6th Jun 2023

Most EU countries fail to resolve rule-of-law issues, report finds

  • Political pressure on judges remained severe in Hungary and Poland, the report said, and judges also faced smear campaigns (Photo: dierk schaefer)
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Most EU countries fail to tackle rule-of-law issues and EU governments themselves often weaken democracy, according to a report put toghether by NGOs monitoring the issue.

"Most EU countries made little effort to resolve documented rule-of-law issues, allowed existing shortcomings to go unaddressed, or even made things worse in all areas assessed," the Berlin-based Liberties, an umbrella organisation of European NGOs said in their500-page annual report published on Tuesday (21 February).

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Hungary and Poland remain the "worse offenders on rule of law", the report said. The two countries have been under EU scrutiny for years for walking back on democratic commitments and putting the judiciary under political control.

The EU Commission has not disbursed EU Covid-19 funds for the two countries, as it negotiates for stronger judicial independence with Budapest and Warsaw.

The EU executive has launched a new tool linking EU funds to rule of law against Hungary, which has not yet resulted in "genuine improvements" on the ground, the report found. It was put together based on country-reports by 45 human rights organisations across 18 EU countries.

Equally, the report said that reforms negotiated with Poland would only lead to "modest improvements that don't free judges from political control". Political pressure on judges remained severe in Hungary and Poland, and they faced smear campaigns.

The report said that there is a risk of an authoritarian turn in Italy and Sweden, where far-right parties have been elected to governments in 2022.

There has been a "sharp increase in rhetorical attacks against NGOs and the media by both of these new governments", the report stated, adding that "these countries have strong independent institutions, which, in the short-term, prevent a turn to authoritarianism".

On the upside, democracy can recover, the report argued, citing the example of Slovenia, where last year the populist right government of Janez Janša was voted out of office.

The report noted efforts by the new liberal government "to restore independence to institutions like the public broadcaster".

'Do more'

"The EU and member states clearly need to do more to halt or slow down negative trends, or even reverse stagnation, in all assessed dimensions of the rule of law," Balazs Denes, executive director of Liberties told EUobserver.

"Now that we can say that the public health emergency is over, this seems in some cases a deliberate attempt to stop citizens from having their say," he said.

That happens by, for instance, putting pressure on journalists and civil society organisations, or by not giving enough resources for institutions to check on the government.

The report has found that journalists reporting on corruption have been harassed by bogus lawsuits, so-called SLAPPs in Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland.

Several countries restricted the right to protest, especially in relation to people calling for action on climate change, for example in Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden, the reports said.

Anti-corruption rules and mechanisms have been found weak across the EU by the research. Hungary stands out for its "deep corruption".

The report highlights the Czech Republic and the Netherlands where it is "very difficult for the public to find out which businesses the government decides to give contracts to", while in France and Croatia the government has awarded contracts to business allies.

Many countries have also failed to give whistleblowers the level of protection the new EU directive requires, and introduced or proposed laws that make it easier to dissolve NGOs.

"The EU and its member states need to invest much more effort in peer pressure, and in building a strong support base for democracy," Denes said.

The EU's legitimacy and credibility has also suffered recently due to the Qatargate scandal engulfing the European Parliament.


When the EU found the political will to act on rule of law

In 2012, it was against Orbán's Hungary that the EU first proposed to suspend cohesion funds under strengthened budgetary rules, after Budapest failed to step up efforts to end the country's excessive government deficit. Then Orbán toed the line.

No money to Poland without rule of law, von der Leyen says

"[The commission's] three commitments must be fulfilled before any payment can be made," EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said as criticism of the EU executive mounts for approving Poland's recovery plan.

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