no excuses for further delays.”

Roth spoke after Poland and Hungary vetoed the budget for 2021-2027 and the massive coronavirus recovery plan Monday because of a new mechanism that links EU funding to the rule of law.

Amid the second wave of the pandemic, the money — which includes billions in support for Hungary and Poland — is crucial for many EU nations whose economies have been ravaged by the deadly virus and the lockdowns put in place to slow down the pace of contaminations. The new budget is meant to take effect on Jan. 1.

“I ask everyone in the EU to live up to their responsibility,” Roth said. “It’s not the time for vetoes, but for acting swiftly and in the spirit of solidarity.”

In Warsaw and Budapest, right-wing governments are adamantly opposed to the rule of law mechanism that could cause them to lose EU money if they continue with policies seen as eroding democratic standards.

On Monday, ambassadors voted by a qualified majority – around two-thirds – in favor of the rule of law mechanism, but Poland and Hungary then blocked the procedure for the adoption of a mechanism allowing the EU to borrow money for the recovery.

The move did not come as a surprise after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote a letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel saying he would veto the budget and post-pandemic relief package. The EU commission said it has yet to answer the letter, while Roth said Germany will continue to negotiate to “overcome the remaining political obstacles.”

“Our objective remains to conclude this very difficult negotiations as soon as possible,” he said. EU leaders are likely to discuss the scorching topic on Thursday evening during a videoconference summit.

In an email to The Associated Press, the Hungarian Justice Ministry denied responsibility for the failure and pointed to the German presidency, which “knew exactly the Hungarian position and was aware that the ideologically-based sanctions mechanism is unacceptable to us.”

Poland’s government insists it fears that the European Commission will use the mechanism arbitrarily to punish both Warsaw and Budapest for their conservative political positions, rather than any legitimate reasons related to the rule of law or democracy, said deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski.

When the conservative party, Law and Justice, came to power five years ago, it came under criticism in its early years for changes to the judicial system. Over the past year, new criticism has focused heavily on anti-LGBT declarations of the conservative authorities and more recently on an attempt to implement a near ban on abortion.

Jablonski told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his government fears that the mechanism will simply be used arbitrarily to punish Poland for any conservative policies out of step with the more liberal mainstream elsewhere in Europe.

“We already hear that other arguments are already linking it (the rule-of-law mechanism) to alleged discrimination of LGBT people and to the abortion law, so more and more topics are being raised as potential arguments that would be used against Poland in the future,” he said.

“We learned over these last couple of years that certain politicians are not to be trusted because they simply want to find a stick to hit a dog,” Jablonski added. “Poland and Hungary are attacked here not because of any valid legal arguments but because of political disagreements.”

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Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland. Justin Spike in Budapest contributed to this story.

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