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The EU Commission: Tensions with Post-2004 Members

 5 min read / 

While resistance to Brussels’ diktats on migration quotas continues to bedevil relations with member states, most notably Hungary and Poland, new tensions have begun to surface regarding the new post-2021 EU budget.

The EU Commission is putting forward policy statements arguing that the allocation of new project funds will depend on states adhering to the rule and principles of EU law – as well as their own laws – and the maintenance of an independent judiciary. This is causing alarm in Poland, the biggest beneficiary (as a proportion of GDP) of EU structural funds – funds forecast to be in receipt of billions of euros in the next multi-annual round. Poland received €10.6bn from the EU in 2016, equivalent to 2.6% of its gross national income, which has supported transport infrastructure in particular.

Poland’s Minister of EU affairs, Mr Konrad Szymanski, recently expressed his concern on the 19th February that these latest tactics in a statement he made in Brussels that:-

“I see enormous problems related to the implementation of that political concept, because it could lead to limitation of the member states’ rights guarded by the [EU] treaty,”

Loss of Revenue

With the impending loss of Britain’s financial contribution to the EU multi-annual budget, Brussels is seeking ways of making up the shortfall calculated at €13bn. There is strong resistance to any increases in EU budgetary contributions, particularly, from the smaller net contributors, namely Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Austria. The largest net contributor, Germany, is seeking to link payments to adherence of EU fundamental principles – which all members signed up to with the Acqui Communitaire on joining.

Poland and Hungary (EU Accession 2004) are already at loggerheads with Brussels over their continued refusal to accept refugee quotas imposed by the EU last year. There is ongoing concern that both countries are busy dismantling aspects of their democracies by the steady erosion of due process and the rule of law.

Each nation has populist nationalist governments crafting the kind of democracy that promotes the protection of nationalist Christian values – a guaranteed vote-winner in their conservative-thinking rural heartlands.

Since the global financial crash in 2008, neo-liberal pluralistic values have lost ground and are no longer seen as a stabilising influence in the increasingly turbulent world of European politics. Centrist governments are blamed for propping up the status quo in Brussels: which in turn is accused of pandering to big business at the expense of electorates enduring the long hardships of austerity.

Non-EU Migration

Germany is at the forefront in demanding that the EU’s next multiannual budget (from 2021) is secured in favour of beneficiaries respecting fundamental basic EU policies and values. But its demands go a step further in wanting to reward – with more EU regional aid – those states that are prepared to host large numbers of migrants. This could effectively move funds away from weaker economies in central and Eastern Europe. A clash on this would be so severe and damaging to the EU that it could turn Brexit into a comparative sideshow.

Italy (along with Greece) on the EU’s southern external borders – has carried the burden of (non-EU) mass migration since 2014 and supports financial penalties for member states like Poland and Hungary that continue to resist their share of migrant quotas. Sandro Gozi, Italy’s Europe minister, said on Monday 19th February 2018 that his government would insist on freezing “support for EU funds to countries which violate the rule of law, fundamental rights, and their obligations in terms of solidarity, especially on immigration and asylum”.

Final Thoughts

Szymanski puts a brave face on this threat by saying he will assess the budget conditionality clause when “someone puts it on the table as a legal text — not as a political idea”. Premier Viktor Orban of Hungary, a staunch opponent of the Commission’s imposition of quotas and a close ally of Poland will be equally concerned.

It is easy to see why both German and Italy take a strong line on the migration issue. The growth of right-wing parties in both countries and the electoral success of the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) in last September’s elections have unnerved Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats, resulting in months of negotiations to form a ruling coalition.

In 2015, Merkel may have been given the benefit of the doubt. For what else could she have done in the circumstances. Europe was being swamped with millions of desperate refugees, many fleeing the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Settling a million of them in Germany was a courageous and humanitarian act for which her party paid a high price. But EU members, particularly those in Eastern Europe without a recent colonial past and less multi-cultural in outlook, will continue to defy attempts to force asylum and refugee quotas that are deeply unpopular with voters.

For historical reasons, Germany will be keen to maintain good relations with Poland – now the EU’s 5th biggest member state (with the departure of the UK) – but not at any price. It hopes that compromise on both sides will prevail. To further this, Vera Jourova, the EU Justice Commissioner, is examining ways in which future EU budget criteria focuses on member states observing a broader set of principles – which means assessing whether a member state has a functioning judiciary, rather than narrower interpretations of the “Rule of Law”.

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