The European Commission has published its first-ever rule-of-law report on Wednesday, according to which democracy is suffering in several European nations, including Hungary and Poland. The 2020 Rule of Law Report presents a synthesis of both the rule of law situation in the EU and an assessment of the situation in each Member State. The report angered Hungary and Poland in particular, both issuing statements on the audit, saying it “cannot serve as a basis for any further discussion on the rule of law in the European Union.” However, opposition parties in Hungary are blaming the government for the report’s criticisms.
The new report was published after months of work, research, and audits and put all 27 European Union member states under scrutiny. The report reflects the concerns of the EU and the European Commission, and as Vice President Vera Jourova put it, Brussels has been “naive in the past” over rule of law breaches. The report states that the European Union has failed to combat democratic backsliding among some of its members.
The 2020 Rule of Law Report presents both a synthesis of the rule of law situation in the European Union and, in its 27 country chapters, Member State-specific assessments of significant developments related to the rule of law. It covers four pillars
: the justice system, the anti-corruption framework, media pluralism, and other institutional issues related to checks and balances.
According to the main points of the report’s chapter on Hungary, over the past years, judicial independence in Hungary has been raised by EU institutions as a source of concern, including in the Article 7 procedure initiated by the European Parliament. The report said that “the call for strengthening judicial independence, made in the context of the European Semester, remains to be addressed.”
The EC is particularly concerned by the challenges that the independent National Judicial Council faces in counter-balancing the powers of the President of the National Office for the Judiciary in charge of the management of the courts. The report also states that developments related to the Supreme Court (Kúria) also raise concerns, mainly its decision to declare a request for preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice unlawful. The report adds that “new rules allow for the appointment to the Supreme Court of members of the Constitutional Court elected by Parliament outside the normal procedure, and lowers the eligibility criteria for the Supreme Court President.”
According to the audit, as regards to efficiency and quality, the justice system performs well in terms of the length of proceedings and has a high level of digitalization. It adds that “the institutional anti-corruption framework is shared among different bodies. Deficient independent control mechanisms and tight interconnections between politics and certain national businesses are conducive to corruption.”
However, it states that when serious allegations arise:
“…there is a systematic lack of determined action to investigate and prosecute corruption cases involving high-level officials or their immediate circle.”
This concern has been raised earlier both by the European Semester and by GRECO in view of the lack of commitment to comply with its recommendations.
The report also recommends that the verification of assets and interests declarations may be improved as regards systematic checks and independent oversight. It justifies the recommendation by saying that “whilst the regulation of lobbying remains incomplete, corruption prevention policies have focused on integrity in state administration and law-enforcement agencies.”
According to the report, “the weakening of independent institutions and the increased pressure on civil society further affect checks and balances. The Court of Justice found that the legislation on the transparency of foreign-funded civil society organizations is incompatible with EU law.” The report added that legislative measures required to execute the judgment are in preparation.
The report also calls attention to the “shrinking possibilities of civic oversight in the context of restrictions to media freedom, a hostile environment for civil society organizations, and constant new challenges in the application of the transparency and access to public information rules further weaken the anti-corruption framework.”
It also adds the concern for the independence and effectiveness of the Media Council, which, according to the report is at risk. The audit reports that the “transparency of media ownership is not fully guaranteed, because media concentration via the creation of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA, the pro-government media holding with more than 400 outlets) conglomerate increases risks to media pluralism.” It also mentions that a significant amount of state advertising is channeled to pro-government outlets, which “have permitted the government to exert indirect political influence over the media. Independent media outlets face systematic obstruction and intimidation, while a trend of economic takeover of such outlets raises additional concern.”
Reactions to the 2020 Rule of Law report
Both Hungary and Poland have reacted to their chapters in the European Commission’s Rule of Law report. The justice ministries of the two countries issued a joint statement on Wednesday, saying that the report “raises serious concerns with regard to its concept, methodology, sources, and content” and it “cannot serve as a basis for any further discussion in the European Union concerning the rule of law.”
Yesterday, in a Facebook post, Justice Minister Judit Varga already reacted to the rule of law report on Hungary. According to Varga, the report is “absurd and false,” and it “cannot serve as a basis for any further discussion on the rule of law in the European Union.” She added that “it is unacceptable that the Commission’s rule of law report is written by organizations from a centrally financed international network engaged in a coordinated political campaign against Hungary.”
However, the governing parties and the opposition have different views on the report. While ruling Fidesz slammed the document as “open political blackmail,” the opposition Socialists are blaming the government for the report’s criticisms regarding the state of the rule of law in Hungary.
Balázs Hidvéghi, an MEP of ruling Fidesz, said the report was “riddled with absurd and false claims” and that it had only taken into consideration the views of organizations linked to Hungarian-born US financier George Soros. Hidvéghi said at a press conference that “this is a Soros report dictated to the European Commission and [EC Vice-President] Vera Jourova by these groups,” adding that the report also contained factual inaccuracies which the Hungarian government had “already cleared up on numerous occasions.”
Addressing the report’s criticism of the state of judicial independence in the country, Hidvéghi noted that an independent court had just recently acquitted former Jobbik MEP Béla Kovács of espionage charges. “Many of us aren’t happy with this ruling but it goes to show that the courts in Hungary really do function independently,” he said.
Hidvéghi also rejected the allegation that the government had abused its power in its management of the novel coronavirus epidemic, saying that it had concentrated solely on protecting the Hungarian people.
Meanwhile, the Socialist party (MSZP) said that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government had “failed as Europeans,” citing the report as saying that Hungary had systemic problems pertaining to the rule of law. Socialist MEP István Ujhelyi said that in its Rule of Law Report the EC had reviewed all member states and made its recommendations.
Ruling Fidesz’s “claims about double standards in Brussels” lack all credibility, Ujhelyi said, adding that “it is clear that the petty attacks against Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova were also meant to discredit the reports.”
Ujhelyi said that by disregarding the EU’s laws and values, Fidesz “is putting Hungary’s funding from the EU at risk.” He added that rather than “throwing tantrums,” Fidesz would do better to address systemic failures to uphold the rule of law. He called on the government to guarantee press freedom, eliminate corruption, and join the European Prosecutor’s Office.
featured photo: Olivier Hoslet/MTI/EPA pool