The college of Commissioners decided on 13 January to trigger the first phase of the so-called rule of law mechanism with regard to Poland. The mechanism is a preliminary step to the eventual activation of the “nuclear” Article 7 of the Treaty on EU – article enabling suspension of membership rights of a member states due to serious breaches of EU values such as democracy and rule of law. This article was introduced into EU Treaties before the 2004 enlargement, precisely due to fears of shortcomings of Eastern European democracies. It was never used. When Haider´s FPO entered Austrian government, it was considered but not used after all. When Orbán´s government in Hungary practically took control of the country´s media, it was not triggered either for political reasons. However, back then the EC constituted the rule of law mechanism itself.
The EC has been watching with unease some steps of the new Polish government, namely the reform of the Constitutional Court and public media. EU and Polish representatives exchanged some tough words. Now the EU triggers a formal mechanism, the idea of which is structured dialogue. According to First Vice-President Timmermans, EC and Poland will talk about the problematic changes in order learn each other´s view. This feature of the mechanism was welcomed by the Polish representatives as well. However, if Poland fails to provide a sufficient explanation, the EC could issue a recommendation, a follow-up recommendation and in extreme case, propose the activation of Article 7 to the Council. The Council would vote by qualified majority on the risk of serious breach of EU values. However, the full-power Article 7 would require the European Council, EU presidents and prime ministers, to vote unanimously – and Hungarian PM Orbán made it clear he would veto such move. Some sanctions against Poland therefore remain a distant possibility, but the process will be difficult and highly controversial. Some EU politicians point out that EU´s inaction vis-a-vis Hungary in the past ties its hands in the current Polish crisis.
11th January 2018
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