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Next EU executive won't let Poland, Hungary off hook on democracy: diplomats

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s next executive will keep up forceful pressure on Poland and Hungary over rule of law deficiencies, diplomats and officials said on Thursday, countering the hopes of Warsaw’s ruling nationalist, euroskeptic party.

FILE PHOTO: European Commission deputy president Frans Timmermans (L) and Austrian Social Democratic (SPO) leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner campaign ahead of the European Parliament elections in Vienna, Austria, May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

The Law and Justice (PiS) party government has expected that its endorsement of the new president of the powerful European Commission - German conservative Ursula von der Leyen - would help wind down the EU’s so-called Article 7 inquiry against Poland for flouting democratic rules.

This will not be the case, Frans Timmermans, a Dutchman expected to retain his role as deputy commission chief under Von der Leyen, said on Thursday after EU ministers held yet more discussions over the bloc’s concerns about Poland.

“The next Commission, under the presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, I have no doubt, will be as forceful, as concrete and as determined as the present Commission, no doubt whatsoever,” Timmermans told a news conference in Brussels.

In presenting her programme for the next five years, Von der Leyen stressed repeatedly that respecting the EU’s fundamental democratic values would be at the heart of her policies.

She, as well as the outgoing Commission, proposed a raft of new tools to safeguard democracy around the 28-nation bloc, where euroskeptic and nationalist parties have grown stronger in recent years in a voter backlash over austerity, migration and globalization.

German and French ministers said at Thursday’s meeting that the rule of law was “at the heart of the European project,” diplomatic sources said.

“The concerns that led to the launch of the Article 7 procedure have not been completely and properly addressed yet. We reaffirm our support to the current commission in this regard and we are confident that the next team will show the same commitment,” German EU minister Michael Roth said.

Finland, now holding the bloc’s rotating presidency until the end of 2019, has also spoken in favour of beefing up the bloc’s response to those members who challenge democratic rules.

That includes making EU funding for member states in the EU’s next joint budget for 2021-27 conditional on upholding the rule of law, a step that could hurt Poland and Hungary as they are among the EU’s poorer member who receive generous handouts.

EU pressure has helped win some concessions from Poland’s PiS and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, pushing them to renounce some elements of their legal changes that put courts, media, academics and advocacy groups under more state control.

Separately, the Commission this week escalated a legal case against Poland for disciplinary procedures PiS introduced against judges. Warsaw has two months to make amends or it would be sued in the EU’s top court.

The Commission has scheduled a hearing on Hungary in September.

Additional reporting by Alexandra Regida; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Heinrich