EU slams Poland and Hungary over rule of law, but to little effect

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BRUSSELS – Poland and Hungary came under heavy criticism on Tuesday by the European Commission in a series of reports claiming countries’ recent actions threatened judicial independence and undermined the rule of law.

The reports reviewed the state of the rule of law in the 27 member states of the European Union, and its findings on Poland and Hungary were harsh, despite their relatively bland bureaucratic language.

Their impact, however, is likely to be small.

The European Union lacks effective tools to quickly discipline member states, and a new initiative to at least allow withholding of EU funds for coronavirus recovery from countries found to undermine the rule of law will fail. won’t be tested until the fall, if so.

Hungary and Poland receive the most attention as they are considered the main offenders when it comes to undermining the rule of law, judicial independence and media pluralism. But many other member states, including Austria, Bulgaria, Malta, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, are also having serious problems with the same issues.

Hungary and Poland are still seeking commission approval for their stimulus spending plans under the unprecedented € 800 billion pandemic fund – roughly $ 920 billion. But EU officials have made it clear that rule of law reports released on Tuesday are entirely separate from judgments that will be made later on whether to approve or withhold funds. Hungary is expected to receive around € 7 billion and Poland around € 24 billion.

The reports were presented by Vera Jourova, Vice-President in charge of Values ​​and Transparency, and Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice. They spoke generally of efforts to establish what Mr. Reynders called “a culture of the rule of law”.

In a background briefing for journalists, EU officials (by ground rules they don’t allow themselves to be named) were relatively straightforward. Of what happened in Hungary over the past year, an official said: “The vast majority of concerns remain, and some of them have worsened. “

Issues raised in the reports include patronage, favoritism, nepotism, corruption, pressure on the media, and questions of judicial independence.

Hungary is also receiving renewed attention over its reported use of sophisticated Israel-developed spyware called Pegasus to monitor journalists, rights activists, opposition politicians and foreign heads of state. .

A consortium of media organizations, including the Washington Post and the Guardian, reported this week that the sophisticated spyware has been used by more than 50 countries. At least five of the smartphones that appeared to be targeted belonged to individuals in Hungary, according to the consortium, and more than 300 Hungarian phone numbers were on a list of around 50,000 some of which were selected for surveillance using Pegasus, the consortium said.

The European Union has commented carefully on these findings, which emerged after the drafting of the rule of law reports. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday that if Hungary’s use of Pegasus was verified, “this is totally unacceptable and contrary to any kind of rules we have in the European Union” .

“Regarding media freedom,” she said, “press freedom is one of the fundamental values ​​of the European Union. It is totally unacceptable if this were to be the case.

But once again, the question of possible sanctions remains unclear.

There is no real remedy against EU members that is not based on lengthy legal proceedings or the unanimous vote of member states – which would be impossible, especially since Poland and Hungary have agreed to block such actions. The so-called Article 7 disciplinary proceedings against Poland and Hungary, which could in principle be denied the right to vote, are therefore moot.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto on Monday denied the use of Pegasus to monitor civilians. During a press conference, Judit Varga, Minister of Justice, declared: “Hungary is a rule of law and, like any decent state, in the 21st century, it has the technical means to carry out its missions. national security. It would be a serious problem if we didn’t have these tools, but they are being used legally. “

Analysts were skeptical of the impact of the reports on the rule of law.

“In the short term, this report mainly offers a facade of action,” said Laurent Pech, professor of European law at Middlesex University in London, arguing that the committee should have given priority to “swift and coercive action. decisive ”.

The findings, Mr Pech said, could prove useful in the long run, but he asked: “What good is a rule of law report if, due to a lack of decisive action and application, there is no rule of law? left to watch in some countries? “

In Poland, according to one of the reports, the judicial situation has generally deteriorated, with politicized reforms creating “serious concerns about the rule of law, in particular the independence of the judiciary”.

The European Commission is in a major struggle with the two countries over the rule of law and the supremacy of European law over national courts. Poland challenged the authority of the European Court of Justice, which ordered the suspension of a disciplinary chamber for judges on the grounds that it is politicized and not independent.

Poland refused and the commission warned again on Tuesday that it would take further action against the country. If Poland does not comply with court orders by August 16, the commission will ask the court to financially penalize Poland, Ms. Jourova said.

“EU law takes precedence over national law,” she said. “There can be no compromise on this. “

The Poland report also cited intimidation of journalists and a growing lack of media pluralism, with a state-owned oil refinery, Orlen, buying out a local media group that owns 20 of the country’s 24 regional newspapers. .

Established a year ago, these reports are meant to be a sort of health check – and early warning system – on the state of justice, media freedom and other institutions. But they are written in collaboration with Member States and are therefore inevitably more bland than many critics and non-governmental organizations would like.

Yet European Union officials insist that these reports spark debate, influence political agendas and are used by Member States and the European Parliament to make decisions. Mr Reynders also said they would play an important role in future decisions regarding the disbursement of stimulus funds.

Mr Reynders described the reports as “perhaps one of the most important sources for the possible application of the new conditionality”.


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