The EU’s awkward squad of Hungary and Poland stand alone in their opposition to the rule-of-law mechanism that could, under certain circumstances, deny them EU funds.
Poland and Hungary held firm in their decision to block the 1.8-trillion-euro budget and recovery fund at the European Union leaders’ videoconference on Thursday. However, the two countries received little support from their eastern EU neighbours and the rest of the bloc appears ready to wait out the crisis as pressure mounts on Budapest and Warsaw from angry citizens suffering economically from the effects of the pandemic.
In comments leading up to and during the European Council summit, officials from both Poland and Hungary were strident in their opposition to the new mechanism that would cut off EU funds to countries which violate the rule of law. This has been unsurprising, given it is the nationalist-populist governments of those two countries which routinely flout EU rules over, for example, the independence of the judicial system.
In what is being regarded as the most euro-sceptic speech ever made by a high-ranking Polish politician in the country’s post-communist history, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday restated his government’s intention to veto the EU’s next seven-year budget and associated recovery package if that rule-of-law conditionality is not dropped.
While Morawiecki said in his speech that he had no intention of seeing Poland leave the EU, he compared the mechanism to something the former communist regime would employ and painted a picture of the bloc as one that discriminates against eastern member states like Poland and Hungary in favour of the richer countries.
“We say a loud ‘yes’ to the EU, but a loud ‘no’ to mechanisms that allow for unequal treatment of Poland and other countries,” Morawiecki said. “If our partners do not understand that we do not agree to the unequal treatment of EU members, to a rod which will always be used against us, only because someone else doesn’t like our government, then we will actually use this veto in the end.”
With other important matters at hand, such as Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, the leaders agreed on the videoconference to put the dispute in the hands of experts to find a way forward. “We have to continue talking with Hungary and Poland,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Experts say the governments of Poland and Hungary are probably hoping that for the sake of unity, Brussels will water down the mechanism to the point where it becomes ineffectual. However, the European Parliament, backed by a majority of EU citizens in various polls, has stated there will be no compromises on upholding the rule of law and, more widely, “European values”.
Other member states, which also overwhelmingly back the rule-of-law mechanism, are betting that the pressure on the Polish and Hungarian governments, from their respective oppositions as well as their citizens, will eventually become intolerable and they will have to cave.
Certainly, those two countries are getting little support from their neighbours. Slovenia’s prime minister, Janez Jansa, may have his buddy Orban’s back to some degree, but Hungary and Poland’s Visegrad Four partners have made it clear that they want no part in the fight the pair is picking with the rest of the EU.
“The situation shows that we cannot always agree with our partners in the V4,” Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said, adding that Prague sincerely hopes the confrontation will not delay EU budget payments. Petricek noted pointedly that as well as being a transactional club, the EU is built on shared values, including the rule of law.
In Slovakia, Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said on Thursday that the attempt by Budapest and Warsaw to force the bloc to abandon the rule-of-law principle in relation to drawing EU funds is unrealistic. “It’s not the end of negotiations, I still see a chance for an agreement, but the time is getting short,” he warned, adding that he would try to talk to his Polish and Hungarian colleagues to persuade them that the new EU budget and rescue package are a huge opportunity for all V4 countries that will help save economies and jobs.
Constitutional debates in Hungary
You cannot beat the Hungarian government’s timing. In the middle of a global pandemic and an unprecedented European crisis over the veto of Poland and Hungary, the parliament in Budapest is debating gender issues.
Discussions about amending the constitution to include statements such as a “mother is female” and a “father is male” are becoming somewhat surreal, with the Minister of Justice arguing that Hungary “should stop the spread of progressive ideas which relativize the two genders” and that “we cannot deny biology”. Justice Minister Judit Varga denied that the constitutional amendment would breach the rights of any group of the society – like the LGBT community, as critics have claimed – but rather “protect the most vulnerable generations”.
Opposition politicians ridiculed the idea and proposed that the government should also fix in the constitution that the prime minister or his favourite businessman, Lorinc Meszaros, are male. Following these arguments to their logical conclusion, perhaps it would also be a good idea to cement into the constitution that the earth is round, as the number of flat earth believers is growing at an alarming rate.
Opposition politicians point out that the gender debate is obviously being used as a distraction by the government; the real issue is about money and control of state foundations. The government has cushioned educational institutions under the control of government-loyal board members, which can only be altered with a constitutional majority, from the effects of the pandemic with billions of forints. The government claims it just wants to clarify what public money means, and that needs to be fixed in the constitution.
“This is all about institutionalised theft,” said Gabor Harangozo of the opposition Socialist Party.
Timea Szabo, an MP for the Dialogue for Hungary party, explained clearly how she understands the term public money. “Public money is what belongs to the Hungarian people, what belongs to everyone, what needs to be spent on health, education, people’s wellbeing. Not on the hotels of Lorinc Meszaros, or on the luxury properties of Istvan Tiborcz [Orban’s son in law], nor on the fashion companies of Rahel Orban [Orban’s daughter].”
There is also another proposed constitutional modification causing a lot of heated debate that may, ultimately, backfire on the government. The government’s draft bill about modifying the election law to allow only parties with at least 50 individual candidates to register state-funded party lists – designed to stop a united opposition in the 2022 elections – has actually sped up the sluggish cooperation of the opposition parties.
All opposition parties declared on Monday that they would run with a joint prime ministerial candidate at the 2022 elections. The most suitable candidate would be chosen at a primary to be held in a year. There is a high probability that the rainbow-opposition – ranging from the radical rightest Jobbik, to the green LMP, to the Socialist Party, to former PM Gyurcsany’s liberal-leftist Democratic Coalition to the young centrist Momentum – will run on one or a maximum of two electoral lists.
According to a survey conducted by Zavecz Research last week, a joint opposition would have a real chance of defeating Orban’s Fidesz. The polls indicate that should there be a joint opposition list, 40% of those asked would endorse it, while only 36% would vote for a Fidesz list. However, 20% remains undecided and the elections are still one and half years off, so there’s a lot of play for.
Poland’s star judge suspended; Kaczynski makes threats
Around the same time as Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was claiming in the Sejm that the EU’s insistence on respecting the rule of law was a manifestation of Western colonialism, a judicial body created by his ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party suspended a judge known for his critical stances on the government’s reforms of the justice system.
The PiS-created Disciplinary Chamber at Poland’s Supreme Court decided on Wednesday to lift the immunity of Judge Igor Tuleya, suspending him from his official duties and imposing a pay cut of 20 per cent. The Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber decision comes after the public prosecutor’s office asked it to revoke Tuleya’s immunity so he could face criminal charges for allegedly overstepping his powers in 2017. Tuleya had apparently angered the authorities when he rejected a prosecution request to call off an investigation into a potentially illegal parliamentary vote organised by PiS.
The decision by the Disciplinary Chamber on Wednesday indicates how arbitrary the justice system transformed by PiS has become: The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has already ruled that the Disciplinary Chamber is not a real court, as it is under political control, yet the body keeps issuing rulings; the penalties imposed on Tuleya are possible because of a so-called “muzzle law”, which de facto allows judges to be punished for their verdicts.
Tuleya himself has been a thorn in PiS’s side for years, not least because he asked pre-judicial questions to the CJEU that led to it ruling that some of the judicial reforms carried out by PiS broke the principle of judicial independence. Tuleya is perhaps Poland’s best-known outspoken judge; taking him down is presumably meant to show every other judge what the consequences will be if they stand up to the government.
Tuleya, who does not recognise the legitimacy of the body which lifted his immunity, showed up to work on Thursday morning. In a message to his supporters from his chambers, he said he would try to enter the courtroom; he said he regretted nothing, and that people should not be scared by this decision and continue to do what they think is right.
In the same parliamentary session in which Morawiecki spoke about Poland’s veto of the EU budget, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski made a nervous speech in response to opposition parliamentarians complaining about how they and their colleagues had been attacked by the police on the streets outside despite showing parliamentarian IDs.
Kaczynski, who removed his mask to speak at the podium (despite the rule to always wear a mask inside), called on opposition parliamentarians to remove their own masks that he claimed carried Nazi insignia: in fact, some female parliamentarians were wearing masks with the red lightning symbol of the Women’s Strike movement, which has been organising the mass protests against the PiS-led attempts to limit abortion. Kaczyski claimed the protests were to blame for the deaths of many people already.
“You have blood on your hands,” Kaczynski said, looking at opposition parliamentarians who support the protests.
“When there will be rule of law in Poland, many of you will be sitting in jail,” Kaczynski said, after opposition parliamentarians had started chanting at him, “You will go to jail”.
Protests on Velvet Revolution anniversary; free as a bird
While most of the Czech Republic had to be satisfied with a virtual celebration of the 31st anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, close to a thousand lockdown protesters decided to push their maskless way through those that did manage to make it to events in the centre of Prague.
Apparently missing the irony, the odds-and-sods mixture of far-right street thugs, libertarian crackpots and conspiracy theorists that oppose the pandemic restrictions was never going to pass up an opportunity to compare the Czech government’s measures with the oppression waged by the former Communist regime. Their main achievement was to wreck Aneta Langerova’s performance of “A Prayer for Marta”, the revolution’s unofficial anthem. Thankfully, there was no repeat of the violence during the protests a month ago in Prague, which saw police respond with water cannon and stun grenades.
The Czech Republic remains in the fifth category of the epidemiological risk according to its newly introduced PES system, illustrating that the pandemic threat remains at its highest level despite the number of daily new cases falling to around 4,000 from a peak of over 15,000 early in November. The government is currently seeking parliamentary approval to extend the state of emergency to December 20. Still, younger children are now allowed back to school and some other minor restrictions have been eased, but pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops remain closed.
Ahead of the protests, a parade of political figures had lined up to lay flowers and light candles to mark the anniversary on Narodni – the scene of police attacks on student demonstrators in 1989. President Milos Zeman, an increasingly distant figure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, put in another no-show. His predecessor, Vaclav Klaus Sr, did turn up however, trying his very best to show support for his son’s flailing far-right Tricolor party by wearing his face mask around his chin. “Only people who are afraid of freedom” can accept such restrictions, he told reporters.
Police said they are investigating several people for breaking pandemic restrictions, including one “public figure”, though refused to confirm if that referred to Klaus.
Battery cage chicken farming should be banned in the Czech Republic from 2027 after the Senate approved a bill. The move came despite the opposition of Agriculture Minister Miroslav Toman, who is close to President Zeman. The head of state’s nod is the final step needed to pass the law, which would outlaw the 4.5 million birds currently raised in cages each year.
The ban will make the Czech Republic an early mover, in line with neighbouring Germany and Austria; a proposed EU ban on cages has yet to be approved. The Czechs say they hope more countries will follow suit so that they can avoid the import of battery-farmed eggs. The legislation was passed by the lower house of parliament in September, despite Prime Minister Andrej Babis owning the largest agrochemicals company in the country. It is reported that Agrofert is in the process of selling its egg business, which produces 265 million eggs per year, mostly from caged birds.
The Czech government is failing to communicate with the media as it tries to steer the country out of the pandemic’s grip, the International Press Institute (IPI) said this week in an open letter accusing the government of blocking critical media outlets from accreditation for press conferences. “Our organisations urge all state bodies in the Czech Republic involved in communicating with journalists to immediately allow access to all major news media that request it,” the letter read.
The IPI also complained that even those outlets with accreditation are often prevented from posing questions, while questions sent to government spokespeople routinely go unanswered. “While ministers may well want to shield themselves from challenging questions, the sidelining of media outlets undermines the ability of the media to play its role in directly questioning the government over its handling of COVID-19 pandemic and other policies,” the media watchdog warned.
The letter also told the government that it would closely watch which media outlets benefit from a forthcoming public health advertising campaign worth around 50 million koruna (1.9 million euros).
Although banished from the streets of Prague months ago, the statue of Red Army Marshall Ivan Konev remains a bone of contention as far as Moscow is concerned. This time it’s Vladimir Medinsky, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, sticking his oar in to tell the Czechs what they should do with the monument to a man suspected of helping to select victims of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, as well as leading the bloodletting in Hungary 12 years earlier.
Konev’s statue, erected in 1980 to honour his role in liberating Prague from the Nazis in 1945, was removed from its plinth in April following months of bad-tempered debate that shook relations between the two countries. Death threats shadowed the local mayor throughout, while officials in Moscow spoke of economic retribution and criminal prosecutions.
The Czech government has offered the statue to Russia, but Medinsky warned against accepting it. That could provoke other ingrate states that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain 30 years ago to copy the Czechs and take down Soviet monuments, he worried. His solution? Easy: just reinstate Konev in Prague, regardless of what the locals might think.
Defying Slovakia’s pandemic measures; more testing times
Under normal circumstances, the anniversary of 1989’s Velvet Revolution would be celebrated with candles, music, cultural and commemorative events in Slovakia. This year, though, the pandemic sent most of the events online, as public gatherings are banned. The state of emergency or the risk of spreading the coronavirus, however, didn’t stop several political parties and extremist groups from inviting people to protest in Bratislava and other cities on November 17.
Thousands of people, most of them mask-free, gathered in front of the Presidential Palace and Parliament in Bratislava to protest against the coronavirus measures and the government of Igor Matovic.
Robert Fico, a former long-time PM and now leader of the opposition SMER-SD party, rallied a crowd near the Alexander Dubcek memorial, which was built for one of the faces of the pro-democratic movements in 1968 and 1989. “We have to fight for basic things today, concerning freedom, democracy and the rule of law,” he shouted at the few hundred people gathered, one of them actually carrying a red Soviet flag.
Criticising the media and various coronavirus measures adopted by the government, he compared the current situation to the 1950s when the Communists were seizing power in Czechoslovakia.
A bigger protest organised by extremists in front of the Presidential Palace saw speeches by representatives of the Communist Party, a former dissident and members of the neo-fascist Kotleba-People’s Party Our Slovakia. While a group of aggressive football hooligans threw flares at the police, the politicians encouraged protesters to take off their masks and enjoy the “freedom” won in 1989, when then-Czechoslovakia got rid of the Communists.
“I think it was a caricature of an honest protest,” said political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov at Radio Expres on Wednesday. “I think the people who came have shown that the rules don’t apply to them. For one, they have created a risky epidemiological situation, since a lot of them weren’t wearing masks and keeping any distance. But what is even ruder is that some of them have abused the Day of Fighting for Freedom and Democracy, November 17, which has nothing to do with their political ambitions.”
Commentators pointed out that the event represented a further step by former PM Fico into the arms of Kotleba and the far right. “What links them all together is a sort of aversion to an open society, and I’m saying that very softly, because most of them have already moved to the anti-system,” said sociologist Michal Vasecka at Radio Expres. “They just don’t want to accept the rules of the game.”
After the first two rounds of nationwide testing for COVID-19, which found tens of thousands of infected people across Slovakia, the prime minister is still looking for new ways to use the mass antigen testing to fight the pandemic. This week, he announced a new round of testing for this weekend in the 500 worst-affected cities and villages, with another nationwide testing operation coming in December.
The upcoming rounds of testing, however, should be of a more voluntary nature than the initial ones. “When we see that people don’t want to take part in voluntary testing, we’ll consider the tools we used before,” said Matovic on Thursday, adding that another lockdown in December is also under consideration. In the original project, people who refused testing were required to self-isolate for 10 days and allowed only visits to the grocery store or doctor.
Even though Slovak hospitals are still struggling with COVID-19 patients, the situation in the worst-hit regions is under control, with Matovic insisting that the mass testing was a huge success. “The numbers we have now are a quarter of what they were supposed to be,” said the PM, adding that while Slovakia recorded 1,665 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the predictions said it could have been as high as 6,000 a day.
However, the government faces criticism for not providing complete data about the antigen testing and not including them in the official statistics. While millions of Slovaks were tested for COVID-19 with antigen tests so far, the public health authorities only distribute daily numbers from PCR testing, which can distort the overall statistics.