COVID-19 ‘shield’ for rule of law violations, for now

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (R) with Hungary Prime Minister Victor Orban (L) at the start of a two days face-to-face EU summit, in Brussels, Belgium, 10 December 2020. [EPA-EFE/RADEK PIETRUSZKA]

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Before you start reading today’s edition of the Capitals, feel free to have a look at the article EU-AstraZeneca row heats up as Commission asks to publish contract, by Gerardo Fortuna.

The European news you deserve to read. Welcome to The Capitals by EURACTIV.

In today’s news from the Capitals:


Portugal’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Ana Paula Zacarias, said on Wednesday that the procedure for assessing violations of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary may be delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Read more.



Warnings over growing anti-Semitism in Germany. In honour of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the German Bundestag dedicated an hour to commemorating the victims of the Shoah on Wednesday, during which speakers warned of growing anti-Semitism in the country and condemned the Holocaust’s trivialisation by coronavirus sceptics. Read more.



Unemployment up by 7.5% in 2020. The number of unemployed people rose by 7.5% in 2020 despite a 2.7% drop in the fourth quarter, according to figures published Wednesday by the French labour ministry’s department. Read more.



Belgian solutions for border crossings. Hikers, runners or cyclists who briefly cross the border during their trip will not be targeted for breaching the COVID-19 travel ban by police services. Read more.



Austria deteriorated in corruption index. In the international corruption ranking published by the NGO Transparency International, Austria went down three spots and now sits at the 15th place. This is largely due to the aftermath of the so-called “Ibiza-affair”: In 2019, a video emerged where the head of the FPÖ offered a Russian oligarch certain benefits if he would help the party come to power.

In the following parliamentary inquiry, parts of the currently governing ÖVP have been accused of hiding cash flow from private donors, evidence is still being collected. The NGO demands that the government makes good on their promise to fight corruption. (Phillip Grüll,



UK arrivals face ten-day hotel quarantine as Johnson imposes new restrictions. Residents arriving in England from 22 ‘red list’ hotspot countries with new variants of COVID-19 will have to quarantine in hotels at their own expense, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday. Read more.



Amazon to reduce stock to Northern Ireland. Online retail giant Amazon is to withdraw some products for sale to Northern Ireland, due to trade obstacles that have arisen on the Irish Sea Border as a result of Brexit. Read more.



Finland becomes Hollywood substitute. Finland’s fairly low infection rate has made the country a safe and lucrative shooting location for foreign production companies as studios across the world have been forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic. Read more.



Baltic states favour rail over recovery. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are raising the stakes to secure EU funding for the Rail Baltica high-speed rail link connecting the three countries and continuing all the way to Warsaw, and may even be ready to block the EU’s €750 billion recovery package if funding for the rail project is not guaranteed. Read more.



Conte’s fate in government hangs in the balance. Italian President Sergio Mattarella began consultations on Wednesday after the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose fate in government now hangs in the balance after it seemed quite clear he would receive a new mandate.  

However, the majority of Italians view the PM’s work in a positive light, according to a poll released on Tuesday. And four of five citizens of all political affiliations say they oppose early elections for fears related to the coronavirus vaccination campaign and to the management of the Next Generation EU fund, the poll found.

In other news, the Italian government will invest €81 million in an experimental vaccine against the coronavirus developed by Rome-based biotech company ReiThera to make the country less dependent on vaccines produced abroad, announced Italy’s special commissioner for the COVID-19 emergency, Domenico Arcuri. The first trials of the RaiThera vaccine led to encouraging results despite data and information for a more in-depth analysis not being available for now. (Daniele Lettig |



Spanish anti-COVID drug around 99% effective. The antiviral drug known as Plitidepsna, which is being produced by Spanish company PharmaMar and tested in experimental laboratories in France and the US, showed a 99% reduction in SARS-CoV-2 viral loads. Read more.



Portugal to suspend flights to and from Brazil. Portugal’s government has decided to suspend flights to and from Brazil from midnight on Friday due to the increase in coronavirus infection rates and the detection of new strains. “Until 14 February, all flights, commercial or private, of all airlines to and from Brazil are suspended. The rules now laid down also apply to flights to and from the UK,” the Home Office (MAI) said in a statement.

Portugal registered 15,073 new coronavirus cases and 293 related deaths related to COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest daily mortality rate since the start of the pandemic, according to the national health authority (DGS). (Cristina Cardoso,



Tsipras says Mitsotakis is ‘hostage’ of former PM Samaras. Alexis Tsipras, leader of the main opposition leftist Syriza party, has lashed out against conservative Greek Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis accusing him of being a “hostage” of former right-wing PM Antonis Samaras resulting in catastrophic implications for the country’s foreign affairs. Read more.





Former elite cop enters Czech politics. The former head of the Police Squad for Fighting Organised Crime, Robert Šlachta, announced Wednesday that he and his former colleagues will start a new political movement called The Oath (Přísaha). Read more.

Read also: Czech Republic’s transport decarbonisation ‘trapped’ in local politics



European border agency suspends activities in Hungary. The EU border agency on Wednesday suspended all operations in Hungary after the EU’s top court said the country had broken the law by preventing some migrants from seeking asylum, AFP reported. Read the full story. Read more.



Slovakia’s far-right splits, loses one MEP and five MPs. Six politicians of the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia – including prominent MEP Milan Uhrík (Independent) and the rising star of the Slovak far-right, Milan Mazurek – are leaving the party after its leader, Marian Kotleba, attempted to secure his position as party leader. Read more.



Bulgaria allows indoor political meetings as restaurants remain closed. With parliamentary elections set for 4 April, the Bulgarian parliament has given the green light to allow party gatherings indoors despite the pandemic and the threat of highly contagious COVID-strains. Read more.



Romania’s budget deficit soars to 9.8% of GDP. Romania’s budget deficit widened to almost 9.8% of the country’s GDP, significantly more than the government’s estimate in November – as part of its third budget revision – that the deficit would reach 9.1% of GDP for the full year, making it even harder for the government to cut the deficit to 7% of GDP for 2021. Read more.



Croatia’s November industrial turnover up 1.6% after eight-month drop. After falling for eight consecutive months, Croatia’s industrial turnover rose by 1.6% in November 2020 compared with the same month in 2019, and by 5.2% compared with October 2020, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (DZS). 

Compared with October 2020, sales of energy declined by 19.3%, sales of non-durable consumer goods by 1.1%, and sales of durable consumer goods by 0.9%. Meanwhile, the sales of intermediate goods rose by 5.5% and sales of capital goods by 0.9%. (Željko Trkanjec |



Defence minister to temporarily take over health ministry. Slovenian Defence Minister Matej Tonin of the New Slovenia (NSi) party is to temporarily take over the role of health minister from Prime Minister Janez Janša on Monday, news portal reported on Wednesday, quoting unofficial information. Read more.



EU-US unity on Western Balkans restored, says EU envoy Lajcak. The exchange of territory between Serbia and Kosovo would be “very dangerous,” EU envoy Miroslav Lajčak told French newspaper Le Monde, adding that the EU was pleased that unity between the EU and the US regarding Western Balkans’ policies had been restored. Read more.



Elections in Srebrenica and Doboj to be repeated. The Court of BiH rejected all eleven appeals against the decisions of the Central Election Commission of BiH regarding the annulment of the elections in Srebrenica and Doboj, and the decision preventing the runner-up from assuming the mayoralty of Travnik after the winner of the local elections of October 2020 died from COVID-19 before taking office.

The Court’s decision confirms the electoral commission’s decisions of 21 January, meaning the commission is now expected to hold a session at which it will decide to hold repeat elections in Srebrenica and Doboj, and early elections in Travnik.  (Željko Trkanjec |



Interim release denied for Thaci, Veseli, Selimi, and Krasniqi. The Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers has denied the applications for interim release of four ex-KLA leaders accused of committing war crimes – former Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, former Parliament Speaker Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi – GazetaExpress reported.

Pre-trial judge Nicolas Guillou denied the applications filed by the accused’s defence counsel in separate decisions, while Specialist Prosecutor Jack Smith alleged that the accused should not be granted interim release due to them posing a flight risk, potentially obstructing proceedings and committing further offences or possibly interfering with witnesses.  (Željko Trkanjec |


[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski, Daniel Eck, Benjamin Fox]

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