The blow is hard for the authoritarian states of Eastern Europe, which have been trying for years to reduce the independence of the judiciary and whose governments are plagued by corruption.

European justice validated on Wednesday, in a long-awaited judgment, a device linking the payment of EU funds to respect for the rule of law, inflicting a setback on Budapest and Warsaw in particular, threatened by this new "regime of conditionality ".

Poland immediately denounced an “attack on (its) sovereignty”.

Hungary, through the voice of its Minister of Justice Judit Varga, castigated a "political decision" linked to the law on homosexuality adopted this summer in Budapest, much criticized within the European Union.

The CJEU, whose decision was for the first time broadcast live on its website, followed the opinion of the Advocate General and rejected the actions for annulment brought by Hungary and Poland against this regulation.

Poland and Hungary's post-Covid recovery plans on hold

“This mechanism was adopted on an adequate legal basis” and “respects the limits of the competences attributed to the Union as well as the principle of legal certainty”, indicates in particular the Court in a press release.

The approval by the courts of this unprecedented instrument will increase the pressure on the Commission, responsible for activating it.

The European executive, in agreement with the Twenty-Seven, had agreed to wait for the opinion of the Court before acting, while the regulation has been in force since January 1, 2021.

The regulation makes it possible to deprive of European funds a country where violations of the rule of law are observed which "damage or risk harming" the financial interests of the EU, "in a sufficiently direct manner".

A possible suspension or reduction of payments must be endorsed by at least 15 Member States out of 27. The mechanism applies to funds paid under the European budget, which constitute substantial sums for these two countries – they are among the main net beneficiaries of European funds – as well as post-Covid recovery plans.

Those of Poland and Hungary have still not been approved.

“We will act with determination”

Pushed to action, the European executive had sent letters in November to Poland and Hungary again setting out its criticisms of respect for the rule of law in these two countries of the former Eastern bloc. .

On the Hungarian side, the Commission raised problems relating to public procurement, conflicts of interest and corruption.

With regard to Warsaw, the attacks on the independence of judges and the questioning of the primacy of European law and the decisions of the CJEU are targeted.

"We will act with determination," assured its president, Ursula von der Leyen in a tweet, welcoming the Court's decision.

"The European Parliament now expects the Commission to quickly apply the conditionality mechanism", reacted the Maltese Roberta Metsola (EPP, right), president of this assembly where a debate on the question is to be held after midday.

“Values ​​matter, and citizens have a right to know how common funds are used,” she added.

A complicated procedure to set up?

French MEP Fabienne Keller (Renew Europe) rejoiced at a "major victory": "Europe is finally acquiring powerful and concrete leverage to sanction populist leaders who want to silence all checks and balances on our democratic model,” she said.

“With this judgment, the very last excuse for the European Commission to do nothing falls,” tweeted MEP Daniel Freund (Greens).

But triggering such a procedure could take weeks or even longer.

The Commission still wants to finalize “guidelines” to implement it.

And the holding of legislative elections on April 3 in Hungary, where the sovereignist Prime Minister Viktor Orban will face an opposition alliance, complicates the situation, Brussels fearing to be accused of interference.

Resulting from a difficult compromise reached in 2020, this "conditionality regime" was demanded by several Member States including the Netherlands to protect EU finances.

Among the instruments available to the EU to fight against attacks on democratic principles, it could prove to be the most effective.

The procedure of Article 7 of the EU Treaty, triggered against Poland and Hungary, allows a country to be sanctioned for not respecting EU values.

It can go so far as to deprive him of his right to vote on the Board, but in practice has proved impossible to carry out.

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