The pandemic is no excuse to weaken democracy and the rule of law, MEPs say 

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  • All COVID-19 emergency measures need to respect EU values and be proportional, necessary and of limited duration 
  • Decisive action needed by Council and Commission to tackle the most severe violations in Poland and Hungary 
  • Calls for the Commission to publish guidelines to ensure compliance with EU law 

In debates with Commissioner Reynders, MEPs warned against widespread threats to democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights during the pandemic, notably in Poland and Hungary.

The Civil Liberties Committee hosted four discussions on Thursday on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights. Speakers from across the political spectrum warned that important values such as democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights must not be jeopardised by pandemic-related emergency measures, and that decisive action by the European Commission and the Council is needed to safeguard them.

In the morning, MEPs exchanged views with Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders, the Croatian Presidency of the Council and Polish Ombusdman Adam Bodnar. The afternoon debates included an update by the Democracy, Rule of law and Fundamental rights Monitoring Group on recent developments, and two exchanges of views with Commissioner Reynders: one on the emergency measures taken in all member states with a focus on Hungary, and another on the state of play of the EC annual Rule of Law Report.

 

Poland: Judicial independence, free and fair elections, civil society at risk

 

Almost all MEPs who took the floor expressed very serious concerns about the “increasing grip of the executive on the judiciary” in Poland, despite the Polish Minister’s assurances that the reforms were not out of sync with existing provisions in other EU member states. Particular concerns were raised in relation to the implementation of the latest ECJ ruling for interim measures, ordering the suspension of ongoing disciplinary proceedings against judges. Many MEPs also condemned the adoption on 23 January of reforms that Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf denounced as a “muzzle law”.

Much of the debate focused on the risk posed by holding elections while civil rights are being restricted due to the pandemic and the corresponding media environment, although some arguments were presented about democracy being respected by putting in place postal voting provisions for all citizens. MEPs and some guest speakers highlighted that relevant legal reforms are not in line with Poland’s constitution and the standards set by the international community as regards the organisation of free and fair elections. Similar concerns were voiced in relation to potential legal reforms on hate speech and LGBTI rights, especially as civil society is currently unable to react.

 

Threats to EU core values in Hungary and other EU countries

 

Most MEPs are particularly concerned about recent developments in Hungary in relation to the government’s increased powers, with many also worried about other issues, including media freedom, the rights of civil society, discrimination against vulnerable groups and corruption in the country. A majority among them, echoed by Commissioner Reynders, highlighted the need for measures taken in Hungary and all other EU member states in response to the pandemic to be proportional, of limited duration, and necessary.

Many committee members also expressed their worry over measures taken by governments across the EU in a diverse range of fields, from access to public documents to social media oversight by national authorities, and from media freedom to sex education, reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTI+ community. A few speakers, including Committee Chair Lopez Aguilar and Commissioner Reynders, highlighted that respect for data protection and privacy must remain a priority in developing apps to monitor and contain the spread of the pandemic.

 

Time for action

 

A majority of MEPs who took the floor criticised the Commission and the Council for failing to act decisively on most fronts, including in completing ongoing Article 7(1) procedures, initiating cases on the infringement of EU law, and issuing rule of law guidelines for COVID-19 emergency measures. Some speakers, including Commissioner Reynders, also drew links between EU funding and adherence to the EU principles enshrined in the Treaty.

 

Background

 

Article 7(1) processes against Hungary and Poland (initiated by Parliament in the case of Hungary and by the Commission in the case of Poland, backed by the EP in March 2018) have been underway for a while, with the situation continuously deteriorating. EU member states may decide, by a majority of four fifths and after receiving the consent of the EP, to launch the procedure laid down in Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which may eventually lead to sanctions, such as the suspension of voting rights in the Council.

You can watch a recording of the debate on the rule of law in Poland here. The afternoon part of the meeting is available here.