Merkel cautions EU: Talk to Poland, Hungary before cutting funds

German chancellor said Commission should 'wait' for decision of the highest EU court and called threats by MEPs 'a bit saddening.'

Merkel cautions EU: Talk to Poland, Hungary before cutting funds

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday urged the EU against rushing to halt funds to Poland and Hungary despite mounting pressure for the bloc to take action over democratic backsliding concerns in both countries.

The European Commission has been considering whether to suspend certain EU budget payments to the countries, using a recently acquired power meant to punish member states for breaching the rule of law. While the Commission has held off on using the new tool while it is challenged in court, many activists and MEPs want the Commission to take action now, citing ongoing allegations that Poland and Hungary are undermining their own democracies.

Merkel, the outgoing German leader, was speaking to reporters a day after a European Parliament committee threatened to take legal action against the Commission over its reluctance. And EU leaders are expected to discuss Poland’s rule-of-law crisis at a summit next week.

Merkel on Friday backed the high-level discussion but not the Parliament committee’s stance.

“I think it is now time to talk in-depth with the Polish government, how we can overcome the difficulties … We have big problems, but my advice is to solve them in talks, to find compromises,” Merkel said in Brussels following a meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

Merkel said she doesn’t agree with those who believe “political differences” should “always be resolved through court proceedings.” She added: “That’s why I’m a bit concerned about the large number of cases that are now being settled in court.”

The chancellor also criticized the European Parliament over its threat, saying: “From my point of view, I find it a bit saddening, if I may say so cautiously, when Parliament says that now we may have to sue the Commission. I don’t think that will lead to anything.”

The Polish government on Tuesday ratcheted up its rule-of-law battle with the EU by adopting a verdict from the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, which found that the Polish constitution has primacy over some EU law. Many saw the ruling as questioning the treaties undergirding the EU itself.

Merkel said that the EU’s rule-of-law mechanism, which was negotiated under last year’s German presidency of the Council of the EU, had required “a great willingness to compromise on all sides.” Part of that compromise, she stressed, was that Poland and Hungary had the right to go to the Court of Justice of the European Union and “ask whether this directive is in line with European law,” which the two countries have done. The Commission has been waiting to deploy the mechanism until the court challenges are settled.

Merkel warned against rushing to activate the mechanism before the court had ruled on the issue. “I think we can wait for this decision of the European Court of Justice now,” she said.

She also stressed the need for EU countries to remain united on difficult questions, recalling that “the exit of the United Kingdom was a great sadness” for her.

In addition to the rule-of-law mechanism, the Commission is also withholding coronavirus recovery fund payments to Poland and Hungary over rule-of-law concerns. Merkel did not directly refer on Friday to the potential withholding of those payments.

De Croo said he was “on the same page” as Merkel when it comes to the rule of law. “This could become a big issue, but you could prevent it from becoming a big issue if you engage,” he said. “I think that just criticizing and finger-pointing from the outside is not going to lead us anywhere, so we need to engage and we need to understand what the next steps [by Poland] will be.”