The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has been a “stress test” for the rule of law in the European Union, said European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, as she presented the executive’s Rule of Law report for 2021 on Tuesday.
In the second edition of the report, the executive looks at the situation in the EU as a whole and dedicated country chapters examine each Member State. This year's report looks at the new developments since September 2020, investigating issues identified in the previous report and taking into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the Commission says the report shows many positive developments in Member States, including where challenges identified in last year’s report are being addressed, it says “concerns remain and in certain Member States these have increased, for instance when it comes to the independence of the judiciary and the situation in the media.”
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Our 2021 Rule of Law report shows positive development overall. This must be nurtured. Yet it shows clear, persisting challenges in some Member States as regards the independence of the judiciary as well as media freedom and pluralism.”
She added, “The European Commission is working to uphold and promote the Rule of Law and reinforce the EU’s Rule of Law culture through dialogue. Our objectives: protect our societies, our democracies and at the same time, secure our recovery by safeguarding Next Generation EU funds.”
Jourová, for her part, said that while the second edition of the Rule of Law report shows that Member States can make progress to address rule of law matters, this progress has been uneven and there are causes for serious concern in a number of Member States, especially when it comes to the independence of judiciary.
“Finally the European Commission shows teeth and acts as the guardian of the treaties. The messing around is over. Now speak exactly the same language with [Viktor] Orbán. It is a mystery to me why the velvet gloves were not taken off much earlier” Bernd Lange, S&D
She said, “Moreover, two journalists were murdered over the past months - this is not acceptable. The report calls for decisive action to improve media freedom and pluralism. Over the next year, we expect the findings of the 2021 report to nourish discussions between Member States as they work to strengthen the rule of law.”
The Commission’s 2021 report builds on the methodology and scope of the previous report focusing on the four key elements: justice systems; the anti-corruption framework; media pluralism and media freedom; and other institutional issues linked to checks and balances.
Under the theme of justice systems, the executive says – without explicitly naming Poland and Hungary – that “a few Member States” have continued to carry out reforms that lower their safeguards for judicial independence, raising concerns or aggravating the existing ones related to increased influence of the executive and legislative branch over the functioning of their justice system.
“Moreover, in some Member States, political attacks and repeated attempts undermining judges or judicial institutions are further challenging judicial independence,” the Commission adds.
Under the theme of media freedom and pluralism, the Commission underlines the fact that during the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists and media workers in Europe have been under a “heavy strain.”
“The 2021 Media Pluralism Monitor – a key source of information for the Rule of Law Report – points to an overall deterioration of the situation of journalists in several Member States. Not all media regulators are free from political influence and there is a high risk of political interference in the media in some Member States.”
“Our 2021 Rule of Law Report shows positive development overall. This must be nurtured. Yet it shows clear, persisting challenges in some Member States as regards the independence of the judiciary as well as media freedom and pluralism” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President
In the European Parliament, reaction to the Rule of Law report was swift, with many MEPs and political groups weighing in with their take on Tuesday’s announcement.
The EPP Group, Parliament’s biggest political grouping, said that while it welcomed the report, it was “not enough.”
Dutch member Jeroen Lenaers, EPP spokesman in Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE), commented, “We have seen where the rule of law and citizens’ rights are under serious threat – Hungary, with the anti-LGBTQI+ law, and Poland, which refuses to implement the rulings of the European Court of Justice and where a system of a parallel judiciary has been put in place.”
“While we welcome the report, we believe that it is not enough. We issued warnings but they were not heard. When warnings are not heeded, action must follow. The EU Member States have to take decisive action against those who abuse the rule of law,” He added.
The S&D Group echoed these sentiments, expressing concerns that the report will fail to improve the situation in Member States without clear and specific recommendation to EU governments.
Domènec Ruiz Devesa, the S&D deputy who led Parliament’s work on assessing the 2020 report, said, “The annual report is a useful tool to monitor and assess the state of the rule of law in all Member States and on similar grounds. However, it clearly lacks the concrete follow-up with a timeline to remedy problems. Without specific recommendations to governments, the rule of law report will not live up to its full potential.”
“We have seen where the rule of law and citizens’ rights are under serious threat – Hungary, with the anti-LGBTQI+ law, and Poland, which refuses to implement the rulings of the European Court of Justice” Jeroen Lenaers, EPP
Ruiz Devesa said that while the attacks on media freedom and judicial independence once again headline the report, these serious concerns do not apply to the same extent in all Member States.
“Unfortunately, there has been a constantly deteriorating situation in the usual suspects, Hungary and Poland. Yet the reality is even worse than the report suggests. In Hungary, there are allegations that Viktor Orbán’s government has been using the Pegasus software to spy on journalists. Meanwhile, the Polish government’s failure to implement European court rulings represents a systematic undermining of the EU’s legal order.”
German S&D colleague Bernd Lange tweeted, “Finally the European Commission shows teeth and acts as the guardian of the treaties. The messing around is over. Now speak exactly the same language with [Viktor] Orbán. It is a mystery to me why the velvet gloves were not taken off much earlier.”
Renew Europe called the report “an alarm bell showing the need for urgent and decisive measures,” adding, “while Renew Europe welcomes the annual EU-wide report, which is a product of years of campaigning by our members, we call for it to be developed into more than an analysis. Our group stresses that the findings of the report must be linked to concrete measures, such as - where necessary - infringement procedures and budgetary conditionality.”
Michal Šimečka, Renew Europe shadow rapporteur on the file, said, “The annual [Rule of Law] report should be judged based on its consequences. We need a report that will be followed up by concrete action by the Commission and the Council. Renew Euroope has consistently called for the annual report to be tied to recommendations and, where necessary, sanctions. That this is still not the case with the present report is disappointing.”
Dutch deputy Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Renew Europe coordinator in the LIBE committee, called the rule of law in the EU “in the danger zone”, adding, “all the facts are on the table, now it’s a question of following up with concrete steps, such as the activation of the Rule of Law budget conditionality.”
“The Hungarian government still benefits from EU funds, doesn't take CJEU rulings into account and constantly breaches EU law. What we need are concrete actions from the Commission and the Council”
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, Greens/EFA
She continued, “The report needs to be beefed up with concrete recommendations that need to be followed up; just findings are not enough. This is not an academic exercise, it is about the very survival of our European Union.”
Hungarian Renew Europe MEP Anna Júlia Donáth said that the 2021 Rule of Law report addresses important recent developments in Orbán's system but fails to draw conclusions on the systemic undermining of the rule of law, key democratic principles and fundamental rights by Fidesz.
She said that also missing from the report was a standalone chapter dedicated to the state of civic space in each Member State as well as actionable country-specific recommendations.
French Greens/EFA vice-chair Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield said that while the report was clear on the risks of nepotism and threats to media freedom, “the Hungarian government still benefits from EU funds, doesn't take CJEU rulings into account and constantly breaches EU law.”
“What we need are concrete actions from the Commission and the Council,” she added.
Hungarian Fidesz MEP Hidvéghi Balázs called the Rule of Law Report “nothing to do with reality.”
He called it “simply the compilation of leftist NGOs’ baseless accusations against Hungary's Conservative government.”
Meanwhile EESC President Christa Schweng welcomed the report, saying, “Businesses, workers and civil society suffer when the independence of judiciary and other essential checks and balances are under pressure.”