Budget crisis leaves EU in disarray post Brexit

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Budapest: The European Union still hasn’t completely sorted out its messy post-divorce relationship with Britain — but it has already been plunged into another major crisis.

This time the 27-member union is being tested as Poland and Hungary block passage of its budget for the next seven years and an ambitious package aimed at rescuing economies ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Their objection? A new “rule-of-law mechanism” that would allow the bloc to deny funds to countries that violate democratic norms — something that both Poland and Hungary have been accused of doing for years.

The proposed 1.8 trillion-euro (USD 2.1 trillion) budget covers the period from 2021 to 2027, including 750 billion euros (USD 887 billion) in emergency funding to help the continent recover economically from the blow dealt by the pandemic.

The budget is meant to take effect on Jan. 1, and officials are desperate to have the agreement approved within weeks so money can flow fast.

Guy Verhofstadt, a member of European Parliament and a former Belgian prime minister, accused the Hungarian and Polish leaders of putting at risk lives and livelihoods threatened by COVID-19, “only because they want the EU to continue to fund their increasingly corrupt power grab.” ___

The governments of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland have for years been accused of eroding the rule of law, by weakening democratic institutions like an independent judiciary and a free press.

Both Poland and Hungary are ex-communist nations that were hailed as models of democratic transition after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.

Today, however, they are more often associated with the democratic backsliding of their right-wing populist governments. At the heart of the crisis is the question of what the EU is — primarily a zone of free trade made up of independent nations or a union that shares common democratic values? Many in the bloc are keen to protect those norms.

But they have been unable, within existing rules, to alter the course of Warsaw or Budapest. Hence the proposal for a way to cut off the money.

Vera Jourova, vice president of the European Commission, which ensures that EU law is applied in the bloc’s 27 nations, explained in September: “The taxpayers of many member states — they are fed up (with) funding the projects in countries where fundamental rights are violated.”