22 November 2013

EU-Kommission v. Ungarn: Warum wir ein „System-Vertragsverletzungsverfahren“ brauchen

What can the European Union – and in particular the European Commission – do about Member States that no longer reliably play by the most fundamental European rules? The question is now urgent because several Member States are already posing such challenges. Treaty reform could give the Commission new powers. But can the Commission act without waiting for the long and arduous process of treaty reform to provide new tools?

I propose a new approach, a simple extension of an existing mechanism: the infringement action. The Commission could signal systemic complaints against a Member State by bundling a group of individual infringement actions together under the banner of Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), which guarantees:

 the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.  These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

A systemic infringement action would share with ordinary infringement actions specific complaints against the national law or consistent practices of a Member State for violating particular provisions of EU law.  As a result, it would have a very concrete ground like a conventional infringement action brought by the Commission under Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). By grouping together related complaints thematically under Article 2 TEU, however, the Commission would add the argument that the whole is more than the sum of the parts and that the set of alleged infringements rises to the level of a systemic breach of basic values.

A medical analogy might help to explain how a systemic infringement action would work.  The Commission may believe that a Member State is breaching the values of Article 2 TEU, but basing a legal action on “violating the values of the EU” alone would give the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) the same task that a doctor would have in attempting to treat a general complaint of “feeling bad.”  A doctor needs a detailed set of concrete symptoms before being able to accurately diagnose a disease, just as the CJEU would need evidence of a pattern of concrete infringements before it could diagnose an Article 2 TEU disease. Treating each symptom on its own without aggregating the symptoms into a systemic diagnosis runs the risk of failure because fixing only one symptom or another may not eradicate the disease.  Diagnosing a systemic problem in law requires the same sort of evidence as diagnosing a systemic problem in medicine.  One needs to observe the full set of relevant symptoms together to understand the fundamental problem.  Only then can one be confident of an accurate diagnosis and therefore a more effective treatment.

A systemic infringement action would enable the Commission to signal to the Court of Justice a more general concern about deviation from core principles than a single infringement action would allow. It would also have the advantage of putting before the CJEU in one case evidence of a pattern of violations so that the overall situation in a particular Member State is not lost in a flurry of individual infringement actions, each of which might go to a different panel of judges at the Court. The CJEU could then either agree with the Commission that the symptoms add up to a disease and find a violation of Article 2 TEU, or the CJEU could find that only certain (or even none of the) individual violations within the larger mix require treatment.

If the CJEU confirms the systemic element of the infringement action and finds a violation of Article 2 TEU, compliance should be assessed in a way that addresses both the particular infringements and the larger breach of EU values.  In such a case, a Member State should not be permitted simply to make small fixes to correct individual violations without addressing the larger threat to the principles of Article 2 TEU.

If continued systemic infringement occurs in violation of a CJEU decision, the Commission might then expand its range of sanctions beyond the current set.  After all, if a Member State has been found to persistently challenge fundamental values of the EU, then its compliance with burdensome remedies cannot be assumed. Fines levied through an Article 260 TFEU action might therefore be collected by putting in escrow some portion of the Member States’ EU funding streams until the Member State complies. This power to withhold funds could be given to the Commission through secondary legislation of the sort that has already been used for other conditionalities in funding, like the powers made available under the Excessive Deficit Procedure.  This would provide a legal basis for the proposal by the foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland that the Commission find ways to cut the funds of Member States that are in persistent and serious violation of EU principles.  Allowing the Commission to stop the flow of funds following confirmation by the CJEU of both a systemic violation and continued noncompliance would ground this proposed sanction in a multi-institutional judgment like other current sanctions, giving the Commission a more “constitutional” basis for its actions.

This suggestion to withhold EU funds is the only part of my proposal that calls for any additional legal authority and such authority can be provided by secondary legislation rather than through treaty reform. The other parts of this proposal can be accomplished under existing authority. The systemic infringement action therefore gives the Commission a new tool to use now in the fight against democratic backsliding without the need for treaty reform.

A fully worked-out version of the proposal, explaining how a systemic infringement action would work, how assessment of compliance might follow and how fines might be assessed if there is continued noncompliance, can be found here.

SUGGESTED CITATION  Scheppele, Kim Lane: EU-Kommission v. Ungarn: Warum wir ein „System-Vertragsverletzungsverfahren“ brauchen, VerfBlog, 2013/11/22, https://verfassungsblog.de/eu-kommission-v-ungarn-warum-wir-system-vertragsverletzungsverfahren-brauchen/, DOI: 10.17176/20170930-153033.


  1. AX Fr 22 Nov 2013 at 18:47 - Reply

    I very much appreciate the idea of using the infringement action for this purpose. However, I have concerns as to the proposal’s compatibility with the dictate that the Court of Justice cannot „order the Member State to take specific measures“ (see, inter alia, case C-104/02, Commission v Germany, para. 49). It might also open Pandora’s box, e. g. prompting Hungary to sue Slovakia under Article 259 TFEU over the systemic infringement of the Hungarian minority’s rights.

  2. […] Mit der gewonnenen Wahl im Rücken hat FIDESz offenbar keinerlei Zweifel mehr daran, sich als Regierungspartei eines Mitgliedsstaats der Europäischen Union eine solche Politik ganz bequem leisten zu können. Ich erwarte, dass die EU einen Weg findet, zu demonstrieren, dass sie sich irrt. […]

  3. josef Di 29 Jul 2014 at 19:44 - Reply

    As a simple end-user of jurisdiction, I would urge you to HURRY UP. The next elections will take place in 2018, and the Fidesz is (re)writing the rules of the game at will!
    Can the EU use this time to at least reduce the uncertainty against which the (pseudo) challenger will have to fight?

    On the 6.May 2014, Orbán et alii won 44% of the vote from which their own newly crafted election law, having been polished until shortly before the election, gave them a constitution-superpower supermajority (2/3 of parliament seats).
    This was the second of three nationwide elections which were held according to ad-hoc legislation – the third being the community elections in some 2 months, the according law for which is just finished (for the moment no further modifications were announced, but this means nothing).

    Apart from tricks like gerrymongering and related phenomena (including granting ethnic hungarians the active election right), a not-so-obvious side is, is that every election comes with associated strategies for successful participation. In case of the new parliamentary election law, this made it necessary(at least in the sense of election-mathematics) that the opposition parties run as a unified umbrella oganisation (Összefogás-Együtt14).
    As some of these parties were created exactly to offer an alternative to others (namely the old-rotten socialist party) this in itself was a weakness, which was certainly foreseen by the creators of the law. Of course this was made more difficult by having limited time (half a year or even a full year..?) to invent this new strategy.

    My point: Significant changes in an election law favor new strategies of the participating parties, so, a ruthless politician commanding the parliamentary supermajority can ruin the chances of his opponents (weak and blunt enough anyway) just by changing the rules of the game on short notice.

    I do fear that the next elections will be held under yet different election rules such that a realistic result 36%,say, for Orbáns Fidesz-party will still be transformed into enough parlieamentary seats to ensure an easy life for them.
    Another problem is that he may simply have himself elected as president of the republic after granting this now ceremonial office vast powers.
    Obviously, a huge informal basis for his and his friend’s power is already in place, but I am afraid, this is not a legal category.


Leave A Comment


1. We welcome your comments but you do so as our guest. Please note that we will exercise our property rights to make sure that Verfassungsblog remains a safe and attractive place for everyone. Your comment will not appear immediately but will be moderated by us. Just as with posts, we make a choice. That means not all submitted comments will be published.

2. We expect comments to be matter-of-fact, on-topic and free of sarcasm, innuendo and ad personam arguments.

3. Racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory comments will not be published.

4. Comments under pseudonym are allowed but a valid email address is obligatory. The use of more than one pseudonym is not allowed.