The EU must set out concrete demands and deadlines for Poland and Hungary over their rule of law and judicial independence situation, lawmakers in the European Parliament demanded in a Strasbourg debate on Article 7 on Wednesday (15 January).
In a draft resolution to be adopted on Thursday, MEPs call for concrete recommendations under the procedures to the two countries’ governments and set deadlines for their implementation.
The European Commission launched the Article 7 sanctions procedure against Poland over its handling of the judicial system in 2017, while the European Parliament triggered the same procedure against the government in Budapest for breaking EU rules and values in 2018.
According to the resolution, supported by five political groups, including the European People’s Party, home of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz, the Parliament “expresses its regret that the hearings have not yet resulted in any significant progress by the two member states in question with regard to redressing clear risks of a serious breach of the values”.
The resolution calls for the Commission to consider “the use of its tools to defend the treaties” as well as for linking EU funding to assessing the rule of law in a given country, which Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said he will “give priority to”.
MEPs also warn that the EU’s inability to act “undermines the integrity of common European values, mutual trust, and the credibility of the Union as a whole”.
Poland had several hearings in the General Affairs Councils during the last two years, while Hungary was dealt with only in the last few months under the leadership of the Finnish Presidency and no new round of hearings has yet been put on the agenda.
In response to this, MEPs called on the Croatian presidency to organise hearings on both Poland and Hungary in the following months and to include the European Parliament in the process, which the ministers have so far refused.
There is “deep concern that the standard modalities for hearings referred to in Article 7(1) of the TEU do not ensure the same treatment for Parliament as for the Commission and one-third of the member states for the purposes of presenting the reasoned proposal,” MEPs stated in the resolution to be voted on Thursday.
European Commission vice-president dealing with EU values, Vera Jourova, reminded MEPs that at the start of December, the Polish Supreme Court ruled, based on criteria set by the European Court of Justice, that the Disciplinary Chamber did not meet the requirements of EU law on independence and was therefore not a court within the meaning of EU law.
“I would like to emphasize that respect for preliminary rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU is of key importance for the universal application of EU law”, Jourova said, adding that the Commission considers that the new disciplinary system does not provide the necessary guarantees to protect judges against the political control of their decisions.
Jourova also voiced concerns that the disciplinary chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court creates a risk of “irreparable damage” for Polish judges.
The European Commission assessed that it has a “chilling effect” on the decisions of judges and decided this week to submit a request to the European Court of Justice for a temporary suspension of the Chamber’s operations.
According to the Polish government, this represents an unjustified attempt to influence the internal affairs of a member state.
During the debate, the reforms of the Polish government regarding the judiciary were criticized by MEPs of the EPP, Renew Europe, Socialists and the Greens, who vowed to support the resolution.
The debate in Strasbourg also showed the deep political split in the country.
MEPs of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) argued in Strasbourg that changes in the judiciary in Poland were “expected by citizens” because “no appropriate changes were made after the fall of communism.”
PiS MEP Patryk Jaki asked Commissioner Jourova how judges were elected in her native Czech Republic and added: “Quite recently, an MP straight from the German Bundestag became a judge and you are brazenly telling us that there is politicised justice in Poland and not in Germany?” Jaki asked.
According to MEPs from the Polish opposition party Platforma Obywatelska (PO/EPP), the purpose of the amendments introduced by PiS is to politicise the courts, and their side effect – as they say – may be weakening Poland’s position in the EU.
“We encourage the European Commission to use appropriate measures when the law is broken,” MEP Andrzej Halicki (PO/EPP) said.
On Hungary, Jourova highlighted Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s tight grip on the media, citing a report by several media organisations from December which warned that the Hungarian government has effectively dismantled media pluralism and freedom.
On Tuesday (14 January), the legal adviser to the EU’s top court said in a non-binding opinion that a 2017 Hungarian law requiring civil society organisations to disclose their foreign donors and brand themselves as “foreign funded” is in breach of EU rules.
She also recalled that Budapest’s Central European University’s accredited programme was forced to relocate to Vienna last year after Orban’s government targeted the university, founded by US investor George Soros.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]