EU Confronts Limits to Its Power In Disputes With Members

By Daniel Michaels and Laurence Norman Features Dow Jones Newswires

Europe's latest crisis, over rule of law, is a slow-burning one that could play out over years. But it may prove as corrosive as the sudden shocks from the eurozone debt blowup or the 2015 migration wave.

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The European Union is grappling with challenges from members including Poland, Hungary and Greece to what had widely been deemed basic legal and political norms.

That presents Brussels with two dilemmas. The EU, which is a voluntary club of democracies, has never fully resolved how to respond if members' elected governments stray from democratic norms to tighten their grip on power.

Second, what happens to the EU's single market, its currency union and border-free zone if EU governments simply stop following the EU's rules and laws?

Countries have always griped about forking over cash, surrendering their national currencies or opening their markets and borders. But ultimately they have either accepted the consensus or, in a few cases, struck special deals with the rest to opt-out of common projects.

Now, in an unprecedented cavalcade of rejections, members are flouting pronouncements of EU institutions, including its courts.

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A Greek appeals court recently convicted the country's former top state statistician on charges of dereliction of duty despite Brussels' defense of the ex-official and warnings the case was undermining the independence of the country's statistics agency, a pillar of the bloc's economic rules. Separately, the country's judges union has accused Greece's left-wing Syriza government of undercutting judicial independence in the country.

Poland's nationalist government has brushed aside an injunction from the European Court of Justice to prevent logging in a protected forest, saying logging should continue. Poland's dismissal of the court's interim ruling came days after the European Commission began an infringement case -- a legal action that can end in a court case -- against Poland for passing a law that Brussels says also threatens judicial independence. The EU wants the law changed.

The EU has also been locked in a protracted fight with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban over his government's unwillingness to adhere to EU laws. Despite victories in EU courts, the commission was unable to stop Mr. Orban from tightening his grip on Hungarian courts. Brussels is now struggling to rein in Mr. Orban over legislation that could let him shut Central European University, founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

The cases have alarmed EU officials. European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has become a lightning rod for the EU's critics in Budapest and Warsaw, said the judicial developments in Poland pose a threat to the whole bloc.

"The rule of law is one of the values on which our Union is founded and which defines our Union," he said. "What is happening in Poland affects the Union as a whole."

Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who is now the European Council President and is a political foe of Poland's current leaders, said last week his country's flouting of EU decisions raises "a question mark over Poland's European future."

The governments have pushed back, accusing the EU institutions of interfering in sovereign decisions to support politicians who are friendlier to Brussels.

Poland says its planned court changes are similar to practices elsewhere in the bloc and that logging in the forest is only being allowed to prevent a bark-beetle infestation.

Polish President Andrzej Duda bowed to outside pressure and vetoed two of the three laws involved in the judicial overhaul. However, the Hungarian and Polish governments have generally been bolstered politically by their fights with Brussels.

That has underlined how constrained the EU is in enforcing its vision of fundamental standards. The bloc in 2009 granted Brussels a more powerful instrument to curtail a member state's voting rights and funding if democratic standards are undercut. But such punishments require unanimity from the other 27 EU countries. Hungary's Mr. Orban has pledged to veto EU sanctions against Poland's government.

Of course, EU members have long broken rules and landed in EU courts. Last year alone, the EU started 111 so-called infringement cases, alleging a breach of rules. Even Britain, once considered a golden boy when it came to applying EU rules, has scored above the EU average every year since 2004 in terms of the number of pending infringement cases.

But those disputes have taken place within accepted legal boundaries: Member states ultimately obeyed courts' decisions, protecting the legal coherence of the bloc's single market of goods and services and other key legislation.

The EU has battled through its past crises at least in part by forging often gradual compromises on new rules and procedures that were painful for some countries to accept.

Yet Poland and Hungary have refused to abide by EU legislation agreed at the height of the migration crisis in 2015, which sought to spread refugees across the bloc.

EU members "may bend the rules or abuse them, but we agree they exist," said Aneta Wiewiórowska, a senior researcher in the European Legal Studies Institute at Osnabrück University in Germany. "Poland says they do not exist -- the consensus is gone."

Write to Daniel Michaels at daniel.michaels@wsj.com and Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 10, 2017 15:38 ET (19:38 GMT)