MEPs grill EU Justice chief Didier Reynders over rule of law breaches

European Commission’s latest annual Rule of Law report branded ‘toothless and spineless’ by LIBE committee MEPs
Didier Reynders | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

02 Sep 2021

The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) had a packed agenda tackling most of the current hot topics around the rule of law on Wednesday morning.

The first two debates were held with Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders and dealt with the Commission’s second annual Rule of Law report, and with the state of play in the Article 7 procedures against Hungary and Poland.

The session culminated with the presentation of the Slovenian EU Council Presidency’s priorities from the country’s Justice Minister Marjan Dikaučič.

The annual Rule of Law report is, and Commissioner Reynders left no doubt about it, seen by the European Commission as one of the two great breakthrough improvements to what is now routinely called its ‘toolbox’ with regards to rule of law observance; the other being the Conditionality Regulation - as yet to be activated, as many MEPs reminded Reynders.

While only the far right and usual suspect Member States with rule-of-law issues are contesting that the annual report represents progress, when it comes to the details, many MEPs found that there was vast room for improvement.

LIBE chair Juan Fernando López Aguilar (S&D, ES) reminded his fellow MEPs of past European Parliament resolutions asking for specific country-by-country recommendations, including deadlines for their implementation.

Isabel Wiseler-Lima (EPP, LU), standing in for her group’s coordinator, pointed out that not only were systemic breaches of the rule of law getting worse, but also, that the report failed to take up Parliament’s suggestion of country-specific recommendations.

“Last year the Parliament pointed out that the report was quite toothless in the absence of recommendations. Now, for me, it is toothless and spineless because what we have is a carefully worded partial account of threats to the rule of law without any joining of the dots” Irish Left MEP Clare Daly

Highlighting an independent judiciary and a free press as preconditions for any democracy, Wiseler-Lima demanded to know, “what kind of tools does the Commission have to react to these problems, because up to now they have not shown themselves to be able to guarantee these fundamental rights, and we really need specific results.”

European Parliament Vice-President Katarina Barley (S&D) agreed, asking Reynders to consider Parliament’s suggestions again, not least because she believed it was important to, “pay attention to the spill-over effect that these developments,” - she cited the Austrian government publicly harassing the Public Prosecutor in corruption cases, and the Slovenian government’s curbing of independent media - “have towards other countries,” - a risk later acknowledged as serious by the Commissioner.

Slovakian Liberal MEP Michal Šimečka helpfully suggested moving the publication date of the report away from the summer because that date was clearly not conducive to a widespread debate about the report in EU Member States.

Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik called for the report to be made stronger and more effective, which was a more diplomatic way of saying what Irish Left MEP Clare Daly phrased, “Last year the Parliament pointed out that the report was quite toothless in the absence of recommendations. Now, for me, it is toothless and spineless because what we have is a carefully worded partial account of threats to the rule of law without any joining of the dots.”

Criticism of a different, and perhaps more predictable kind came from Polish ECR MEP Beata Kempa who called the report “methodologically flawed” and “ideological”, claims dismissed by Reynders, who said, “We have the same methodology for all Member States. We decided on this with the 27 and we have an agreement. And it’s not ideology. It’s just a way to verify compliance with the Treaty”.

He was more defensive on the criticism that the Commission had failed to take up Parliament’s  country-specific recommendations, claiming that the toolbox was in place, and that legal procedures took time. On the specific issue of independent media, even though the Commission had acted in the past, as with the infringement procedure against Hungary in the case of Klub Radio, perhaps more legislation might be needed, Reynders suggested.

Moving on to the state of play in the ongoing Article 7 procedures against Hungary and Poland, López Aguilar reminded the room - in which a Slovenian EU Council Presidency representative was notably absent - that Parliament was first and foremost still waiting for a resumption of the hearings which had begun late into the previous Portuguese EU Council Presidency.

“we can no longer talk about democracy in Hungary. The way the state has been captured from the very bottom to the very top by some oligarchs is very worrying indeed” French Greens/EFA MEP Gwendoline Delbos Corfield

Many MEPs were to later complain about the Slovenian Presidency’s absence in this debate. After all, the Minister for Justice was to join them only an hour later.

For his part, the Commissioner admitted that the situation in Poland and Hungary concerning the rule of law was not improving, and that the latest developments gave rise to more concern, pointing to Poland’s refusal to act on the European Court of Justice ruling and the interim measures ordered concerning the country’s controversial Disciplinary Tribunal for Polish judges.

Reynders told the committee that he and his staff were still assessing Warsaw’s recent reply to a letter by the Commission reminding Poland of its legal obligations.

“The assessment is still ongoing so I will not go into further details at this stage, but I can assure you that the Commission will check whether the Polish authorities are fully compliant with the two rulings of the Court of Justice,” said Reynders.

He continued, “And we will act with determination in our role as guardian of the treaties when it is needed.”

And it sounded that it might well be needed soon when Reynders added “several updates on the situation on the ground”, including concern that the Disciplinary Chamber was seemingly continuing some of its activities against judges - notably a new process against a judge trying to apply an interim measure, no decisions already taken by the tribunal against judges being suspended - as instructed by the interim measures, and the Constitutional Tribunal possibly ruling against the primacy of EU law.

With Hungary, the latest issue remains the controversial LGBTQI law and related developments, with the Commission having started infringement procedures by sending a letter to Budapest in mid-July.

"I can assure you that the Commission will check whether the Polish authorities are fully compliant with the two rulings of the Court of Justice. And we will act with determination in our role as guardian of the treaties when it is needed” European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders

Here, Reynders informed MEPs that he was still waiting for a reply from Hungary, the deadline for which is 14 September. He said that the Commission considered it “absolutely essential” that both Article 7 processes were kept on the Council agenda.

A sentiment shared by all MEPs but, predictably, those representing Hungarian and Polish government parties, and the far right. Polish ECR MEP Patryk Jaki accused the Commission of “using colonisation criteria against Eastern Europe,” in contrast to his fellow countryman, LIBE Vice-Chair Andrzej Halicki (EPP), who argued that “Polish society is not going to allow itself to be dragged out of the EU” by the country’s government.

French Greens/EFA MEP Gwendoline Delbos Corfield, the rapporteur on the Article 7 procedures against Hungary and Vice-Chair of her group, warned, “we can no longer talk about democracy in Hungary. The way the state has been captured from the very bottom to the very top by some oligarchs is very worrying indeed.”

She called for the Article 7 procedure to be advanced so that the next EU Council Presidency, held by France and starting in 2022, can produce recommendations.

Vice-Chair of the Renew Europe group Michal Šimečka came up with a suggestion for what Parliament and Commission could do on their own in the meantime, saying, “As an extension of the Rule of Law Report, we should consider an update of the Article 7 mandate, that is the reasoned opinions, on both procedures, to reflect the latest developments.”

He continued, “The reasoned opinions are used in national courts, so they are important documents. This way we could acknowledge the reality even if the Council doesn’t have the courage to move forward.”

Several MEPs also asked the Commission to withhold COVID recovery funds for Poland and Hungary until progress on the rule of law issues have been made. They are still being studied very closely; the Commissioner confirmed.

Finally, the committee met Slovenian Justice Minister Marjan Dikaučič, on videophone from Ljubljana.

He was scheduled to present the Presidency’s priorities: tackling hate speech and hate crime, improving online rights of children, advancing the EU’s accession to the European Convention of Human Rights, considering AI regulation, and advancing e-justice.

All worthy tasks, as most MEPs acknowledged, but far from from the hot potatoes that had been on the committee’s table up until then. MEPs made sure they returned to more urgent issues during the Q&A session.

In response, the Dikaučič, confirmed his support for the latest tools to safeguard the rule of law and announced that the report will be discussed by EU justice ministers at their next meeting on 7 and 8 October.

On the Article 7 procedures, Dikaučič said that “the Presidency made a commitment to accelerate both procedures. We will have the traditional rule of law dialogue, of course, but the Presidency has also placed the issue on the agenda of the General Affairs Council in December.”

Read the most recent articles written by Andreas Rogal - Slovenian MEPs row over Rule of Law report

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