Is the EU’s rule-of-law criticism toothless?

The EU published its first report on the situation of the rule of law in its member states on Wednesday. The Commission sees shortcomings in areas such as press freedom, the separation of powers and the fight against corruption, not only in Poland and Hungary, but also in countries like Bulgaria, Spain or Malta. However, commentators do not believe that this will have serious consequences for the states concerned.

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Webcafé (BG) /

Subsidies as leverage

Webcafé believes that if the EU threatens to cut back subsidies, this could prompt Bulgaria to make changes:

“It is positive that the new report represents a means of pressure, and we all hope it will go in the right direction. The danger of stopping the European Union subsidies for 'disobedient' countries is real enough at the moment to serve as an incentive for changes and for implementing reforms. The rule of law - that is the clear goal. The hope is that these reforms do not prove to be merely empty words on a piece of paper, but that there will be a real transformation towards more law and order.”

Tages-Anzeiger (CH) /

Damned to watch

The Tages-Anzeiger is concerned because the EU has no legal basis for taking action against the deficits in certain EU states:

“ The EU Commission paints a troubling picture in its first Rule of Law Report. Viktor Orbán's example is catching on, for example in Slovenia or the Czech Republic. In Poland too, the separation of powers has practically been suspended, the judiciary is in the service of the right-wing nationalist government, and corruption rules in Bulgaria. ... The EU lacks instruments to stop this process. ... The Dutch and other net contributors in the club must watch Orbán and others like him use their tax money to press ahead with their authoritarian restructuring and pay for their nepotism. That threatens to tear the EU apart sooner or later.”

Rzeczpospolita (PL) /

The PiS has no reason to worry

Poland's government has nothing to fear, Rzeczpospolita concludes:

“The report will have no practical consequences - especially since the new mechanism linking the distribution of EU funds to respect for the rule of law has been considerably weakened. ... This is good news for the PiS: it means that the EU Commission is not taking the rule of law issue one hundred percent seriously. The anxiety of the politicians from the right-wing parties is therefore unjustified, unless their aim is to further reinforce the Poles' distrust of the European Union.”

Azonnali (HU) /

The Hungary section is just a botch job

The web portal Azonnali finds the section of the report that deals with Hungary too superficial:

“The report contains many justified criticisms and some undeserved praise. But since no attempt has been made to put the information given in the report into context, the only difference between this document and previous texts expressing concern about 'the situation in Hungary' is that it is much longer and far more money and energy has been wasted. ... The report mentions some relatively well-known problems, but that doesn't help us to understand the 'illiberal constitutional system'. So Fidesz can rant, and not entirely without reason, about what a politically motivated botch job this is.”

El País (ES) /

Justified reprimand of Spain's parties

The EU is quite right to criticise how Spain's major parties are damaging democracy, El País says:

“The European report, while not pointing to any shortcomings in the Spanish legal system, has highlighted the bad habits of the political parties in exercising their prerogatives vis-à-vis the institutions. Although in line with the rules, the fact that the [socialist] government appointed an ex-justice minister from its last cabinet as prosecutor general does not help to strengthen the separation of powers. And the [conservative] People's Party's refusal to fulfil its constitutional obligation to renew the Council of the Judiciary also falls into the category of party-political abuse. And once again it is Europe that has had to point out this abuse which could undermine the entire system.”

Sega (BG) /

Inconsistent Brussels

In its report, the EU criticises serious shortcomings in the rule of law in Bulgaria. Yet last year's progress report for the country said everything was fine, Sega comments wonderingly:

“Around the same time last year, the EU Commission announced that Bulgaria was meeting its commitments regarding an independent judiciary, fighting high-level corruption and curbing organised crime, yet this week it says that the rule of law is not working. True, the first report relates to the old Cooperation and Verification Mechanism and the second to the brand new Rule of Law Mechanism, but this distinction is only of interest to the archivists, at most. ... For readers in Bulgaria it shows that you can't rely on Brussels.”

La Repubblica (IT) /

Motivation not so noble

The Frugal Four are the main forces behind the push to make EU funding conditional on compliance with the rule of law, Brussels correspondent Andrea Bonanni postulates in La Repubblica:

“The Social Democrats, the European People's Party, the Greens and the Liberals have all called for funding to be made conditional on respect for fundamental values. A very noble cause, which, as it happens, was immediately taken up by the Frugal Four who are against all forms of European solidarity but determined to defend all the other values on which the EU is based. In reality, the Dutch, Austrians and Co. saw the controversy in the Parliament as a chance to prevent or at least delay the launch of the 2021-2027 budget. And with it, the launch of the Recovery Fund. ... For the umpteenth time Europe is being held hostage to the unanimity rule.”