BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Governments in ex-communist states will face growing budgetary pressure from Brussels if they fail to respect rules on judicial independence, the Slovak commissioner who is running to head the EU executive said on Monday.
Maros Sefcovic, the vice president for energy who is bidding to be the centre-left candidate to replace European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker next year, said his priority would be to intensify dialogue with the likes of Hungary and Poland, which are defying Brussels over constitutional changes.
But, the Moscow-educated diplomat told Reuters, states that benefit from EU subsidies - and these are notably in his native east of the bloc - should expect richer countries to impose stiffer conditions linking funding to respect for EU standards.
Noting proposals by the Commission to tighten links between funding and democratic norms in the next EU budget, Sefcovic said "net contributors" - principally the wealthiest western EU states - have made clear their demand for even closer controls.
"If you want to spend European taxpayers' money, then there should be a 100 percent guarantee that they are properly supervised - that you have independent courts, that you have independent auditors and you have an independent judicial system which is controlling how this money is spent," he said.
"I'm sure that this will be beefed up," he added, proposing that funding could be linked to accepting oversight by the new European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO).
Poland and Hungary are among five EU member states that have yet to sign up to the new agency, which is intended to combat fraud and corruption affecting EU funds. "My idea would be if you do not accept the jurisdiction of the European prosecutor then be ready for much more scrutiny," Sefcovic said.
Disputes between some eastern governments and the EU executive, reflecting broader tensions between Brussels and rising nationalist movements across the continent, pose a threat to European integration. Sefcovic said he is running for the top job - he is so far the only easterner widely cited - to show that it was open to people from all parts of Europe.
He urged Europeans not to an accept "an Iron Curtain in our minds" and said he would promote major investment in new technologies in order to keep Europe competitive.
Citing the example of his Battery Alliance drive to promote the manufacture of the key new transport technology in Europe - a project he said could in time see 20 new "gigafactories" - Sefcovic said he would like to see "a couple of" super-computers in the EU to compete with those running in the United States.
He also said he would like to see less pressure to break up EU firms by competition regulators, in the interest of promoting European companies capable of competing globally.
(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald, Alissa de Carbonnel and Peter Maushagen; Editing by Mark Heinrich)