The failure of the European Commission to activate the rule-of-law mechanism and prevent Poland and Hungary from benefiting from EU funds is being hailed as a victory in Budapest. Warsaw is still mad about being forced to reverse its judicial reforms.
The pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet was celebrating as a victory for Viktor Orban’s government the fact that the European Commission has so far refrained from deploying the rule-of-law conditionality against Hungary and Poland, despite pressure from the European Parliament.
This week the European Commission missed the two-month deadline to trigger a new rule-of-law mechanism that makes receiving billions in EU funds conditional on a country’s respect for the EU’s core values. Initially seen targeting the bloc’s two worst culprits, Hungary and Poland, potential punitive measures would include a suspension of payments and early repayment of loans. The measures can be later lifted if the disciplined country corrects the situation.
The conservative daily quotes from a letter sent by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to European Parliament President David Sassoli, in which she dismisses the criticism that the executive has failed to implement the rule-of-law conditionality.
Despite officially entering in force in January, the mechanism’s implementation has effectively been suspended by the European Commission until after the Hungarian parliamentary elections in the spring of 2022, the European Parliament claims. Hungary and Poland have challenged the new legislation at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), where rulings can take years.
Trying to speed up the process, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in March that threatened to sue the European Commission for inaction. Receiving no response, Sassoli then sent a formal letter to von der Leyen in June, addressing the executive’s failure to act.
In her official response, quoted by Magyar Nemzet, von der Leyen claimed the European Parliament had not come up with any specific case where the conditionality clause should have been implemented.
“As regards the application of the Regulation through the activation of the procedure in the most obvious cases, as requested in the resolution of 10 June 2021… for the Commission to be able to take a position, the Parliament should explain in concrete terms which are those cases, why it considers that the conditions set out in the Regulation are fulfilled and why the Commission would not have respected its obligation to act within a reasonable timeframe,” the letter read.
A Commission spokesperson confirmed that the executive doesn’t intend to take any action for the time being and is currently drafting guidelines to facilitate the practical implementation of the regulation. Consultation is set to finish in the early days of autumn.
Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld tweeted that the letter is “not only an insult to Parliament, but an insult to European citizens”. Hungarian MEP Katalin Cseh followed up with: “We cannot let go until the rule of law mechanism is implemented. It’s time to go to court.” The parliament now has two months to file a lawsuit with the CJEU.
Meanwhile, Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro has accused the EU of conducting a “hybrid war” targeting Poland’s justice system. Speaking on Thursday to Radio Warszawa, Ziobro commented: “What is the EU telling us? That Poles cannot, via democratic elections, implement real reforms of the justice system.”
Ziobro said he hoped the Polish government could continue with its planned reforms, which would be “far-reaching and not necessarily pleasing the eurocrats who would prefer to limit Polish sovereignty.”
The European Commission regards the reforms spearheaded by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) since it came to power in 2015 as designed to politicise the judiciary and undermine its independence. Earlier this month, the CJEU issued two separate rulings that declared a disciplinary system for judges created by PiS as incompatible with EU law. The Polish government has since taken measures to halt the activities of the Disciplinary Chamber at the Supreme Court, following one of the CJEU rulings.
Hungary’s no-mask mega-Mass; childless couples look abroad
A week before the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, to be held in Budapest, it was revealed that neither masks nor vaccination would be needed for those participating in the week-long series of events.
The huge Catholic gathering will attract tens of thousands of pilgrims and the final mass, celebrated by Pope Francis on September 12, is expected to attract as many as 100,000 worshippers to Hero’s Square.
The government-critical daily Népszava wrote that the organisers are praying that the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic won’t begin at this potential super-spreader event. Even so, they have decided to put in place no special epidemiological measures, such as mandatory mask wearing, social distancing or vaccination document checks on the pilgrims from over 70 countries, the daily wrote.
Both politicians and health experts now accept that Hungary will be unable to avoid a fourth wave of the pandemic, but the government evidently does not see mass gatherings as a source of concern, although it’s busy trying to convince parents to vaccinate their children aged 12-15 before the school year starts on September 1.
The previously hyped Hungarian vaccination campaign has lost its impetus, with only 55 per cent of the population fully vaccinated; elsewhere in the EU, Malta leads with almost 88 per cent vaccinated, followed by Belgium and Spain at 63 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively.
Still on health issues, the independent weekly hvg.hu investigated the consequences of the Hungarian government’s decision to nationalise all the country’s fertility clinics. In May, parliament passed a law that practically banned the last three remaining private fertility clinics (six were already nationalised at the end of 2019) from carrying out in-vitro fertilisation procedures, with the slogan that “demographic challenges in Hungary require state action”. Although the law will only become effective from July 2022, private clinics cannot offer any treatments after September 30.
Government ministers argued the aim of the policy was to make things “more transparent” and help Hungarian couples who wish to have children. “Human life is not a business,” stated Katalin Novak, the minister for family affairs.
State-run and private clinics had existed in parallel in Hungary, with state institutions offering clear benefits for couples like free treatments (up to five in-vitro fertilisations) and free medicines. Still, hundreds of couples opted for private clinics at considerably higher costs, as they complained about long waiting lists in the state sector; poor, impersonal service; and inadequate, not tailor-made treatments.
Now their only option is to go abroad, mostly to Slovakia and Czechia, where Hungarian-speaking staff have already reportedly been recruited to meet the demand.
Poland sees 4th pandemic wave approaching; ECHR rules over migrants
The number of daily coronavirus cases in Poland has started steadily ticking upwards, with the authorities now preparing for a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
This week, the number of new daily cases reached 250, and between Wednesday and Thursday three people died due to COVID-19. The Health Ministry said about 90 per cent of cases in the country were caused by the Delta variant. The government also announced it is ready to reintroduce restrictions in the autumn if the situation worsens, using a refined regional approach rather than country-wide restrictions.
Elsewhere, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Poland to provide medicine, food, water and, if possible, temporary shelter to 32 migrants that have been camping for over two weeks in squalid conditions on the border with Belarus. Poland has refused to let the people in, arguing they are on Belarusian territory. Border guards have also been blocking access to the migrants to those trying to provide them with help.
Polish lawyers appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to intervene, out of fear for the migrants’ worsening health conditions.
Not enough seats as Afghans plea for help; Slovak prosecutors clash
On August 19, a Slovak plane returned home from a special mission in Afghanistan. Aboard were 24 people evacuated from the clutches of the Taliban. Most of them were Slovak citizens who sat next to a select group of lucky locals – former aides to Slovakia’s mission in Afghanistan and their families. Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok confirmed that eight of them had already applied for asylum.
While these people have made it to safety, 250 more persons with ties to Slovakia are awaiting rescue in Afghanistan, according to various estimates. They include 16 Slovak residents, 50 women and children entitled to reunite with their families, nine students with stipends, and 28 doctoral and university students in Kabul, Korcok explained.
However, only 24 places are available on Slovakia’s special government plane that’s ready to return to Afghanistan, Prime Minister Eduard Heger claimed. He added that due to the worsening security situation in the country and the increasing threat of the Taliban, it remained questionable how many refugees would actually make it onto the plane. “It’s possible that it would be less than 10 people,” Heger stated, while warning that the chances of a successful rescue mission were decreasing “by the minute”.
The Taliban plans to seal off Afghanistan’s borders on August 31. Those who won’t manage to flee by then will have to be dealt with by “partners who control the airport’s perimeter in Kabul,” Heger concluded.
President Zuzana Caputova expressed concern over the events unfolding in Afghanistan and called for the rescue of all locals with ties to Slovakia. She was soon joined by several Slovak NGOs who urged the government to get more people to safety. These organisations have already managed to secure support from Slovak employers, educational institutions and cities that offered Afghan refugees scholarships and assistance, the Slovak Spectator reported. They also launched a petition calling for the creation of a government-run aid program for all those fleeing Afghanistan for Slovakia. Close to 4,000 people have supported the call so far.
Meanwhile, a prosecutorial battle royal ensued in Slovakia between Prosecutor General Maros Zilinka and Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipsic. According to the SME daily, Zilinka handed in a proposal to launch disciplinary action against Lipsic for his statements in the media that questioned the transparency of investigations in major corruption cases.
Zilinka claims that Lipsic spoke on the matter speculatively and without due knowledge while expressing “his own personal opinion”. He added that the special prosecutor “forgot that he was no longer an attorney.” Before joining the prosecutorial force in February this year, Lipsic gained fame as a lawyer who represented clients in high profile cases, including the family of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak. He refuted Zilinka’s claims and argued that his statements were “material and concrete”.
A number of MPs and NGOs questioned Zilinka’s motivation for his attack on Lipsic after the Dennik N daily revealed that the prosecutor general has concealed his intentions for several days after he had filed his proposal for a disciplinary proceeding.
Assuming office in December last year, Zilinka promised an open prosecution service and an overhaul of its secretive culture. Now he’s being criticised for falling short of his vision and using his position to gain leverage in personal spats. The disciplinary proceeding against Lipsic “confirms all doubts we ever had about Zilinka”, MP Ondrej Dostal from the SaS party said.
Lipsic took over the prosecutorial seat from Dusan Kovacik, who was notorious for his inactivity and is currently charged with corruption. Yet Kovacik did not face a single disciplinary action in his 17 years in office, while Lipsic is now having to deal with his first after a mere six months on the job.
Zeman marks his territory ahead of October election
Czech President Milos Zeman spent the week upping the ante in his war against Michal Koudelka, head of the country’s counterintelligence service BIS. The campaign appears to be part of a long-running tug of war between the pro-Russia and China president and the Western-oriented political establishment over the country’s geopolitical position. With Zeman having suffered several defeats this year, he is now seeking to mark out his territory ahead of October’s parliamentary election.
Starting late last week, the head of state has claimed in a series of media interviews and statements that BIS has been wiretapping several of his team. In particular, Zeman says his adviser Martin Nejedly, a businessman without security clearance who has close Russian links, was a target. However, he also stated that the action against his team means the agency has essentially been snooping on the president himself.
Claiming he was told of the operations by two unnamed sources, the president also suggested that Koudelka – who is highly respected by Western intelligence agencies, especially in the US – has been running rogue BIS operations in order to gather information for his own purposes. While offering no evidence, he added that Koudelka could be manipulating or blackmailing other politicians.
Zeman has been largely absent from the media in recent months, and very notably during the country’s tragic struggle with the coronavirus pandemic. However, with the election fast approaching, he has become an almost constant presence – an apparent bid to establish his authority ahead of the vote and even to start to rehabilitate Czechia’s damaged relations with Russia.
Moscow has officially designated Prague as an enemy state since the government expelled dozens of ‘diplomats’ and blocked Russia from a tender to build new nuclear units over the explosion at the Vrbetice munitions warehouse, evidently carried out by Russian agents, which killed two Czech citizens.
Aside from his vicious attack on Koudelka, Zeman has also been busy badmouthing NATO and calling for it to stop “barking” at Russia. It has been suggested in the liberal media that Zeman’s “source” – if indeed there was any, because BIS has (naturally for a spy agency) declined to confirm or deny the president’s claims – could have been Russian intelligence.
As well as helping show Moscow that he at least remains loyal, the president’s renewed attack on the BIS chief is also a warning to Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who is desperate to cling to power to avoid potential criminal charges over the misuse of EU funds. Zeman has said he will use his power to appoint governments to reappoint Babis regardless of the vote.
However, Zeman clearly feels that Babis needs to be shown who is boss. Aside from infuriating him over Vrbetice, the premier also tried to sidestep the president’s demand to dismiss Koudelka as the spy chief’s term ended on August 15. Instead, Babis has sought to wriggle out of the dilemma by appointing him to temporarily lead BIS until a new government is formed.
Hence, Zeman has dragged Babis into the middle of his wiretapping web. He claims that the prime minister had promised him that he would make sure BIS shut down any monitoring of Zeman or his team. However, interfering with BIS operations would be illegal, so Babis has had to deny he made any such pledge.
So, either the president or premier is outright lying to the country. Given the track record of both, that surprises no one.
With the election barely more than a month away, Zeman – who is in his final term and therefore has no need to ever face the electorate again – holds most of the cards, and is seeking to press home his advantage. He has hinted that even Babis might have been blackmailed. The prime minister, on the other hand, “hopes that the president is not angry”.
That kind of toadying will do little to deter the head of state, however, and having trapped Babis in a corner – between loyalty to Czech national security and the presidency – he’s not likely to let the premier off until he has convinced him thoroughly that while he might be set to remain in the prime minister’s chair, in reality it is Prague Castle that will be calling the shots, at least until Zeman leaves office in March 2023.
Zeman is set to continue spinning his web via the media in the coming weeks then. The president has promised in the name of national security that he won’t release more information ahead of the election – just as long as Koudelka’s head is served to him on a plate.
Moscow, of course, will be delighted to see democracy in such chaos reign in yet another EU state.