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'We can never tolerate sick democracies in the EU'

January 13, 2021

Speaking to DW's Conflict Zone, Gunther Krichbaum, head of the Bundestag EU affairs committee, defended the EU decision to tie budget payments to the rule of law, saying it helps put pressure on problematic countries.

Gunther Krichbaum, head of the German parliamentary committee on EU affairs
Image: DW/C. Ștefănescu

The recent decision by the European Union to tie the distribution of the EU budget to compliance with the rule of law was hailed by politicians as a milestone. But it also came in for criticism from some observers in Brussels as a watered-down mechanism that would not have much impact on countries with autocratic leaders, corruption and anti-democratic practices.  

Appearing on DW’s political interview show Conflict Zone, German MP Gunther Krichbaum defended the EU's recent move. 

"I am really glad that we have now this combination between the budget and respect of the rule of law, which was not the case in the past," Krichbaum told Conflict Zone host Tim Sebastian.  

The agreement was reached after intense negotiations last year, as part of Germany’s six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, which Krichbaum described as "very successful." 

European leaders at a summit in 2020
The EU deal was reached as part of Germany's rotating presidency of the Council of the European UnionImage: OLIVIER MATTHYS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The German government campaigned for this mechanism and said it strengthened European values, although human rights groups presented a more critical view. 

Krichbaum, who is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and leads the EU affairs committee in Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag, said the mechanism allows the EU to exert more pressure on certain countries. 

He specifically mentioned Hungary, Poland and Malta as EU members that have "problems." 

Asked by Sebastian about Hungary, where human rights groups have spoken of authoritarianism and EU Commission Vice President Vera Jourova spoke of a sick democracy, Krichbaum said, "We can never tolerate sick democracies in the European Union."

'Not the complete picture of Bulgaria' 

Krichbaum was also critical of respect for the rule of law in Bulgaria, regarding corruption in particular.

"We have cases which take 10, 12 years in the court. It’s too long, it's unacceptable," he said. "So there it has also something to do with the rule of law."

But when Sebastian went a step further and asked him about NGOs and international institutions reporting democratic backsliding, mafias, an almost dysfunctional justice system or even torture, Krichbaum set a different tone.

"It is not acceptable that we have circumstances like the mentioned ones, but let me say it's perhaps not a complete picture of Bulgaria," he said. 

"Sure, things have to be developed in the right direction, but also other points had to be achieved in the past and were done," Krichbaum added. 

Siege of the US Capitol in January 2021
The recent siege on the US Capitol could also have implications beyond US borders, for example in EuropeImage: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

Crisis in Washington: Lessons for Europe? 

Sebastian also asked Krichbaum about the recent siege on the US Capitol in Washington, and whether it should be seen as a wake-up call for Europe. 

Krichbaum answered that in former times, there was a common sense that democracies were strong, but this is changing.  

"We have to observe today that democracies are coming more and more under pressure worldwide, as we had to observe it now by Donald Trump, but not only by Donald Trump," he said. 

"So we have also to fight for our values. We have to fight for democracy. We have to fight for the rule of law," Krichbaum emphasized. 

"This will be decisive about the question of how we will live in 10 or 20 years," he concluded.