February 17, 2022 - 3:19pm

Yesterday’s major ruling by the European Court of Justice that the EU can link budget payments to member states’ adherence to the “rule of law” ushers in a new era for the bloc. The rule of law budget mechanism was agreed over a year ago, but its likely targets, Hungary and Poland, lodged a challenge to its legality. The removal of that obstacle means the European Commission can now consider how best to deploy its new economic weapon.  

Over recent months, many in Brussels have displayed a remarkable eagerness to punish conservative member states. An ”our way or the highway” attitude has become mainstream, leading to a bizarre frustration among many MEPs (example below) over the Commission’s failure to trigger the rule of law mechanism before yesterday’s ECJ ruling. Given their professed determination to enforce the rule of law, this lack of regard for due legal process exhibited a jaw-dropping lack of self-awareness.  


Meanwhile in Hungary and Poland, doubts are rife about the EU’s intentions with the rule of law mechanism. Pushed for by wealthy western and northern member states as a way of limiting perceived democratic backsliding in the bloc, the true scope of the mechanism remains unclear. The EU insists it is intended solely to prevent the “misuse” of EU funds by corrupt or undemocratic regimes. But conservative governments in Budapest and Warsaw believe it’s actually an attempt to undermine their national sovereignty and enforce a pivot towards the EU’s progressive institutional values. 

They can hardly be blamed for coming to this conclusion, given that the EU’s new financial powers were drawn up and agreed at a time of heightened tensions over social conservatism in Hungary and Poland. Both countries have pursued pro-family agendas intended to combat worrying population decline, including policies (criticised as homophobic) such as a Child Protection Act in Hungary limiting the dissemination of LGBT-related content, and the creation of “LGBT-free zones” in Poland. Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga was quick to decry yesterday’s ECJ ruling as a “politically motivated judgement because of the Child Protection Act,” while her Polish counterpart Zbigniew Ziobro said the rule of law mechanism “serves to put pressure on Poland by means of ideological blackmail.” 

Indeed, if such cultural issues aren’t the real reason for the EU’s targeting of Hungary and Poland, the focus of the rule of law dispute seems somewhat arbitrary. Other countries in the region have similar problems with corruption and nepotism — the Czech parliament is currently deliberating on whether to release former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš for prosecution over alleged EU subsidy fraud, while Austria has been racked by political corruption scandals over the past year.  

It’s not corruption that makes these countries stand out in central Europe. It’s their social conservatism. This has naturally led their governments to conclude that the rule of law mechanism is, in reality, a vehicle for effecting a cultural pivot towards the EU’s institutional progressivism.   

The fact can’t be escaped that Brussels lawmakers now have the power to withhold the benefits of membership to perceived transgressors and that member states will have little power to contest such decisions outside of EU institutions. The EU insists that the rule of law mechanism isn’t a political weapon – but the potential for it to be used as such is crystal clear. And if statements from MEPs and the EU’s liberal leaders are anything to go by, so is the intention. As Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the Commission, said: “We will act with determination… Today’s judgements confirm that we are on the right track”.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz