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The European Commission chided Hungary and Poland over democratic backsliding Wednesday, refreshing long-standing critiques despite signs that Brussels is inching toward deals that would unlock money for the two countries held up over rule-of-law concerns.
The EU executive’s third annual rule-of-law report, which surveys each EU country, rehashes complaints Brussels officials have laid out repeatedly in recent years: That Hungary and Poland are stripping their judicial systems of independence and letting financial corruption proliferate.
While the content is not necessarily new or surprising, the context has changed since last year’s report.
Back then, the Commission decided to withheld billions in pandemic recovery money from both countries until they proved the funds will be properly spent and the courts function impartially. The Commission took an even more serious step against Hungary, threatening to withhold regular EU payouts unless it fixed its rule-of-law problems.
In recent weeks, though, there has been movement toward resolving some of the disputes.
The Commission in June endorsed a pay-for-performance plan with Poland, giving the country “milestones” it must hit to get each successive tranche of its stimulus money. And Hungarian officials have been making a public push in recent days, proclaiming they are ready to find a similar compromise with Brussels to end the recovery fund impasse.
At a minimum, Wednesday’s report will complicate those discussions, reminding the public of both countries’ behavior just as the EU wants to find a deal. The report also included specific recommendations for Hungary and Poland for the first time.
“On the one hand, there is the whole issue of what you read in the report of the rule of law,” said Didier Reynders, the EU’s justice commissioner, who presented the report at a press conference alongside EU Values and Transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová.
“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 in combating corruption,” Reynders added. “The will is there for discussions to take place and for us to get back to the table.”
Brussels, Hungary and Poland have been in a tense standoff for many years over the rule of law.
The two countries are already subject to the EU’s so-called Article 7 proceedings which could lead to a suspension of their voting rights in the bloc, and Poland still faces a record-high daily fine of €1 million for not complying with an EU court order to suspend the country’s controversial disciplinary mechanism for judges.
More recently, however, both countries have signaled a desire to reach agreements to unlock the pandemic recovery funds — money that has become increasingly important as recession fears loom.
“Everything is ready for an agreement to be struck between the union and Hungary, which I think both sides need,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said last week, claiming Budapest had made proposals to the EU to reform how money is doled out and how corruption cases are prosecuted.
Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s new minister for regional development and the utilization of EU funds, told Euronews last month that the goal is to finalize a deal “by the end of the year.”
Wednesday’s report, however, detailed deep, lingering concerns over judicial independence in Hungary, including how judges are appointed, promoted and awarded bonuses.
The report also lamented Hungary’s “lack of a robust track record” on battling corruption. Separately, it reiterated the EU’s concerns about Hungary’s crackdown on independent media outlets, noting “public service media operates in a complex institutional system amidst concerns about editorial independence.”
When it comes to Poland, the EU’s concerns are similar but the situation is different.
The war in Ukraine has changed the course of Brussels’ standoff with Warsaw, temporarily transforming Poland’s image from rule-of-law troublemaker to constructive partner. It’s a shift many argue provided the impetus for the Commission to approve Poland’s road map for its recovery money, which came despite little concrete rule-of-law progress from Warsaw.
Indeed, the report emphasizes that long-standing concerns have not been addressed, especially Poland’s commitment to reform and dismantle parts of its disciplinary regimes for judges — contravening EU court orders.
“Despite rulings of the Court of Justice, the Disciplinary Chamber continued to decide on cases concerning judges, including by suspending them in office,” the report says.
The report also called on Poland to ensure that prosecutorial decisions are made without undue government influence, and demanded Polish authorities stop their “smear campaigns” against organizations representing the LGBTQ+ community. Separately, it touched on the country’s insufficient lobbying rules, its dearth “of high-level corruption cases” and pushed for the country to “strengthen” rules ensuring editorial independence at public media outlets.
Across a slew of other countries, however, the Commission pointed to “improvements.” Croatia and Italy, among others, had made advancements on judicial appointment procedures, for instance. The Czech Republic, Spain and Slovakia got mentions for working to improve the independence of their prosecution service.
Jourová insisted the annual reports were helping prevent further erosion of democratic norms across Europe — a frequent criticism of the yearly endeavor.
She argued the report “proved a very useful exercise last year, as it has triggered further debate in the countries.”
The “extraordinary geopolitical context” of the war in Ukraine, she added, is “yet another reminder that fundamental rights and rule of law are pillars of democracy.”