The EU should have called “a spade a spade” in a more robust response to Hungary’s move to boost government powers, said former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who also took aim at insufficient north-south solidarity over the coronavirus crisis.
Speaking to POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook, Juncker criticized the EU’s lackluster response to the Hungarian parliament voting to allow the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree without a set time limit.
“We have not been able to straighten out the East-West conflict, because the Hungarians act outside of any reasonable zone,” Juncker said. “I thought to myself that now that the new legislation has come into force in Hungary, governments and the [European] Commission will call a spade a spade,” but neither his successor as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen nor EU governments explicitly called out Budapest when they expressed concerns about the impacts of coronavirus measures on the rule of law.
Naming Hungary “would have had no immediate effect, but it would have made the course of the front lines clearer,” Juncker said. “When it comes to the rule of law standard, it is not wishy-washy, but plain language that counts.”
“Now we have let the North-South conflict flare up again without any need” — Jean-Claude Juncker
Juncker’s Commission had several clashes with Budapest over rule of law issues. The Parliament triggered so-called Article 7 proceedings against the country in September 2018, expressing fears that Orbán’s government was going against core EU values.
And the former Commission president himself once welcomed Orbán as a “dictator” at an EU gathering in 2015, though he later suggested it was a private joke and that he regarded the Hungarian PM as a “hero.”
Meanwhile, divisions have reignited between northern and southern European countries over the bloc’s response to the economic fallout from the pandemic.
“The way the Dutch finance minister expressed himself in the direction of Italy is again fueling the conflict between North and South,” Juncker said, referring Wopke Hoekstra last month reportedly calling on the EU to probe why some countries didn’t have the financial buffers to cope better with the economic shock. “Now we have let the North-South conflict flare up again without any need,” Juncker said, adding: “We’ve learnt nothing.”
Juncker declined to speculate on whether the size of the corona package agreed by EU finance ministers is adequate, saying he preferred to “wait until the dust settles.” But an agreement “on a relatively ambitious package after difficult attempts to come together,” he said, “can only be welcomed.” Yet another failure “would have been a setback for the European idea.”
Juncker said he now expects a “much higher” 2021-2027 EU budget, which he insisted is the right instrument to deal with the economic fallout. “It is now urgent that the European budget be increased … We need a budget that rises to the challenges of the future.”
Corona bonds — a joint debt instrument which all EU member countries would guarantee — “are not an answer to the current crisis” as it would “take months” to prepare to use them, Juncker said. But he added that he was not against the idea in principle. “I am just against pretending there is no other answer to the crisis than corona bonds. But one should hold on to the idea. It’s not a crazy idea. There is no question that the instrument will be needed” in a future crisis like the current one.
Juncker also praised the speed with which the EU reacted to the pandemic, and his successor’s role in marshalling the response.
“A great deal has been achieved in just a few weeks. Decisions were taken within a month,” Juncker said, referring to lockdown measures that were widely introduced across the EU in March. “That was a quick reaction … Criticizing von der Leyen for that is cheap. She’s doing a good job.”
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