Thursday

22nd Oct 2020

Paper tiger? EU roars in first rule-of-law report

  • Commissioners Vera Jourova and Dider Reynders introducing the report. Jourova called multiple breaches an 'undrinkable cocktail, even if the individual ingredients seems to be fine' (Photo: European Commission)

The EU commission on Wednesday (30 September) published its first overview on the judiciary, media freedoms, corruption and checks and balances in EU member states.

The annual rule of law review highlighted shortcomings in various member states, and particularly criticised Poland, calling judicial independence there a "serious concern".

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It also condemned Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia for insufficiently ensuring courts' independence.

The commission also pointed to corruption scandals and deficiencies in anti-corruption efforts in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Malta.

EU commission vice-president Vera Jourova said the report would serve as a preventive mechanism, to detect rule of law issues early on. She emphasised that if the rule of law is compromised in one member state, then that threatens the entire EU.

"When the rule of law is absent, or when there is a risk, there is a concrete impact of every single one of our lives," she told reporters.

The Czech commissioner said deficiencies in the justice system, anti-corruption efforts, media freedom and pluralism, and institutional checks and balances "often merge into an undrinkable cocktail, even if the individual ingredients seems to be fine".

However, the report will not lead to concrete action against any member state - although it could serve as the basis for further scrutiny of specific EU countries.

The commission said for concrete breaches of EU rules it will use its other legal instruments, such as the Article 7 sanctions probe for systemic issues, or infringement procedures on specific transgressions.

The report will also not be the basis when deciding if EU funds should be suspended for a member state breaking EU law, Jourova added.

Justice commissioner Didier Reynders acknowledged that the report does not contain new information, but gives an overview of the rule of law situation in Europe.

Issues in member states will be discussed among EU affairs ministers, with the Germany EU presidency initially organising discussions on Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Estonia later this year.

The process will take two-three years, Reynders said.

'Paper tiger'

Slovak liberal MEP Michal Simecka said it was important the commission now monitors rule of law breaches as closely as it checks debt and deficit levels in the EU, and that the "hypersensitive" issue of rule of law ceases to be a taboo among EU countries.

However, he told EUobserver, the review risks remaining a "paper tiger" if its results do not lead to consequences.

"The weakness of this monitoring is that it does not lead to any action.We are at a huge moment of rule of law crisis, and what we need besides monitoring is action," Simecka said, whose initiative for combining the EU's rule of law tools, similar to the bloc's economic review, will be voted by MEPs later this month.

The report was published the day after Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban called for the resignation of Jourova over her remarks on his government a German interview.

While it was Hungary which had earlier called for a rule of law scrutiny of all EU countries - after Poland and Hungary had first been put under an EU probe for breaking EU rules and values - on Wednesday Budapest dismissed it as "absurd", "unfounded" and "unbalanced".

In a statement, Hungary's government claimed the report was "written by organisations forming part of a centrally-financed international network engaged in a coordinated political campaign against Hungary", pointing the finger to the Open Society Foundations linked to US billionaire George Soros.

The EU report said that "there is a systematic lack of determined action to investigate and prosecute corruption cases involving high-level officials or their immediate circle" by the Hungarian authorities.

It also warned that media pluralism in the country is at "high risk", and independent media face systemic obstruction and intimidation, while state advertisements allow the government "to exert indirect political influence".

Budget block

The rule of law issue has become the major political obstacle to unlock the €1.85 trillion EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund.

On Wednesday, the majority of EU countries backed the German EU presidency's proposal on suspending EU funds in case of rule of law breaches.

It means negotiations with the parliament - which has to approve the long-term EU budget - can begin.

But crucially, those rejecting the budget-rule of law link - Hungary and Poland - and those in favour of a strong tool, namely the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and Luxembourg, did not back the German compromise.

EU countries stuck on rule of law-budget link

Divisions among EU governments remain between those who want to suspend EU funds if rule of law is not respected, and those who want to narrow down conditionality.

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