Thursday

23rd Jan 2020

Opinion

EU's chance to step up on Hungary and Poland

  • Hungary's Viktor Orban confronts in the European Parliament the author of a critical report on Hungary's rule-of-law issues and media freedoms, Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Union often defends democratic institutions and the rule of law when they are under attack abroad.

But if the EU is serious about defending the bloc's values, they need to show even more resolve when these values are under attack at home.

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The European Parliament and European Commission have already taken bold steps to address serious rule of law and fundamental rights breaches in Hungary and Poland.

Now the EU member states should step up.

An EU ministers meeting in Brussels on 19 February will be a key test, just three months before critical European parliament elections.

Tens of thousands of Poles and Hungarians have taken to the street many times to protest what they view as undemocratic and rights-abusing practices by their governments.

They deserve the support and backing of the EU council to ensure that ordinary people's rights in the EU are not trampled by their governments.

In September, the European parliament initiated much needed EU scrutiny over Hungary's dismantling of democratic institutions.

It called on the EU council to trigger political sanctions under Article 7, the EU treaty provision to deal with conduct that puts the union's values at risk.

In December 2017, the EU commission had opened Article 7 proceedings against Poland over its interference with the judiciary.

In parallel, the EU commission has brought enforcement action against both countries, including cases at the EU Court of Justice.

But in recent months, the council, which consists of member states' governments, has given the appearance of lagging behind, making little progress on Article 7 proceedings on both countries.

In part this is because of foot dragging by the current EU presidency, Romania, which faces rule of law criticism of its own.

Some honourable exceptions

Thanks to the leadership of a group of EU countries including Sweden, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, the issue is back on the agenda.

There is no time to waste.

Since December, the Hungarian government has fast-tracked a law through parliament establishing an administrative court system, which the executive will most likely be able to influence if not control.

The government has also sidestepped monopoly and competition laws by merging nearly 500 media outlets into one pro-government conglomerate, further attacking the free press.

In Poland, an EU Court of Justice ruling has forced the country to backtrack on a law forcing judges out of the Supreme Court.

But the government has not yet addressed wider concerns about the rule of law, including interference with the Constitutional Tribunal and the common courts.

In both cases, it's vital for the council to take up the baton from the commission and parliament and to keep up the pressure.

Prime minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and Poland's de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, seem to share the idea that the rights of some may come at the expense of the rights of others, and that public institutions should serve the majority and not all citizens.

Attacking and dismantling public institutions, hijacking courts, publicly smearing the opposition and critical voices, and populist and xenophobic government rhetoric blasted by a media increasingly controlled by the executive are everyday occurrences in Hungary and Poland.

Those cannot be values that the EU would want to see exported around the world.

EU member states need to build on the leadership shown by Sweden's government and others in Brussels.

This is no time to get bogged down in procedural issues or hollow alternatives. Member states should show that they take the values of the EU seriously and that they are willing to stand up for them.

At a time when democratic values and the rule of law are under attack around the world, it's vitally important for all EU institutions to act to protect core EU values and rights at home, including by ensuring that member states that flout them are held to account.

Author bio

Lydia Gall is eastern EU and West Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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