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EU parliament set to sue European Commission over rule-of-law inaction

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Parliament looked set to back a resolution on Wednesday to sue the European Commission over what lawmakers say is its failure to uphold the rule of law, in a dispute that could affect the allocation of billions of euros in EU aid.

Lawmakers accuse the executive Commission of dragging its feet over applying a new regulation – technically in force since Jan. 1 – that makes EU governments’ access to funds conditional on their respect for the rule of law and democratic norms.

They fear in particular that Commission inaction will boost the re-election chances next year of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalists even though Brussels has long accused them of eroding democratic freedoms in Hungary.

Hungary and Poland, both under formal EU investigation for breaking the rule of law, stand to lose billions of euros in EU funds when the new regulation is applied.

“The European Parliament instructs its President to call on the Commission within two weeks from the date of adoption of this resolution at the latest, …to fulfil its obligations under this Regulation,” the draft resolution said.

The Parliament will begin preparations for potential legal action against the Commission, it added.

The vote is expected on Wednesday evening.

BUYING VOTER SUPPORT

The Commission, guardian of the EU treaties, has previously said it only wants to implement the regulation after it has prepared appropriate guidelines – a process delayed by legal challenges from Poland and Hungary that could drag on for years.

This effectively neutralises the law designed to safeguard EU money from misuse in cases where, for example, politicised courts do not guarantee a fair trial for a complaint about a tender for an EU-funded project.

EU Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn told lawmakers on Wednesday the Commission would present to the Parliament draft guidelines on how to apply the law to lawmakers within two weeks and he urged them not to launch legal action.

But members of the Parliament said the guidelines were not part of the law the Commission is meant to uphold and could not therefore be viewed as the executive taking the required action.

“The fate of Viktor Orban is for Hungarian voters to decide. We need to make sure EU money is not contributing to rigging or stealing that election,” Green MEP Daniel Freund said.

“The inaction of the Commission… allows Orban to buy support with EU money… (and) to control media coverage of the campaign. That’s why… we are suing the Commission,” he said.

In a decade in power, Orban has used public money including EU funds to build a loyal business elite while curbing the independence of the media, non-governmental organisations and universities, his critics say. Orban, who has a large parliamentary majority, denies undermining Hungarian democracy.

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