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Poland and Hungary lash back on rule of law

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat | Keno Verseck
July 22, 2021

Polish and Hungarian government politicians have strongly condemned a recent EU assessment excoriating rule of law there. Yet the path forward for both countries, which face increasing gulfs with the EU, remains unclear.

Judges, prosecutors, lawyers and supporters demonstrate in a rally in front of a court in support of judicial independence in Poland.
Protesters in Krakow highlight risks to the independence of Poland's judiciaryImage: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Bad faith, blackmail, political attack, double standards: Such were the terms used in reactions from government politicians in Poland and Hungary after the European Union presented its second report on the state of the rule of law in EU member states in Brussels on Tuesday, July 20.

The report describes the situation in Poland and Hungary in particular as highly problematic. Among other things, the Commission is demanding judicial reform in both countries and a more decisive effort to combat corruption — otherwise, EU funding will not be paid out. Opposition politicians in both countries have welcomed the rule of law report.

It is especially important for Poland, because the EU Commission has given Warsaw a deadline for implementing a ruling by the European Court of Justice, relating to a controversial disciplinary chamber that takes action against judges who fall out of favor. The Commission expects a response from the Polish government by mid-August, otherwise Poland could face heavy financial penalties.

Following presentation of the report, Poland's deputy justice minister Sebastian Kaleta called for the dialogue with the EU Commission to be ended, saying that it had been going on for three years but had achieved nothing.

"The European Commission is acting in bad faith, violating EU rules, and ignoring the Polish constitutional system. Further invitations to talks are a legitimization of these actions," Kaleta declared.

Polish Judge Igor Tuleya
Igor Tuleya is a key Polish judge facing prosecution as the consequence of fighting for an independent judiciaryImage: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/ZUMA Wire/picture alliance

'Contempt of constitutional court'

According to the interpretation of the Polish government, the Polish Constitutional Court and — most recently — its Supreme Court president, Malgorzata Manowska, European rulings that interfere in the Polish judicial system violate the country's constitution and are therefore null and void.

Former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo described the Commission's ultimatum as contempt of Poland's Constitutional Tribunal. It was she who, during her time in government, secured the controversial restructuring of the court by not publishing a ruling against this move in the official law gazette. Since then, the court has been deemed to be biased.

The immediate reaction from government spokesman Piotr Müller to this fresh criticism from Brussels was that the EU treaties "explicitly define which powers are delegated to the EU, and which remain the exclusive responsibility of individual countries."

Müller said that current rules of law in Poland were similar to those in other EU countries. Nonetheless, he did also promise that the Warsaw government would examine the new documents from Brussels and "conduct an appropriate dialogue with the European Commission." There were "differences of opinion" that needed to be clarified, he said.

Beata Szydlo in Strasbourg in 2019
Poland's former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, who secured restructuring of the country's court, remains a playerImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. F. Badias

'Obstinacy that will cost us a great deal'

"Polexit is slowly becoming a fact," wrote Borys Budka, a leading politician from the liberal opposition Civic Platform party, on Twitter — referring to the possibility of a Brexit-style retreat of Poland from the EU. Budka said the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) now has just one month to remove the disciplinary chamber from the Polish legal system: "After that, we will all pay for Kaczynski's madness, from our taxes."

Budka's party leader, Donald Tusk, also spoke of "obstinacy that will cost us a great deal." He said the ruling PiS party was going against Polish interests if it "does not want to rebuild the fundamental order of the rule of law in Poland." He also stressed how the EU, where the highest standards of the rule of law apply, was also supposed to preserve these standards in Poland.

However, Robert Greszczak, a legal expert at the University of Warsaw, told the private broadcaster TVN that he thought it highly unlikely the government would back away now from something that was so important to it, namely: control of the judiciary. "And then the ball will be back in the EU's court," he predicted.

Donald Tusk in Zagreb in 2019
Donald Tusk acted as president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Ukrinform

No more EU funding

Marek Grela, Poland's first ambassador to the EU, sees the government's actions as incompatible with its own constitution. "For a long time now, member states worried about Poland have been urging the Commission to end the fruitless dialogue with Poland and proceed to action," he says, explaining that this is precisely the decision that has now been made. He also pointed to the fact that there would be no more EU funding for Poland unless the PiS government better respects the rule of law.

Meanwhile, Hungary is in a similar position. The Commission hasn't given the country an ultimatum, as it has to Poland; but it is demanding judicial reforms, tougher measures against corruption, and improvements in press freedoms.

At present, Brussels has not yet reached the point of imposing concrete financial sanctions on Hungary; however, for the time being, the Commission is currently declining to pay out any money from the COVID-19 reconstruction fund to Hungary.

Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban in Katowice, Poland, on June 30, 2021
Reporters Without Borders this year labeled Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban an 'enemy of press freedom'Image: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/picture alliance

'Means of blackmailing Hungary'

Hungary's Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, described the report on her Facebook page and in an interview with the daily Magyar Nemzet as "biased, politically motivated, and factually weak," a "reproduction, without reservation, of the opinions of nongovernmental organizations with a negative attitude towards our homeland," and a "means of blackmailing Hungary." 

Brussels was applying double standards, she claimed, as in Hungary's case the Commission was looking in detail at issues that she believed would not even be mentioned in passing for other countries.

The justice minister also referred to a controversial law that recently came into force in Hungary, which effectively puts homosexuality on a par with pedophilia. Varga said the main reason Hungary's rule of law was being called into question by Brussels was that the Hungarian government is allegedly placing utmost importance on protecting the rights of children and parents. She accused Brussels of having a problem with "the fact that we do not allow LGBTQ activists and sexual propaganda in schools and kindergartens."

Woman waving LGBTQ flag in Budapest
Hungary's anti-LGBTQ law has seen wide condemnation, both internationally and domestically — this woman demonstrates in favor of LGBTQ rights in BudapestImage: MARTON MONUS/REUTERS

Referendum against 'LGBTQ propaganda'

Hungarian opposition politicians, for their part, welcomed the report. The Socialist member of parliament Istvan Ujhelyi, for example, described the EU Commission as having "put Viktor Orban in check." The Hungarian government is unlikely to respond by implementing the EU's demands. DW put in a question about this to a government spokesman, but did not receive an answer.

The Hungarian prime minister has not yet responded directly to the rule of law report. However, he did announce in a Facebook video on Wednesday morning that the government would hold a referendum on protecting Hungarian children from "LGBTQ propaganda." The reason for this, he said, was the serious attacks on Hungary by "Brussels bureaucrats" in recent weeks — which apparently left the Hungarian government with no alternative but to hold such a referendum.