Rule of law concerns persist in Poland despite the EU settlement | European Union

The settlement between the European Union, Hungary and Poland regarding establishing a link between budgetary payments and member states that maintain the rule of law – Agreed upon Thursday night The bloc is allowed to move forward with a new seven-year budget and coronavirus recovery fund, but it is unlikely to be the end of the story.

The compromise returns to a later date a clause that would make some EU funds conditional on rule of law standards. Judit Varja, Minister of Justice in the right-wing Hungarian government, immediately declared “victory”, and also said that the Hungarian government would appeal the new ruling before the European Court of Justice.

Hungary and Poland He had promised to veto the budget if it contained the provision, while other EU leaders threatened that the remaining 25 countries could go forward with a separate budget without it. Despite loud threats to use the veto, the two governments came under pressure at home not to use it.

“The money in this recovery fund is so huge and we are in such a bad economic position that they wouldn’t risk not having it,” Adam Bodnar, a human rights ombudsman in Poland, said in an interview.

Economists and business groups in both countries have appealed to governments not to use their veto power, and to risk a situation where 25 European countries are working on a separate recovery package without Hungary and Poland, citing the potentially devastating effects of the coronavirus crisis on the country’s economy. .

The Polish and Hungarian governments claimed that the European Union’s concerns about the rule of law were in fact an attack on political disputes, but rights groups say there are well-documented cases of rule of law violations in both countries.

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Over the past decade, Orban has boasted of creating an “illiberal democracy” and has faced allegations of cronyism and corruption. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party has only been in power for five years, but it has risen too An assault on the independence of the judiciary And the rule of law at that time.

Bodnar had a first-row seat from which to witness the deteriorating legal climate in Poland, having assumed the position of Ombudsman in 2015, two months before the Law and Justice Party came to power. The Ombudsman’s Office is perhaps the only remaining independent institution working on rule of law issues.

“It is important, because it gives people a lot of hope that there is still a public institution that speaks openly about human rights and the rule of law,” he said. Bodnar said Poland is “too big to be too pluralistic” not to take the same route as Hungary, although he acknowledged that “we don’t quite know yet what the Law and Justice Party can do.”

Another worrying development occurred this week, when a Polish state-owned company said it would buy dozens of regional and local newspapers from the German media holding, after years of calls for media “recolonization” from the Law and Justice Party.

During his five years in office, Bodnar observed weak legal checks and balances in the country. Previously, the real power of the Ombudsman’s Office was the ability to bring cases before the Constitutional Court and nullify controversial legislation. Now that the Constitutional Court is politicized, he is actively avoiding this strategy.

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“I present cases that are related in one way or another to the regulation of the legal system … In cases of a political nature, I do not even go to the Constitutional Court, because I fear that if I did, the ruling could contribute to the further destruction of this case. If there is not there.” Ruling, lower courts can still decide directly on implementing the constitution, while once the Supreme Court issues its ruling, the game is over.

As an example of a case where lower courts can make a difference, Bodnar cites the infamous politics of some Polish local governments. Declaring their cities “LGBT-free zones”. Although the decisions have no legal force, the Court’s Ombudsman’s Office has argued that they have indirect legal effect, impeding access to work and violating LGBT rights. The office won four cases and lost three.

“If you have 10,000 judges, it’s hard to get them all to suddenly act according to the wishes of the ruling party,” he said.

Although his five-year term officially ended in September, Bodnar remains in office after the Law and Justice Party-dominated House of Representatives refused to nominate his preferred replacement.

Zuzanna Rudzińska-Bluszcz, who has worked in Bodnar’s office for the past five years, won the support of more than 1,000 NGOs to take up the position, but was rejected by Parliament twice, leading to a dead end. For now, Bodnar continues in his role until a replacement is found, although Law and Justice Party lawmakers are also engaged in legal proceedings to prevent him from continuing as an acting ombudsman. Civil society groups are keen that the role of the ombudsman does not fall into the hands of those close to the government.

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Rudzińska-Bluszcz said she believed the role of the ombudsman was more important than ever, as Covid has “changed the entire system on which our country is built” and will have long-term economic and social impacts that require a vigorous defense of human rights. She said she will continue to stand as long as she has the support of civil society, even if her candidacy is repeatedly rejected.

Opposition forces in both Poland and Hungary will likely debate in the coming days whether the rule of law settlement will be a victory or a defeat for the two governments. Some focused on the positive, while others were disappointed with the German presidency of the European Union for agreeing to the settlement.

Today’s agreement is a political decision to push the budget, and unfortunately, the rule of law mechanism has been sacrificed. A joint statement issued by the Hungarian Citizens Organization and the Akcja Demokracja Polish Citizens Movement said, Which was previously requested The European Union to stand firm.

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