Rule of law divisions threaten to hamper Europe’s recovery hopes

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In this edition of the Capitals, the EURACTIV Network provides you with member states reactions to the European Commission’s EU-wide assessment of the rule of law presented on Wednesday (30 September).

The EU executive said that the assessment will complete its toolbox with a “preventive” mechanism to guard against backsliding in countries across the bloc.

Besides Hungary and Poland, the Commission pointed to weaknesses in Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia.

→ For the full story on the EU’s rule of law assessment, check out Commission hopes to create ‘rule of law culture’ with first EU-wide assessment

The publication came as EU ministers began negotiations with the European Parliament about linking the rule of law to the disbursement of EU funds with a position that many perceive as a watered down version of what the Commission proposed two years ago.

Meanwhile, the long-running rule of law disputes with Poland and Hungary risks threatening the EU’s coronavirus recovery plan.

EURACTIV’s media network looked into the reaction across the bloc.


POSITIVE RECEPTION

Coinciding with the publication, Germany’s EU presidency was forced to put forward a compromise plan on linking pay-outs of EU funds to respect for the rule of law on Monday, for which EU ambassadors gave the German presidency the green light to launch negotiations with the European Parliament.

The Commission’s report was also welcomed by Germany’s EU minister Michael Roth, who congratulated Commissioners Reynders and Jourová saying “it is for member states to roll up their sleeves.”

Although the Commission’s report mentioned Germany’s ongoing debate about whether the county’s federal or state justice ministers should be allowed to issue instructions to public prosecutors, it claimed that there are “institutional safeguards or long-standing conventions limiting in practice the risk that this power could be abused by the executive.”

Austria’s EU minister Karoline Edtstadler welcomed the report as a “roadmap to the rule of law in all of Europe”. “The adherence to the rule of law and to our core values throughout all member states is the precondition for a successful cooperation”, Edtstadler said, reaffirming her plea to couple EU financial support to the health of the rule of law in member states.

Meanwhile, a government source said that Italy is pleased with the Commission rule of law report, which the last Italian presidency had also worked on. Rome supports the efforts by the German presidency and the next steps to create an effective toolbox for the EU with regards to the rule of law.

The Czech Republic, for its part, also welcomed the Commission’s report. “The values of rule of law and independent judiciary are key for the Czech Republic. That is why we welcome the European Commission’s report. (…) We are in good shape and working on the areas we can improve in,” said Czech State Secretary for European Affairs Milena Hrdinkova.

The Commission report, however, points to the county’s shortcomings when it comes to fighting corruption, media ownership transparency and rising hostility towards NGOs. The ongoing audits of public officers’ potential conflict of interest and misuse of EU subsidies, including the EU audit confirming Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has a conflict of interest, were featured in the report. On the other hand, the country ranks high in justice independence that could be improved with only a few new laws, according to the Commission.

Somewhat surprisingly, Jourová said the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), put in place to improve the malfunctioning law-enforcement system in Bulgaria and Romania, would continue.

Romania has long argued that we need such a report, instead of the CVM, which discriminates between Romania and Bulgaria and the other member states.” President Klaus Iohannis told reporters on Wednesday (30 September), confirming that the government agrees with how the report describes the situation in Romania.

“For example, the laws of justice, the rule of law – the report is clear: the situation was problematic between 2017 and 2019. In 2020, the current government is trying to revalidate, to restart the process, to restore the balance,” Iohannis added. However, not all shared his opinion. Read more here.

Bulgaria‘s Justice Minister Desislava Akhladova and the ruling GERB party described the European Commission’s report as “positive and objective”, despite it stating that there are no solid results in the fight against corruption and that most Bulgarian media outlets serve the government. Read more here.

Slovenia‘s Justice Minister Lilijana Kozlovič welcomed the report, particularly with regards to its findings on matters related to justice, noting that the report concludes that Slovenia’s judiciary is in good shape. In the report, the Commission praised the use of information technology, the good functioning of the Judicial Council and the Supreme Court in personnel management and general in the management of the judiciary, the minister explained.

For its part, the opposition said that the report’s findings were expected and that Slovenia’s approach to countries that do not respect the rule of law is worrying.

On Ireland, the Commission highlighted its concerns with the country’s defamation law for stifling ‘the ability of the press to expose corruption.’ As part of the country’s legal regime, the Commission has found that “frequent defamation suits, high costs of defence and high damages awarded by Irish courts are seen as an inducement to self-censorship and a constraint to media freedom.”

Ireland’s new government, which took office earlier this year, has pledged to reform its defamation landscape. A broader Commission review of Irish defamation law is currently being finalised.


RESERVATIONS

As expected, Poland and Hungary said they have serious reservations regarding the report’s concept, methodology and sources of content.

It cannot serve as a basis for the discussions on the rule of law in the EU, said Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro and Hungarian counterpart Judit Varga in a joint statement on Wednesday (30 September).

“The scope of the report is arbitrary and there are no references to objectively selected reference points, which could be applied equally to all member states”, the statement said. Read more details here.

With regard to Poland, the European Commission’s report states that justice system reforms introduced in 2015 raise serious concerns, noting that these reforms affected the Constitutional Tribunal, Supreme Court, common courts, National Council of the Judiciary and the prosecutor, which, the report claims increased the influence of the executive and legislative powers on the judiciary and weakened the independence of judges.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki rejected the EU’s criticism as well as the latest idea for a mechanism for linking payments of EU funds to the rule of law.

“There is no consent to use different clauses in any way and to threaten us with a finger just because someone likes our government less,” he said. Read more.

At the same time, Hungary’s parliament has warned it will withhold its consent for the EU’s recovery plan if there is a proposal to link the bloc’s funds to rule-of-law criteria. Read more.

The Hungarian government said “Hungary is one of the few member states where genuine pluralism prevails in the media, in ideological debates, and in the public sphere in general.” Read more.


NO REACTION

Finland’s government had not by Wednesday evening (30 September) commented on the Commission’s Report. However, it would be safe to predict that the country would welcome the report. Read more

However, rule of law has traditionally been high on Finland’s agenda, including during its EU presidency in the second half of 2019, when the county wanted to link the rule of law as a prerequisite for the approval of the EU Recovery Package. Read more.

Sharing the Finnish stance are also Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.

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In Slovakia, the European Commission’s Rule of Law report has gone largely unnoticed among politicians. Coincidentally, however, the Slovak government passed on Wednesday the main building block of an ambitious judicial reform – the need for which was mentioned in the Commission’s report. The government gave a green light to a constitutional amendment to enable major changes in the system, while further changes to 28 other laws should follow. This constitutes one of the main promises of the current government coalition and the fate of the reform will be decided by parliament.

Croatia‘s government has not reacted to the European Commission’s report, with the opposition and NGOs also silent.

(Alexandra Brzozowski, EURACTIV.com | Alessandro Follis, EURACTIV.it | Zuzana Gabrižová, EURACTIV.sk | Phillip Grüll, EURACTIV.de | Mateusz Kucharczyk | EURACTIV.pl | Sarah Lawton, EURACTIV.de | Vlagyiszlav Makszimov, EURACTIV.com) | Mateusz Kucharczyk, EURACTIV.pl | Krassen Nikolov, EURACTIV.bg | Ondřej Plevák, EURACTIV.cz  | Samuel Stolton, EURACTIV.com |  Željko Trkanjec, EURACTIV.hr |  Pekka Vänttinen, EURACTIV.com)


In other news from the Capitals:

BERLIN

‘Risking everything we have achieved.’ In likely her last general debate in the Bundestag, Chancellor Angela Merkel called on MPs to take the coronavirus seriously. “We are currently seeing how caution is waning,” Merkel said, adding that “we are risking everything we have achieved in recent months.”

Germany has consistently seen more than 1,000 new infections per day recently, and the chancellor had previously warned that there could be more than 19,000 new cases per day by Christmas if the trend continues. (Sarah Lawton | EURACTIV.de)

Read also: US praises German moves to sideline Huawei from 5G networks

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PARIS

Paris fears new COVID-19 restrictions. Health Minister Olivier Véran is expected to announce on Thursday (1 October) new government measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. The French capital, which has already reached a stage where it could fall into a high alert zone, fears it could be forced back into lockdown, particularly as French President Macron has not yet excluded any possible scenarios. Read more.

Read also: Macron criticises “warlike” rhetoric on Nagorno-Karabakh

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BRUSSELS

Belgium breaks government deadlock. Nearly 16 months after its federal elections, Belgian political leaders broke the deadlock on forming a new government on Wednesday (30 September). Caretaker finance minister Alexander De Croo will be sworn in as the new prime minister on Thursday (1 October), just in time to represent Belgium at the EU summit late in the afternoon. Read the full story here.


UK AND IRELAND

LONDON

Britain to work with Trump or Biden on trade. Britain will work with Republican President Trump or his opponent Democrat Biden in order to clinch a US trade deal, trade minister Liz Truss said on Wednesday (30 September), declining to comment directly on a chaotic first US presidential debate. Read more.


EUROPE’S SOUTH

ROME

US Secretary of State visits Rome. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio in Rome on Wednesday (30 September). “We are counting on the influence the US has on Libya and other international actors to avoid sabotages”, Di Maio said. Read more.

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MADRID

Some areas at risk of ‘uncontrolled’ COVID-19 spread. Spain’s health ministry warned on Wednesday of a “high risk of uncontrolled” virus transmission in some regions, including in the capital city of Madrid, which is one of the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, EFE reported.

The risk is particularly high in Spanish regions registering a contagion rate above 250 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, sources from Spain’s health ministry have said. A draft proposal for a new national action plan to contain the pandemic – seen by EFE – states that the contagion rate of 250 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, as proposed by the ministry, is a clear indicator of the high risk of uncontrolled transmissions of the virus in some regions. Read more.

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ATHENS 

Good US-Greece relations. The Greek government is very pleased with the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the announcements he made from the Souda port-military base in Crete. Read more.

Read also: US strengthens its military presence in Greece

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Meanwhile, a group of 139 asylum seekers, 53 unaccompanied minors along with children with serious health problems and their families, left the Greek islands on Wednesday (30 September) in order to be transferred to Germany. Read more.


VISEGRAD

PRAGUE

State of emergency back for another month. Starting on Monday, the Czech Republic will once again be in a state of emergency, which according to Health Minister Roman Prymula had to be declared to put in place new general measures.

However, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and Interior Minister Jan Hamáček promised that it will not lead to major new COVID-19 restrictions, such as closing stores or limiting travel.

(Ondřej Plevák | EURACTIV.cz)

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BRATISLAVA

State of emergency approved. The Slovak government has approved the declaration of the state of emergency to fight the second wave of coronavirus that has hit the country harder than the first. It should be in place in place for 45 days and gives the government the option to limit certain freedoms and movement. (Zuzana Gabrižová | EURACTIV.sk)

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WARSAW

Fewer ministries, no gender balance. After the reshuffle of the Polish government the number of ministries has decreased from 20 to 14. Some of the functioning ministries will be expanded with additional departments. The reconstruction will also see familiar faces come back into government. Read more.

Read also: Polish MEP Sylwia Spurek changes colours from Socialists to Greens


NEWS FROM THE BALKANS

BUCHAREST

Elections postponed? The Romanian government scheduled the parliamentary elections for 6 December, but parliament had decided that MPs will exceptionally be setting the election date this year. Some MPs have already said elections would be in March due to COVID-19.

In other news, the number of new COVID-19 infections passed the 2,000-mark for the first time in Romania on Wednesday (30 September). That day, the country recorded 2,158 new cases, meaning a total of 127,572 people have been infected with the virus since the start of the pandemic, while 4,825 have died. Romania’s authorities, however, do not plan to implement new restrictions, except with regard to imposing restrictions on people coming from countries with higher infection rates. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)

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LJUBLJANA

Most shops to be closed on Sundays, holidays. Shops in Slovenia will be closed on Sundays and national holidays after parliament adopted a law late on Tuesday which will come into force in a fortnight.

The law says that shops smaller than 200 square metres and those at hospitals, petrol stations, border crossings, seaports, airports, rail and bus stations will be able to continue working on Sundays and during holidays. However, only owners, part-time students and pensioners will be able to work on those days. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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ZAGREB

A Double Taxation Convention with the US? A Double Taxation Convention would lead to many benefits when it comes to the taxation of all kinds of income and to the improvement of conditions for boosting bilateral trade, said Croatian Finance Minister Zdravko Marić . “This is a great signal for investors. We are tackling the matter that has been present for more than two and a half decades,” he added. Read more.

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BELGRADE 

EU prepared to mediate talks between Serbia’s government and opposition. EU representatives have expressed readiness to mediate a dialogue between Serbia’s government and the opposition, said Zoran Lutovac, a representative of the United Opposition of Serbia (UOS), on Wednesday (30 September) in Belgrade. The date of the talks depends on them, he added. Read more.

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SARAJEVO

Bihać police shuts down migrant camp. Police in BiH’s northwestern Una-Sana Canton shut down a camp for illegal migrants located in downtown Bihać, relocating its residents to the Lipa migrant camp about twenty kilometres away. During the relocation, some of the migrants decided to make their way to the Croatian border, with a smaller group deciding to try their luck in Sarajevo. There are currently some 7,000 illegal migrants in BiH and they are continuing to arrive across the poorly controlled border from Serbia and Montenegro.

(Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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PODGORICA 

No place for priests in politics. The church has no place in daily politics and Amfilohije Radović has no place in the negotiations on the composition of the new Montenegrin government, said Nebojsa Medojević, the president of the “Movement for Change” (PzP). Though some of the negotiations about the new government’s formation was held in the Ostrog monastery, Medojević did not participate.

Meanwhile, after the Chinese investor on Wednesday missed the deadline to complete the Bar-Boljare highway, the new government has no option but to sign an annex to the contract containing a new deadline. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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TIRANA

Rehabilitation centre for repatriation of children from Syria Lejdi Dervishi, director of the Coordination centre against Violent Extremism, said that 300  teachers have been qualified for the reintegration process. Albania has conditions to rehabilitate all Albanians trapped in camps in Syria, Albania Daily News reported. At least 70 Albanian citizens, of which 51 are children, are in Syria’s al-Hol camp in Syria. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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

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