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A Call for Accountability

The European Union is first and foremost a community of values and a community of law. If national governments refuse to accept the common rules and standards, and if they do not recognise the authority of the independent arbiter, the EU will cease to function. It is the task of the European Commission to ensure that all members respect the rules.

Last week’s decision of the Commission to approve the Polish national plan for the Recovery and Resilience Fund is not in line with that task. The “milestones” fall short of what has been demanded by the European Court of Justice, and they do not address the refusal to recognise the primacy of EU law and the authority of the ECJ by the Polish authorities. The decision also completely ignores all resolutions by the European Parliament, the rulings of the ECJ and the Article 7 procedure launched by the Commission itself.

Moreover, statements by the Polish Prime Minister; the Chair of the Council of the Judiciary; and reporting by government-aligned public television in response to the Commission decision, make it crystal clear that the Polish government has no intention to seriously implement the “milestones”, let alone fully restore the independence of the judiciary. The remedies that have so far been announced are largely cosmetic.

The Von der Leyen Commission made its decision with unprecedented and public dissent coming from five Commissioners, including the two First Vice Presidents and the two Commissioners holding the specific portfolio of the rule of law. They are concerned that the “Milestones” are insufficient to resolve all the rule of law concerns, and they fear that the implementation will not be assessed with the necessary rigour. This effectively means that five key Commissioners have lost confidence in the Commission President to act as the Guardian of the Treaties.

The responsibility of the European Council for the current situation must not be overlooked. This body has been remarkably silent so far. In the past twelve years it has disgraced itself by failing spectacularly at addressing rule of law violations from its members. In this case there may even be a cynical trade-off: tacit support for letting the Polish government off the hook and disbursing the 35 billion, in return for lifting the Polish veto against certain files that have been blocked.

Some consider it not appropriate to be critical towards the Commission in times of crisis, as such times require political stability. When the leadership has resulted in public divisions within the College, alienation of the European Parliament, erosion of the authority of the ECJ, and a boost for autocracy in Europe, it begs the question if this leadership contributes to stability, or rather weakens it. President Von der Leyen chose the timing and the substance of the decision, and in doing so she has created a major political problem.

It is the task of the European Parliament to hold the Commission to account. In the interest of the EU as a whole, Parliament has the duty to ensure that the Commission carries out its tasks, and be critical when it doesn’t. A critical Parliament is never the problem, but a silent Parliament is. Instead the pressure should be on the President of the Commission and on the Polish government to ensure that there is full compliance with the rule of law; now and in the future.

The responsibility for solving the situation lies fully with the Polish government and with the European Commission. The Polish government must comply fully and permanently with all ECJ rulings and it must acknowledge the primacy of EU law. As long as these criteria have not been met, the European Commission should not make any payment. (To be clear: funding for the reception of refugees by Poland shall not be affected, as Europe will stand in full solidarity with the Polish people). Should the Commission proceed to disburse payments before all criteria have been met, the European Parliament should withdraw its confidence and vote a motion of censure. The European Parliament cannot dismiss individual Commissioners, but insofar as individual responsability for the current situation can be attributed, in my view it falls to the failing leadership.

For all the reasons mentioned above, and in line with the motion adopted at the ALDE Party conference on June 4th, together with my colleagues Verhofstadt and Garicano, I have launched the call for signatures for a motion of censure against the Von der Leyen Commission.