Judges and lawyers from all over Europe supported a demonstration in Warsaw by their Polish colleagues in defense of judicial independence that they consider threatened by the government. The “march of a thousand robes”, as the demonstration has been described, protests against the latest judicial reforms. And it redoubles the pressure so that the European Commission does not lower its guard. Non-governmental organizations and judicial associations fear that the Commission, chaired since December 1 by Ursula von der Leyen, will be more sympathetic to Warsaw than the previous Executive, chaired by Jean-Claude Juncker. And Von der Leyen’s first gestures of rapprochement with both Poland and Hungary have set off alarms.
Build bridges east to prevent the Brussels clash with Poland and Hungary from cracking the European Union. That has been the strategy of the President of Von der Leyen since the European Parliament approved her appointment on July 16. The German conservative has maintained benevolence with the Poland of Jarosław Kaczynski and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary after taking office on December 1. But six months of courting governments with authoritarian tendencies have so far yielded no results.
“The situation is very serious and that is why we are here,” José Igreja Matos, president of the European Association of Judges, told Reuters during the march in Warsaw. Authoritarian skids in Warsaw and Budapest, far from slowing down, have accelerated during the second half of the year.
And the apparent passivity and even tolerance of von der Leyen worries the political and social forces that are struggling in these two countries and in other members of the EU to maintain a system based on the rule of law, judicial independence and freedom of the press. The repeated and overwhelming electoral victories of Orbán’s Fidesz and Kaczynski’s PiS (Law and Justice) further complicate possible intervention by Brussels.
Poland’s latest moves to distance itself from EU jurisprudence and push away magistrates who dare to disagree with the government line have sounded alarm bells again, to the point that some analysts point to Kaczynski’s country moving toward a de facto departure from the community club.
In mid-December, dozens of Polish academics and representatives of non-governmental organizations pleaded in writing with the Von der Leyen Commission to ask the EU Court for the precautionary suspension of new judicial reforms, as it did in 2018, with resounding success, the Commission headed by Jean-Claude Juncker when Warsaw approved early retirement. But, for now, the response of the current Commission has been a letter from Vice President Vera Jourova (who has replaced Frans Timmermans in monitoring the rule of law) demanding last Thursday the Polish Parliament to stop the reform process. Less than 24 hours later, the reform was approved.
“The von der Leyen Commission appears to be more timid than the Juncker Commission in defending the rule of law in Hungary and Poland,” concludes Alberto Alemanno, professor at the Jean Monnet Chair in European Law at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris. “And it is difficult to forget that the bizarre and tight confirmation of Von der Leyen in the European Parliament [por solo nueve votos de margen] It was achieved thanks to the support of PIS and Fidesz, the two ruling parties in Poland and Hungary. Is it just a coincidence? “Asks the analyst.
Von der Leyen, in effect, was imposed as president of the Commission thanks to the frontal rejection of Warsaw and Budapest to the socialist candidate, Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the Commission and considered by both capitals as the whip of article 7 (which punishes countries that violate the fundamental values of the EU). The Orbán and Kaczynski MEPs were also key for the German to barely pass the investiture vote.
As soon as she was elected in July, Von der Leyen began her procession to uncomfortable governments. Warsaw was the third capital of the EU to visit as President-elect, behind only Berlin and Paris. And although the meeting with the Polish authorities was difficult, the German conservative chose to highlight the meeting points and tried to cajole that region of Europe with the large investments that the community budget can provide. A promise that was doubled months later with possible financing linked to the Green Pact to decarbonize the European economy.
The President also assigned powerful portfolios to the four commissioners from the so-called Visegrad group: Agriculture, to Poland; Enlargement, to Hungary; the Vice Presidency for Fundamental Values and Transparency, to the Czech Republic; and the Vice Presidency for Institutional Relations, to Slovakia.
The political family of Von der Leyen, the European People’s Party, has also maintained bridges with Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian government, despite the increasingly unsustainable coexistence. The PPE suspended the membership of Fidesz, Orbán’s party, before the European elections. But he avoided the expulsion to give the umpteenth opportunity to recover ties with Budapest. Neither the Commission’s appeasement strategy nor the PPE’s have produced any results so far.
“Democracy is dying in Poland and Hungary,” warned liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld during a session of the European Parliament’s Committee on Freedoms on Monday. “And the disease is spreading,” he added, in the same week that Parliament has pushed for Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, to resign immediately due to the possible involvement of his environment in the case of the murder of journalist Daphne. Caruana Galizia.
The president of that Commission and rapporteur for the application of article 7 to Poland, the socialist Juan Fernando López Aguilar, pointed out in the same session the string of potential infractions and “political interference in the Constitutional Court” that progressively undermine the rule of law in the fifth largest country in the EU.
The new European Commissioner for Justice, the Belgian liberal Didier Reynders, assures that he will keep the files open against Poland and Hungary based on Article 7. But he advocates “equipping himself with new instruments”, as a general surveillance mechanism, over all States members, regarding respect for fundamental values. And for introducing the possibility of suspending the structural funds to countries that violate these values (Poland and Hungary have allocated 86,000 million and 25,000 million, respectively, in the current budgetary framework).
But community sources point to the risk that the general surveillance framework will eventually dilute the pressure on capitals with greater authoritarian tendencies. And diplomatic sources acknowledge that the suspension of the funds would require majorities in the Council that would never be reached, as has already happened in the application of article 7.
“Time passes and what has been established in Europe is a pattern of how to carry out an authoritarian restructuring in a liberal democracy,” said MEP Terry Reintke, from the group of the Greens, during the aforementioned debate in the Parliamentary Commission. “And it is always the same process. First they go for the media, then they invoke an external threat, usually from people with another religion, and then they talk all the time and finally they turn into internal threat to the disagreeing social groups of their vision (…) And it works for them, “added Reintke.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will face in the coming weeks the threat that his party, Fidesz, will be expelled from the European People’s Party. Three prominent figures of the popular – Herman Van Rompuy, Hans-Gert Pöttering and Wolfgang Schüssel – are preparing the report that will allow PPE President Donald Tusk to recommend or not the expulsion in February 2020. “It will be a very delicate moment “, recognizes a source close to the file. “If he is expelled, Orbán will try to make him profitable electorally with a campaign of victimhood.” Budapest’s growing control over the media can help fuel that campaign. “Freedom of expression is disappearing in Hungary,” warned Ramona Strugariau, a liberal MEP for the Renew group last week. Strugariau has just attended a media congress in Budapest. And he assures that “the name of Orbán produced chills among the attendees”. The MEP assured the European Parliament’s Committee on Freedoms that disinformation campaigns blamed on Putin’s Kremlin do not reach Hungary because “Orbán’s propaganda is even stronger than that of Russia.”