Pressure mounts on Poland and Hungary over eroded rule of law

Call for EU to stall aid due to media curtailment, court interference and LGBT rights issues

There are signs of hardening attitudes towards the erosion of democratic norms and judicial independence in Poland and Hungary throughout the European Union.

Over the weekend, France's European affairs minister Clement Beaune announced that Paris would push for strong rules that would bar countries that do not respect democratic norms from receiving aid from the EU's €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund.

"[We can't tell] French, Polish, Hungarian and European citizens that [we] can have financial solidarity in Europe and not care how the basic rules of democracy, free media and equal rights are respected," Mr Beaune said in an interview with the Financial Times.

The democracy monitor Freedom House found that Hungary was no longer a democracy earlier this year due to the government’s tight control over much of the media and independent institutions, and warned that Poland was at risk of following suit amid increasing political influence over the courts.


The French intervention weighs in ahead of a looming fight over how to interpret wording about the rule of law included in a deal reached last month on the EU’s seven-year budget and a €750 billion recovery fund to counteract the economic damage of the pandemic.

Democratic backsliders

In the negotiations, a group of EU member states led by the Netherlands pushed for strict rule-of-law conditions that would exclude democratic backsliders from receiving money. But opposition from Poland and Hungary made for a compromise that was ambiguous enough to allow both sides to claim victory, meaning a showdown may lie ahead over how the agreement is implemented.

Mr Beaune’s comments came after a Dutch court expressed doubts on Friday that Poland’s legal system is independent of its government and parliament, and asked the Court of Justice of the EU to rule on whether this meant the extradition of Polish suspects under the European Arrest Warrant should be halted.

The international chamber of Amsterdam’s district court refused to extradite a 32-year-old Polish man arrested in the Netherlands on suspicion of smuggling 200kg of marijuana and other drugs into Poland, saying it did not believe Polish courts were independent of the government.

“Since 2017, the independence of Polish courts and thus the right to a fair trial have come under increasing pressure,” the court said in a statement. “These developments harm the independence of the Polish judiciary so much that it cannot operate independently of the Polish government and parliament.”

Jailing judges

The Dutch ruling adds to growing criticism in the EU towards sweeping reforms of the justice system by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which have made it possible to jail judges if their rulings displease the government.

The judicial reforms have prompted fierce criticism by the European Commission, which has taken out infringement proceedings against Warsaw for violating EU law and attempted to strip the country of its voting rights in the European Council under the so-called Article 7 procedure.

Both in the case of Poland and Hungary, where the nationalist government of Viktor Orban has imposed state control over much of the media, the Article 7 process has stalled due to the need for broad support among the 27 national governments of the EU.

But the commission flexed its financial muscle last week by rejecting funding applications from six Polish towns that declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”, part of an anti-gay campaign backed by state television, Catholic clergy and the Law and Justice party which has described homosexuality as a threat to the Polish state.

"Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities, are fundamental EU values," equality commissioner Helena Dalli said in a statement.

“These principles must be applied transversally to all EU funding.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times