BRUSSELS – Democratic standards in the European Union are eroding in several member countries, particularly in Hungary and Poland where judicial independence is under threat, the EU’s executive commission said Tuesday in its annual report on adherence to the rule of law.
The report also singled out Slovenia, which recently took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council, for attacks against the Balkan nation's media.
“There are causes for serious concern in a number of member states, especially when it comes to the independence of judiciary,” said Vera Jourova, the Commission vice-president for Values and Transparency.
The review, which is in its second year, was published a week after the EU’s top court ruled that Poland’s way of disciplining judges contravenes EU law and undermines judicial independence, telling the country’s right-wing government which introduced the system to change it.
The European Commission has also started legal action against Poland and Hungary for what the EU’s executive arm sees as blatant disrespect for the rights of LGBT people.
The wide-ranging audit found Poland deficient in the four main areas reviewed: national justice systems, anti-corruption frameworks, media freedom and checks and balances.
According to the EU's executive arm, reforms of the Polish justice system carried out over the past six years by the current government continue to increase the influence of the government over the justice system, damaging judicial independence.
The report also pointed out a risk of “undue influence on corruption prosecutions for political purposes" and noted a deterioration of working conditions for journalists, “with use of intimidating judicial proceedings."
Hungary was criticized for its perceived inadequate anti-corruption measures and the report noted that media pluralism “remains at risk." The report depicted a bleak media situation in Slovenia, reporting online harassment and threats against journalists.
Balazs Hidveghi, a European lawmaker with Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, wrote on Twitter that the European Commission’s rule of law report “has nothing to do with reality. It’s simply the compilation of leftist NGOs’ baseless accusations against Hungary’s conservative government.”
Piotr Mueller, the spokesman for Poland’s government said it will analyze the documents presented by the European Commission.
The EU has repeatedly warned that democratic standards are being challenged in Hungary and Poland. At a June summit, EU leaders strongly clashed with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban over new legislation that bans the display of LGBT issues to children in that country.
Earlier this year, the European Union’s executive arm also condemned Slovenia’s right-wing prime minister, Janez Jansa, for a series of aggressive comments about journalists.
But the EU's criticism seems to have little effect. After the European Court of Justice's ruling, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed it as a “typical dispute of the doctrine” and insisted that the EU court has no authority on the shaping of the justice systems in individual member nations.
Jourova said the commission has formally asked Poland to confirm by Aug. 16 it will fully comply with the ruling or face financial sanctions.
“EU law has primacy over national law. All decisions by the European Court of Justice are binding," she said.
The aim of the report is not to sanction countries. To try to rein in member states they believe are at fault, EU institutions can use the so-called Article 7 procedure, but proceedings launched against Poland and Hungary have not been conclusive so far.
EU lawmakers have been losing patience and threatened last month to sue the bloc’s executive branch if it fails to take action against countries allegedly violating democratic standards, notably Hungary and Poland. They urged European Parliament President David Sassoli to demand that the European Commission “fulfil its obligations” within two weeks, under a system tying access to some EU funds to a country’s respect for the rule of law.
The system was included in the budget the EU approved last year covering the 2021-27 period and which also included a massive coronavirus economic stimulus fund. In March, the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary filed a complaint with the European Court of Justice to challenge it.
Both countries have submitted their plans to receive a share of the €800 billion EU recovery fund to finance the 27-nation bloc’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis, but the commission has yet to approve them.
Justin Spike in Budapest and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this story.