BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive on Wednesday decried the rule of law situation in Poland and Hungary, centering on perceived breaches in their judiciary and media in its annual report.
As it comes against the background of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission said that it was all the more important for the 27 nations to be a beacon of democracy on an unstable continent.
“The EU will only remain credible if we uphold the rule of law at home and if we continue to reinforce the rule of law culture,” EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said.
Even though Poland is at the forefront of EU’s effort to welcome war refugees from Ukraine, it did come in for a lot of criticism regarding its judiciary independence and the media.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who also holds the job of prosecutor-general, said the report was “yet another blackmail by the EU.” He insisted that Poland’s government shouldn’t be ceding to EU demands. The European Commission has recommended that the functions of the minister of justice and the prosecutor-general in Poland should be separate.
Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, is seen as Russia’s best contact in the 27-nation EU, also stood out for the criticism it got.
“Serious concerns persist related to the independence of the Polish judiciary,” the report said, adding anti-corruption plans also left to be desired. It also questioned the government’s commitment to free media and said that “the general environment for journalists continues to deteriorate.”
Poland and the EU’s headquarters in Brussels have been fighting for years over judicial independence and the dispute is far from resolved, despite recent moves in Warsaw. Poland must still take more steps to ensure judicial independence before it can receive any of the frozen funds totaling about 36 billion euros ($39 billion).
Hungary came in for perhaps even tougher criticism, with the report saying “judicial independence concerns … remain unaddressed,” while it said anti-corruption measures still fell woefully short. It described a nation where “where risks of clientelism, favoritism and nepotism in high-level public administration remain unaddressed.”
Orban imposed emergency powers to counter the pandemic but the report said that “the government has been using its emergency powers extensively, also in areas not related to the COVID-19 pandemic as initially invoked.”
The European Commission has been engaged in a protracted struggle with Hungary’s nationalist government in an effort to force it to comply with EU rule of law standards. Pointing to deficiencies in judicial independence, crackdowns on the media and civil society organizations and inadequate safeguards against corruption, the European Commission has launched several proceedings against Hungary for what it says are violations of EU rules.
Yet such proceedings have often failed to get Orban to change tack, and critics say his government has flouted EU rules while misusing the bloc’s funds to enrich family members and politically connected businessmen.
The European Commission has withheld billions in post-pandemic financial support from Hungary over what it calls insufficient safeguards against corruption, and has tailored a mechanism for sanctioning member states that fail to uphold the bloc’s rule of law standards.
Even if the European Commission’s report laid bare deficiencies, some said that it lacked any teeth.
In 2021, for example, the commission launched two infringement procedures against Hungary’s government over laws they said attacked the LGBTQ community.
“This sharper analysis is not met with a sharper bite,” said Green MEP Terry Reintke. “With extremely worrying breaches of fundamental rights, women’s rights and LGBTIQ rights in countries such as Poland or Hungary, we need far clearer action from the Commission.”
Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary, and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.