At the beginning of this week, Foreign Minister Michael Roth (SPD) was in Brussels to negotiate with the European Parliament about the EU’s financial package, totaling € 1.8 trillion, which should come into effect early next year. Tagesspiegel then spoke with Roth via video conference about the negotiations, the role of the rule of law in the EU and Brexit.
Mr Roth, you are currently negotiating on behalf of the German EU Presidency with the European Parliament on the next European budget for the years 2021 to 2027. What are the main bottlenecks?
We are negotiating the largest financial package in the history of a united Europe. This is our response to the serious crisis that has created great uncertainty for people. We hold talks with the European Parliament on an equal footing and with due respect. As a budget legislator, I take Parliament very seriously. There are currently four main points of contention: on the one hand, there is the amount of the multiannual financial framework …
… for which heads of state or government agreed in July on a volume of € 1.1 trillion and in which MEPs would like to spend more money on research and education …
I currently see no support from EU Member States for a generous increase. Second, the European Parliament wants to have a say when it comes to the distribution of the money from the Corona aid fund, worth € 750 billion. Third, the European Parliament wants binding commitments on new EU taxes that will partially finance the Corona Aid Fund. And – last but not least – there is a dispute over the rule of law clause. This clause states that the disbursement of EU funds to Member States will in future be linked to respect for the rule of law. We need an effective and applicable tool – not a paper tiger.
Do MEPs with excessive demands jeopardize the final approval of the EU financial package of EUR 1.8 trillion?
No. However, we now need a high degree of responsibility on all sides as we need to adopt this sizeable package as soon as possible. We are doing everything we can to ensure that we can reach an agreement with the European Parliament by the end of September.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban defends himself against strict requirements in the planned EU rule of law clause. Photo: AFP
However, that can be difficult as a hard battle is emerging, especially in the rule of law clause dispute. Where do you see the compromise rules?
We are negotiating based on the results of the July summit. The decision of the EU summit is very clear on this point, despite some crude formulations. And there is already a legislative proposal from the European Commission that has been on the table since 2018. When the Commission identifies generalized deficiencies in the rule of law in a Member State, it proposes measures such as suspension of payments. On this basis, the Council must take a decision. In view of possible ‘facts’, the shortcomings in the rule of law, this may, for example, concern the threat to the independence of the judge. The cross-party expectations – on the part of the Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens – in the European Parliament are very clear: they rightly insist on a rule of law that really deserves this name. We must therefore come to a positive decision very quickly. We should not put this on the back burner.
And is there support in Hungary and Poland for such a broad interpretation of the rule of law clause?
This is still under debate. The issue of the conditionality of the rule of law has been highly controversial from the outset. But as I said, there is a very broad alliance in the European Parliament to firmly anchor the link between the allocation of EU funds and the rule of law in the next EU budget. And also on the side of EU members, there is an overwhelming majority of states that finally want to make the conditionality of the rule of law mandatory.
But in the end it won’t work without the permission of Hungary and Poland.
Certainly, that’s how Europe works. The rule of law clause is part of a big package that we cannot unravel. But it should also be clear: the rule of law clause should not only apply when EU money threatens to seep into dark channels through corruption and fraud. The rule of law clause should also be applied when common fundamental values of the EU – such as media diversity or the independence of the judiciary – are called into question.
Another ongoing topic in the EU is the post-Brexit talks, which have been going on in circles for months. Now British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to bring a controversial law into the internal market through parliament that violates international law. Will Johnson lose his credibility forever?
The bill is not compatible with the central elements of the jointly concluded exit agreement with the EU. Within the EU, we all agree: the EU cannot and will not accept this. But we stay cool and relaxed. Because we are interested in the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK. After all, it is about the well-being and interests of millions of people and our economy. We need honesty, respect and above all mutual trust. That is the key to a good joint “deal”.
The EU has asked Johnson to drop the Single Market Act at the end of September.
The EU negotiator, Michael Barnier, has made it very clear what we expect. The UK must fully implement the Withdrawal Agreement. And we stick to our goal: a mutually beneficial agreement is still possible. But time is running out, all parties must now concentrate on the essentials. In any case, a good joint solution will not fail because of the EU.