BRUSSELS — With the European Union on the verge of an embarrassing crisis, EU officials and a large majority of member states urged Poland and Hungary on Tuesday to lift their veto of a huge budget and coronavirus recovery package, saying it threatens to derail the bloc's efforts to recover from the pandemic.
During a video meeting, European affairs ministers said that finalizing the implementation of the bloc's landmark long-term budget and stimulus deal worth €1.8 trillion ($2.1 trillion) was badly needed to tackle the social and economic consequences of COVID-19.
"It's not the time for vetoes, but for acting swiftly and in the spirit of solidarity," Germany's Europe minister Michael Roth said before the meeting.
Poland and Hungary, however, showed no sign of backing down.
Following a hard-fought agreement with the European Parliament last week that opened the door for the deal to be finalized, Roth said "we must now make sure that the funds reach those who need them as quickly as possible. Our citizens, in all member states, count on our support. There are no excuses for further delays."
Roth, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, insisted during the talks that there was no alternative to the package. The EU's budget commissioner Johannes Hahn added that a failure to deliver would have a "devastating impact for our citizens, and on the financial markets."
Poland and Hungary vetoed the budget for 2021-2027 and the massive aid plan Monday because of a new mechanism that links EU funding to the rule of law. Ambassadors voted by a qualified majority in favor of the rule of law conditionality, but both countries then blocked the procedure for the adoption of a mechanism allowing the EU to borrow money for the virus recovery fund.
Amid the second wave of the pandemic, the money — which includes billions in support for Hungary and Poland — is crucial for many EU nations whose economies have been ravaged by the deadly virus and the lockdowns put in place to slow the pace of contaminations. The new budget is meant to take effect on Jan. 1.
Martin Klus, the Slovakian Minister for European Affairs, said a failure to agree on the package would deepen the crisis "in the middle of the worst economic downturn in European history."
In Warsaw and Budapest, right-wing governments are adamantly opposed to the rule of law mechanism that could cause them to lose EU money if they continue with policies seen as eroding democratic standards.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, said Tuesday that the EU budget must be vetoed as "Poland would not agree with any type of dictate."
"As a large member of the EU, Poland is paying taxes and works for the EU," he said. "But now there are certain decisions being proposed and those might turn into a trap for some countries of the bloc. This can not be tolerated," he added.
In an email to The Associated Press, the Hungarian Justice Ministry denied responsibility for the failure and pointed to the German presidency, which "knew exactly the Hungarian position and was aware that the ideologically-based sanctions mechanism is unacceptable to us."
Poland's government insists it fears that the European Commission will use the mechanism arbitrarily to punish both Warsaw and Budapest for their conservative political positions, rather than any legitimate reasons related to the rule of law or democracy, said deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski.
When the conservative party, Law and Justice, came to power five years ago, it came under criticism in its early years for changes to the judicial system. Over the past year, new criticism has focused heavily on anti-LGBT declarations of the conservative authorities and more recently on an attempt to implement a near ban on abortion.
Jablonski told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his government fears that the mechanism will simply be used arbitrarily to punish Poland for any conservative policies out of step with the more liberal mainstream elsewhere in Europe.
"We already hear that other arguments are already linking it (the rule-of-law mechanism) to alleged discrimination of LGBT people and to the abortion law, so more and more topics are being raised as potential arguments that would be used against Poland in the future," he said.
"Poland and Hungary are attacked here not because of any valid legal arguments but because of political disagreements," Jablonski added.
Hahn denied the mechanism was discriminatory or ideologically charged, adding that "nobody should fear anything."
EU leaders are likely to continue discussing the topic on Thursday evening during a videoconference summit.
Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland. Justin Spike in Budapest, and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, contributed.