Thursday

26th Jan 2023

Pressure on EU Commission as report shows rule-of-law retreat

  • 'I am missing stronger assurances for the judges not to be penalised for the content of the decision-making,' said EU commissioner for values and transparency Vera Jourová over Poland's latest judicial reform (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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The European Commission on Wednesday (13 July) published its third report on the state of the judiciary, media freedom, and corruption in member states — including country-specific recommendations as a new innovation.

"Russia's war in Ukraine is another reminder of the importance of our work to uphold and promote rule of law in the EU and beyond," EU commissioner for values and transparency Vera Jourová told a press conference when presenting the report.

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"But we can only remain credible if our own house is in order," she added.

The report acknowledged positive development in some member states, but it particularly criticises Poland and Hungary — the only two member states facing sanctions over the rule of law under the EU's Article 7 procedure.

The EU executive said concerns over the independence of the judicial systemand the situation of media independence in both Hungary and Poland remain, warning that billions of euros in aid remain conditional on reforms.

The report highlights continuing irregularities in the appointment of judges in Poland, calling on the government to implement previous rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the European Court of Human Rights.

Under the recommendations, it also urges Warsaw to separate the roles of the justice minister and prosecutor general, improve civic space for minorities and NGOs, and ensure a fair way to decide on operating licences for media.

The commission approved in June the €35.4bn recovery plan for Poland after a lengthy delay. But the move sparked outrage among progressive MEPs who have long demanded a pause on recovery fund disbursements until rule of law reforms are upheld.

The Polish government has passed a new law abolishing the disciplinary chamber for judges, which has been at the heart of the debate in Brussels.

But Jourová previously said that the new bill was not sufficient to meet the milestones set under the recovery plan — something she also repeated on Wednesday.

"I am missing stronger assurances for the judges not to be penalised for the content of the decision-making," she told a press conference, pointing out that the assessment of the commission over this law is still ongoing.

Echoing the same message, EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said that "there may be some room for improvement in the way to implement the new reform in Poland."

Hungary's concerns 'remain unaddressed'

To date, the Hungarian recovery plan has not been approved by Brussels — and it is still unclear when it could receive the green light as procedures under the so-called rule-of-law mechanism, launched earlier this year, are still ongoing.

"The real issue now is to work out what sort of reforms could be introduced in Hungary in order to meet the concerns which have been expressed, … but is up to the Hungarian authorities to propose reforms on the rule of law and combating corruption," Reynders said.

Wednesday's report warned that concerns about judicial independence in Hungary "remain unaddressed" — urging Budapest to strengthen the role of the National Judicial Council and rules for the judicial appointments of Hungary's Supreme Court (the Kúria).

It adds that insufficient anti-corruption measures are particularly concerning in an environment where "risks clientelism, favouritism and nepotism in high-level public administration" exists.

Orban's emergency powers related to the pandemic were also slammed by the commission which argues they have been used "extensively, also in areas not related to the Covid-19 pandemic as initially invoked."

And the report's criticisms also stress the need to ensure independent public media, reform lobbying rules and remove obstacles for civil organisations.

Other problematic member states

In addition to major rule of law concerns in Poland and Hungary, the report also shows problems in other EU countries.

The EU executive has called on the Slovenian government to ensure the independent governance and editorial of public service media and to better protect journalists.

Malta, Greece and Ireland were also told to improve the protection of journalists, while the EU says Italy needs to reform its defamation law to protect reporters.

In Spain, the commission says there is a need to strengthen the independence of the prosecutor general and move on with the renewal of the council for the judiciary which has now been stuck for years.

Brussels also urged the Dutch government to develop a lobbying code of conduct for ministers and other officials — just a few days after reports revealed Dutch former commissioner Neelie Kroes' role at Uber.

Meanwhile, MEPs have urged the commission to step up efforts to halt democratic backsliding in the bloc.

"The European Commission is insufficiently enforcing the rule of law in Europe… If it does not act more decisively, this report is a paper tiger," said Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld.

"This sharper analysis is not met with a sharper bite," said German green MEP Terry Reintke, calling for clear follow-up action.

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EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is expected to travel to Warsaw on Thursday to announce the move — which comes after a year-long debate over the release of Covid-19 recovery financing.

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